By Athena Lucero
"Mountain huts are not meant for long holidays," said Tina, who works part time at Alpe Rompiago, an alpine farmhouse in Ticino, Switzerland's southern canton neighboring Italy and where Italian is the official language. It is among more than 30 small farmhouses and huts scattered around the Cagiallo region above the posh city of Lugano that offer hikers and cyclists a place to eat and rest. "They stop to enjoy a slice of cheese, bread, a glass of wine or to stay a night or two. Otherwise, they have to go back down to the valley."
As we dined 4,000 feet above sea level on a Ticinese meal of baby goat stew cooked with red wine and served with creamy polenta, I never imagined that my farm stay would be on a hilltop above the forest, with views of jagged peaks, the glacial waters of Lake Lugano — and meals that would bring me to my knees.
The next day a friendly cyclist, surprised to hear an American accent, couldn't resist asking, "How is it that you are here?"
I'm an overnight guest, I told him, keen to learn more about "agriturismo," the time-honored tradition of caring for the land and welcoming visitors — an authenticity unique to Ticino and kept alive today thanks to passionate farmers, cheesemakers and producers.
But before arriving in Ticino, I satisfied my "city girl" side with visits to cosmopolitan Zurich, Bern and Lucerne in the northern and central parts of the country. Then, ready to dig my shoes into the dirt, I hopped the Gotthard Panorama Express train that snaked over the magnificent Alps and descended into the Mediterranean climes of posh Lugano, the canton's largest city and the country's third-largest financial center. Trendy shops and cafes tempted me, but recalling a day hike here years ago and eager to explore the hills again, I stayed just a night.
The farmhouse was only an hour by bus from Lugano by way of the ancient villages of Tesserete, then Bidogno, where my ride was waiting to take me up the steep road. Sharp hairpin turns through the forest transported me from fashionable city streets to a natural world.
And how could I not be thrilled when goats and chickens were the first to greet me?
Enter Maurizio Minoletti and Sylvia Wyss, New World farmers who honor Old World ways of farming — no big machines, no dishwasher, no chemicals, everything by hand. Clad in colorful T-shirts, khakis and Crocs, the 40-ish couple has been raising farm animals and selling cheese, milk, marmalade, wines from Ticino, soaps and more since coming to Alpe Rompiago 13 years ago.
"I never worked with animals until I came to the farm!" said Wyss, a professional baker by trade.
No Internet service was delightfully liberating, and I focused only on the workings of this seasonal farm that is part of Patriziato di Cagiallo, a longstanding common property institution dating back to the area's original patrician families. Here the land is not owned by anyone but cared for by those living within its boundaries.
Every summer, with animals in tow, the couple comes up from the valley to Alpe Rompiago. For three months they manage the farm while the animals graze to their content in mountain pastures abundant with wild herbs and flowers.
I was instantly humbled and inspired. A simple 10-bed dormitory, animals roaming free and Minoletti and Wyss working from sunup to long after sundown brought to light what "labor of love" really means.
Every day they milk the goats and the cows, feed the horses and pigs, mind the chickens and care for the vegetable garden; then they make a variety of food products including splendid cheeses — formaggini, formagella, buscion and ricotta — that are sold in the villages. Most of us would call it a day after doing half of that.
Wyss also whips up fabulous dinners for guests who journey up the hill to enjoy her glorious meals inside the glass-walled dining room that looks out to Lugano's twinkling lights.
By day through the windows I captured the goings on around the old stone barn. Like the moment I was savoring a lunch of sliced tomatoes and fried eggs topped with crispy curly bacon when I saw a drove of goats herded by laser-focused dogs leading them out to graze.
Visitors, including children, can also try their hand at milking the goats, collecting eggs or helping with other tasks. I gave a hand drying dishes after a group dinner. And I milked my very first goat. Forget glamping — this was the real deal.
In the creamery Wyss processed the low-fat goat milk into delicious soft cheese that ages in two to three days. She poured the curdled milk into cheesecloth, then hung the bulging "sacks" to allow the excess moisture, or whey, to drip and separate from the curd. She then fed the protein-rich liquid to all the lucky pigs.
"We have just one week left for milking," Wyss said, "because the goats have very little milk now."
It was mid-September then, and Minoletti and Wyss would soon be closing the farmhouse for the winter. But in May they'll start their noble work all over again.
WHEN YOU GO
Alpe Rompiago: www.ticino.ch.en/farmhouses.details.
For reservations: [email protected]
My lodging in Lugano: Hotel de la Paix: www.delapaix.ch
Athena Lucero is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.