I have to stoop to enter through the low door. The wooden planks had long since grown weathered and warped. The wooden floor creaks when I walk on it. For a moment, I have to get used to the dark interior, which is such a contrast from the heat and glare of the outside. Left of the door I can see the site of an open hearth, which is now used as a firewood storage rack. A sturdy cast iron wood cook stove has been cooking meals, warming water and heating the cabin for many years. Nowadays, the cabin has electricity. And, who would have thought, an indoor bathroom with shower and toilet. The roof is new.
Although the modest timber building has been undergoing substantial renovations during the last few years, the cabin has still preserved its character. There’s so much history in here. A 250-years old Alpine pasture hut where Alpine dairymen and herdsmen have been spending summers for centuries. On paneling and beams, one can spot dates and names carved into wood. Witness of the times.
This summer, the historic timber building is the home of Franz Rendl, Alpine herdsman, dairyman, and my uncle. For as long as I can think back, my family has visited Uncle Franz on Alpine pastures each summer. As a child, I loved the taste of creamy milk fresh from the cow. And the sweet Melchermus, a typical farm fare for those who had to do hard physical work on the fields and pastures. Despite having only a few basic ingredients, Melchermus is a veritable specialty. The crust that forms at the bottom of the pan is delicious. The traditional preparation method is to cook the Melchermus in an iron pan over an open fire or on a hearth. It is then served in the center of the table to be eaten from the pan with a spoon.
During the last few years, Nockalm Alpine Pasture in Brixental Valley has been his summer residence. The dairy barn has been completely rebuilt recently. A modern take on traditional barn design, it’s a “free cow traffic” barn, where cows can eat, roam and sleep wherever they want. The areas between the stalls are roomier than in most barns, and the cows are never tied in place. There’s a modern milking parlour. And a cold store. All these obvious perks have improved the quality of the dairyman’s life significantly. However, it took some time until my uncle, having almost 60 years of Alpine herdsman experience, got accustomed to all these improvements. I want to find out how my uncle feels about it. And how life on an Alpine pasture hut is like in general. And what he likes about it. Or dislikes.
Uncle Franz, how many summers have you been spending up on Alpine pastures?
“59 years. But I have been working on Alpine pastures earlier as well, as a child, when I was about 13 years old.”
Spending a summer on an Alpine pasture hut sounds romantic to us. What is it really like?
“Well, it’s a lot of hard work. There are 25 cows in my barn. I have to milk them. I muck out the barn. And I do everything else. It takes several hours in the morning and in the evening, every day. Thank God my Barbara is always willing to lend a helping hand around the house and the barn.” He smiles at his companion for life, who has been by his side for years. She smiles back. Beautiful.
Does the new barn make work easier?
“It’s less dangerous. Earlier, I had to round up the herd at milking time and bring them towards the milk parlour. They were tied up for milking. There have always been cows who refused that. I really needed to take care of not getting injured. Today, I can move more easily among the cows. The cows roam freely over to the milking parlour. They’re curious, but cautious. Well, there is always one cow who is crazy and mad.” (Ah, this makes me grin. Is this the one appearing in insults like ‘stupid cow‘?)
“The milking unit milks eight cows at a time. First, the cows are prepared for service. The cow’s udder is cleaned, the outside of the teat is disinfected and eventually the milking equipment is attached. The milking takes a few minutes and is monitored. Each day, I muck out the lanes between the rows of cow stalls. I don’t want them to bed down on dirt.”
The new barn is roomy, bathed in light and appears friendly and inviting. So are the cows happier?
“Yes, of course, they can now move freely between the free stalls and the manger area and have unlimited access to all facilities at all times. However, the downside is that the new and open barn design favours biting flies. There’s a real plague of biting flies in here. The old and dark barn was largely avoided by these annoying insects.”
What happens with the milk from the cows after milking?
“The milking equipment pumps the fresh milk from the cows along pipes to a stainless steel tank that chills the new milk to 4 degrees Celsius. The milk tank stores the chilled fresh milk until the milk truck arrives. The milk is collected every other day.”
Do you still make butter and cheese?
“No, I don’t do that anymore. When I was younger, I used to make cheese and butter a lot. I made loads of grey cheese. And I have been working the butter churn, shaking, shaking and shaking until the butter turned creamy. That was fun—many visitors passing by asked me what I was doing. I always told them that I was making electricity.” He laughs and adds “and they all believed me.”
Will you move into the new flat next to the barn?
“No way! This hut is where I belong. They wanted to tear it down after building the new barn. Honestly, how could you do that? Thank God, they did not put that nonsense plan into action. This is more than a mere cabin. There’s so much history in here, 250 years of history.”
How do the cows get up to the Alpine pasture? And back down to the valleys?
“They are taken up in trailers in early summer. At the end of the summer grazing season, the herds are driven down the mountainside to the valley. It’s a festival. Crowds line the streets of the village to see fat healthy cattle, decked out in garlands of flowers, returning from a summer’s grazing on lush upland pastures.”
In theory, they could drive the herds up again—and down again, for another traditional homecoming to be celebrated with a huge festival for tourists? (I couldn’t resist asking that)
Franz laughs. “Yes, that’s what they did in one village once. There was an anniversary and they herded the cattle down two weeks earlier on this occasion, as the highlight of the festival so to speak. The next day, they tried to drive them up again. No way! Once they are down, they won’t make all the way up again. They don’t want to.”
What do you do when there’s nothing to do?
“Well, there’s always something to do. But if I have a minute, I carve edelweiss out of wood. Or I have coffee with my Barbara and we play cards. The loser must do the dishes. That’s me, usually. I don’t know how, but she mostly wins.” He gives Barbara a wink, and she smiles and puts on a mysterious face.
What do you like in your life?
“Being connected with nature. Working with the cows. The peace and quiet.
The Alpine herdsman’s life is far from simple. It is a hard, unsentimental life—and very, very beautiful.”
Uncle Franz, you turned 80 this year.
Have you ever wondered when you will retire?
“Well, I think I want to complete the 60 years.” He hesitates, thinking about it. “After that.”
He laughs impishly. “Maybe.”
Franz smiles at me and serves schnapps. That’s just what I need. After all, I had creamy milk fresh from the cow and delicious Melchermus once again.
Just as in those days long gone by, my visit with Uncle Franz was something very special. And somehow I feel I will visit him on his Alpine pasture hut for years to come. I’m really looking forward to that.