I spent two unforgettable days in the sun amidst the jutting rock formations and rolling hills of the Tyrolean mountains. I had come here to visit "Bio vom Berg", a farm with a strong commitment to organic production that makes milk, cream, butter and cheese for Zotter. Up on the saddle I came across the first "Zotter cows", who were having a rest up there on the mountain pass and enjoying the gentle breeze that kept the flies at bay. The pastures were a riot of colours: pink alpine roses, dark-yellow arnicas, purple phyteuma, powder-blue forget-me-nots and white and yellow marguerites.
Jok (Tyrolean dialect for Jakob) was having his siesta when I knocked on the door of his hut. A few minutes later he stepped out of his bedroom with a dreamy look and a smile on his face to bid me welcome. He was happy to see me, immediately offered me a large mug of buttermilk and suggested that I go for a stroll across the pastures while he continued with his nap – he would then meet me in the late afternoon. I walked up towards the "Zahmer Kaiser" ridge, let my gaze wander towards the horizon, rested among the Alpine flowers and returned in time to watch Jakob milk the cows. Jakob used to work as a dairy farmer up here in the mountains in his boyhood and youth. Since he retired, he has come back to live here every summer. He really enjoys his work.
These Alpine pastures are managed and used by a cooperative of six dairy farmers. 90 cows are kept on dairy farms close by. They have all provided milk for Zotter chocolates. Now they are up here for their summer holidays to enjoy the delicious Alpine grasses and herbs. They stay at an altitude of over 1,400 m (4,200 ft) from early July to early August before returning to the lower pasture where they already spent 4 to 5 weeks at the beginning of the summer. Due to its lower altitude, this pasture can be used earlier in the year and for longer than the ones higher up on the mountain.
The unique cooperation between these Tyrolean dairy farmers and the Zotter company goes back more than ten years – it all started with an order for cheese. Josef Zotter was looking for an exceptionally mild organic cheese for his new flavour "Alpine Cheese, Walnuts and Grapes". He got in contact with Heinz Gstir, the manager of the organic dairy in Hatzenstädt. With a grin on his face, Heinz recalls that he took this to be an April fool’s joke – after all, why would anybody need cheese to make chocolate? However, the Hatzenstädt dairy farmers did in fact produce an unusually mild cheese and soon established a good working relationship with Zotter. Since 2004, the organic dairy farmers from Tyrol have also supplied milk for the chocolate. Today the "Bio vom Berg" farmers deliver 1 million litres of organic milk, 6 tons of butter and 6 tons of cream per year to the chocolate maker in Styria. All dairy products are made by small-scale operations.
Most of the milk from the Alpine farms is delivered by cable car every morning and evening. The full milk churns coming down from the mountain pull the empty ones up, making this an extremely energy-efficient system and keeping the cost of electricity to operate 8 cable cars down to only 15 euros (£12) a year! The cable cars are fast enough to make cooling unnecessary, which means that the milk can be processed straight away at room temperature.
There is also a cheese maker who works up in the mountains where the Alpine pastures are. He is known as the "Schweizer", the Swiss man, because most cheese makers used to go to Switzerland to learn their craft and on their return they mainly produced Emmental cheese based on Swiss recipes. In his "Schweizerhütte" Christian makes butter, buttermilk and cheese. He still uses wood from the nearby forests to heat his boiler.
There is a very special and joyous atmosphere up here on the Alpine pastures, a little paradise in the middle of the mountains. And when the moon rises above the "Wilde Kaiser" ridge and night falls, the pastures become quiet, the farmers go to bed because they will have to be up again before sunrise, at half past four in the morning, to start the day’s work... milking cows, making cheese, chopping wood... and taking time out to make music and share delicious Alpine dishes. Food for thought, body and soul!