Close to the sky

My day on the Melchamalm

"Up here it's very different from down below," says Flora Rainer and strokes Ina, the velvet-eyed Magyar Vizsla bitch, who has made herself comfortable under the wooden table in front of the alpine hut. "Here the cows set the rhythm and radiate a pleasant calm. As soon as I am here at the hut, the hectic everyday life falls away from me". Here at the hut, that is 1,250 meters above sea level, high up in the beautiful Hochkönig area.

The Melchamalm, where Flora does the work of the dairymaid during our visit, has been in family ownership for generations. Already the great-grandparents of Christian Rainer, Flora's father, spent many weeks a year up here. They developed the hut and lovingly restored it - while always keeping its original charm. Now in the 4th generation, the Rainer family, who run the Melchamhof in the heart of Maria Alm, uses the hut today, and looks after it just like the generations before.

Almost like in a fairy tale
When we enter the alpine hut for the first time, we are enchanted: It looks like a fairy tale book with its old wooden floor, the many old, well-kept tools and the lovingly small details. Colorful flowers grow in and in front of the hut, a spring gurgles merrily and there is also a comfortable bench from which you have a view of the magnificent mountain world that could not be more beautiful. When Christian Rainer notices our admiration, he laughs. Yes, it looks a bit like something out of a fairy tale book, his alpine pasture. But there is also a lot of work behind it - you should never romanticise life here.

"Hier oben ist es ganz anders als unten", sagt Flora Rainer und streichelt Ina, die samtäugige Magyar-Vizsla-Hündin, die es sich unter dem Holztisch vor der Almhütte gemütlich gemacht hat. "Hier geben die Kühe den Rhythmus vor und strahlen eine angenehme Ruhe aus. Sobald ich hier auf der Hütte bin, fällt der hektische Alltag von mir ab". Hier auf der Hütte, das sind 1.250 Meter über dem Meeresspiegel, hoch oben im schönen Hochköniggebiet.

Die Melchamalm, auf der Flora bei unserem Besuch die Arbeit der Sennerin verrichtet, ist seit Generationen in Familienbesitz. Schon die Urgroßeltern von Christian Rainer, Floras Vater, verbrachten viele Wochen im Jahr hier oben. Sie bauten die Hütte aus und restaurierten sie liebevoll - immer unter Beibehaltung ihres ursprünglichen Charmes. Nun in der 4. Generation nutzt die Familie Rainer, die den Melchamhof im Herzen von Maria Alm betreibt, die Hütte heute und pflegt sie wie die Generationen zuvor.

Fast wie im Märchen
Als wir die Alphütte zum ersten Mal betreten, sind wir verzaubert: Sie sieht aus wie ein Märchenbuch mit ihrem alten Holzboden, den vielen alten, gepflegten Werkzeugen und den liebevollen kleinen Details. Bunte Blumen wachsen in und vor der Hütte, eine Quelle plätschert fröhlich, und es gibt auch eine gemütliche Bank, von der aus man einen Blick auf die herrliche Bergwelt hat, wie sie schöner nicht sein könnte. Als Christian Rainer unsere Bewunderung bemerkt, lacht er. Ja, es sieht ein bisschen aus wie etwas aus einem Märchenbuch, seine Alm. Aber es steckt auch viel Arbeit dahinter - man sollte das Leben hier nie romantisieren.

Cheese making with a sure instinct
Immediately after milking, we cool the milk to four or five degrees and Flora starts making cheese. "Most of the work in cheese-making is actually washing in advance," laughs Flora. "Hygiene is very important, we take that very seriously. And the challenge on the mountain pasture is that hot water is not always available here. That's why we spread the work over the whole day. Usually she waits for about four milking times and then schedules a whole day for cheese-making, Flora explains. "After that, the cheese is lubricated for 6 weeks." We find out exactly what this means in the stone cellar. Through a wooden door in the floor at the back of the hut we enter the pleasantly cool stone cellar where the treasures of organic cow's milk are stored. The round cheese loaves, which rest here on wooden shelves and ripen before them, show colors ranging from snow-white to golden yellow. This is related to the degree of ripeness, explains Flora, who immediately begins to smear the cheese. Every day she descends into the cellar and brushes the cheese loaves with salt water. The way she handles the brush professionally and yet with the necessary care ("You only lubricate the top and sides so that the board doesn't get moldy!"), we realize that Flora is a real professional despite her young age. And she really enjoys working with the round loaves. "We make soft cheese, semi-hard cheese and cream cheese," says Flora. "We refine some cheeses with herbs, pepper or fenugreek, for example. Our cheese ripens on average between six and eight weeks. Of course, that always depends on the variety - a mountain cheese like the one I made last summer on an alpine pasture in Switzerland matures for at least six months.

A more conscious life
When making cheese, there are always short waiting times - for example, when "washing" the curd, i.e., after adding water to the curd and whey mixture. "The curd must then rest for about half an hour," says Flora. During these breaks Flora sits on the bench in front of the hut, sometimes - especially on weekends - she and Markus also visit friends from the village or from other alpine pastures. "On a day when I'm not making cheese, I treat myself to a little nap between working with the cows and cleaning the barn," laughs Flora. "On the Swiss stone pine bed next to the old oven - that's where you sleep really well. In general, there's always something to do on the mountain pasture, says Flora. "Here you can really live it up. Now the cranberries are ripe, for example, I like to go for a walk and pick a few. Later there's arnica, which you can make into a wonderful ointment. Flora says that she lives here high above Maria Alm in a more conscious and nature-loving way.

But enough chit-chat, now it's time for cheese again. Flora circles the dozing dogs in front of the hut and goes into the building next to the stable where the cheese is waiting to be processed. Now the curd comes into the mold, which requires some skill and craftsmanship. In a certain rhythm the loaves are now turned over and over again over the next few hours, for a total of six hours. One of the last steps - in the evening - is the salt bath to refine the taste of the cheese. There it rests until lunchtime the next day.

Wild sausages and organic cheese from the alp
Before also the dairymaid can go to rest, the cows still want to be taken care of. Afterwards Flora rinses the milking equipment carefully, sweeps the barn together and takes a deep breath. "Well, and now we'll have a good snack," she smiles. Whereby "good" is an understatement, we think. The snack was fantastic. With sausage from the game that the hunter family (father Christian, mother Michaela as well as son Jakob are passionate hunters) hunted themselves, and from their own cattle and homemade cheese - the Rainer family sells the products in their own farm store and in the "Almer Bauernkorb". As a crowning finale, Markus, Flora's partner, serves us a Kaiserschmarrn with compote - a light and fluffy dream of dessert, after which we smile blissfully. Another schnapps (self-distilled, of course) with Christian at the end and then into bed - after all, we want to get up with the sun tomorrow

Noble horses on summer freshness
Even though the sun only begins to cloud up the next morning, the view down to the valley is breathtaking. Christian Rainer helps his daughter with the early work and afterwards shows us his personal four-legged treasures, not far from the alpine hut. When the path describes a bend, we can already hear it: loud clattering and joyful snorting announce the Melcham farmer's horses that will spend the summer on the alpine pasture. The beautiful warmbloods, for whose breeding Christian Rainer is known far beyond the borders of the country, develop their muscles optimally on the alpine pasture, become sure-footed and even more robust. Even broodmares with foals are up here - the offspring are simply delightful. The fur of the noble animals shines in the sun as they push each other aside to get the best place in front of Christian Rainer's feed bucket. The horse breeding, which father Hans Rainer started more than 40 years ago with a Hanoverian mare, is very close to Christian's heart. And it is important to him that the animals can be on the alpine pasture during the summer. "The animals move around here on an alpine pasture area of around 25 hectares," says Christian. "Of course it is essential that they can wander around safely - apart from a few scratches. For this very reason, we are very skeptical about the reintroduction of wolves and lynx. If a wolf comes too close to a horse, a cow or a sheep, it panics and flees. The whole herd flees. In their panic, they no longer see a fence or other sources of danger. This is fatal for the animals and the resulting damage cannot be replaced by money," says Christian.

A life close to the sky
Back at the alpine hut we enjoy the panorama once again - the magnificent Stone Sea, the lush green meadows around us and Maria Alm, which lies picturesquely spread out between high mountain peaks below us. We say goodbye to Christian, Flora and Markus, who welcomed us warmly at the Melchamalm. And we leave with the certainty that life on the alp is certainly not easy. And no, we do not want to romanticize it either. But nice, that's what it is all about. Life close to the sky.