Kindergarten teacher by day, cheesemaker by night, Agnes Laner handcrafts the sought after alpine graukäse using raw milk from her trio of cows. Framed by towering mountains in Italy’s German-speaking Alto Adige region, her family property sits right on the northeastern border with Austria.
Photos + interview editing by Alecia Wood
You make graukäse – “grey cheese” in German – on your mountain property, Mittermairhof.
We’re not a very modern cheesemaking farm. Here, we’re 1400 metres above sea level, and I work with very simple tools, much like they used traditionally.
This is a very small farm. We only have three cows, and I need 100 litres of milk to make [one batch of] the cheese. It takes me four milkings to get that much, so I make cheese about every other day.
There is one version of graukäse that’s more like a ricotta, and then there’s the more mature variety. The fresher type is aged for one to two weeks, while the mature type is aged for three weeks to two months.
How is graukäse different from other types of cheese?
It’s naturally sour. It doesn’t use any kind of culture or rennet, because there’s an acidic fermentation. Cheeses that use rennet are usually a bit sweeter, but this is a lot more sour.
We use the warm milk straight from the cow. We’ve taken all the fat out of the milk with a centrifuge, so it’s a very low fat cheese.
I warm the milk to 48°C, then it acidifies by itself. I just let it do its job naturally. The curds are usually left for one to two hours to drain all the whey out of it before we shape the cheese, and we feed the whey to our pigs.
You started making cheeses pretty recently. What were you doing beforehand?
I’m not from here, and I married into this farm. But where I’m from they also make this type of cheese. Growing up it was of no interest to me.
I work full-time as a kindergarten teacher and we do this as a side job. Everybody else [in the family] needs to help, otherwise we can’t make it.
I learned to make graukäse through courses at the agricultural school. In the beginning it was really hard because I had to feed a lot of it to the chickens and the animals – it just wasn’t turning out the way that I wanted!
The milk can’t be pasteurised, so the cheese doesn’t always end up the same way, but that’s the way my customers are used to it.
How did the tradition of this cheese come about in the region?
In the Middle Ages, they had to start making the cheese this way because it was forbidden to use fatty cheeses, so they’d skim the milk. It’s called ‘grey cheese’ because when it used to be made, it would turn grey on the outside because of mould.
It can be quite irritating, because it’s made with no culture so everything can influence the direction that the cheese is going in – the feed of the cows, me myself, the weather. Making graukäse is dying out now, because it’s so labour intensive.
How do you like to eat your graukäse?
I add a little bit of pepper when I’m making the cheese, because I really like pepper. We eat it a lot with vinaigrette and onions.
We ended up making the graukäse because my husband and I both like to eat it a lot! Now, it’s become our passion.