Milking the Art of Cheesemaking at Degust

by Francoise Villeneuve
Shannon Sturgis and Degust Kathleen Culliton
July 2011

It all began with a Wienerschnitzel. A teenager named Hansi Baumgartner from Alto Adige helped out at a restaurant in his small hometown. One night he whipped up what he calls a traditional Italian second course—Wienerschnitzel—and it was good enough by the restaurant’s chef to inspire Baumgartner to pursue his new and unexpected passion.

Esculentus: Soft, Creamy, Triangular Cheese, with Sweet Esculentus Rind, aged 30 days [Photo Credit: Degust]

The Cheese Hunt Begins

Baumgartner’s training and reputation grew, and eventually he found himself the chef-owner of a restaurant in Val Pusteria. “Curious to try and convey new emotions and sensations, I began doing research on raw materials, which were able to transmit the traditions and flavors of my homeland,” says Baumgartner. He started off collecting herbs from mountain meadows, and tasting local cheeses from small dairies. He offered a cheese course at the restaurant, and his customers were sufficiently interested in the cheese to warrant more experimentation and research. To his dismay, he found that only two of the local dairies actually processed the milk themselves. Eventually, he became so enamored with the idea of local cheese that he left his career as a chef behind to pursue his new dream of selecting, seasoning, and aging cheeses for a rapidly growing customer base.

Chocobert: Goat’s Milk Camembert with a Leaf of Melted Chocolate, aged 30 days [Photo Credit: Degust]

The Challenges

When it came time to open Degust with his wife Edith, the couple faced a challenge—an affineur (the person who tends to the cheeses, ages them, and in Baumgartner’s case, finishes them with everything from cocoa beans to herbs) was not a well-known occupation in their area, or even in Italy. So despite the notoriety he had enjoyed as a chef-owner, building his brand at cheese shop Degust posed some hurdles. On his side, though, was a legion of loyal customers and fans of his culinary stylings.

Baumgartner began in a small workshop, selecting and experimenting with cheeses. “I didn’t want to make cheese, but rather to dress up this food, traditionally considered ‘poor peoples’ food,’ with fine clothes that do not disguise but enhance its greatness,” he recalls. At the top of his list is raw milk cheese made from cows that graze at high altitudes. “The result is a dairy product that, with aging, develops unique organoleptic characteristics”—food processing speak for sensory attributes like taste, colour, odour, and feel—“that are highly related to the characteristics of the territory.”

It was an uphill battle at first, because of the small number of local cheese-makers who produced their own milk, but after consumer demand grew, small production dairies went from producing small amounts of cheese for their own consumption to putting out a product. Whether or not Baumgartner sparked this demand, we’ll never know. However, there are now 45 cheese-producing dairies in his area alone, making for a rich variety of expressions of terroir. And that certainly doesn’t hurt his business—or the cause of locally produced cheese. May to September marks Baumgartner’s favorite time of year for cheese. “[Cheeses produced at this time] express all the richness of the perfumes that can be felt walking through these mountains.”

[Photo Credit: Degust]

A Celebration of the Land

At the heart of it all Baumgartner ’s achieved is a joyous celebration of his home turf. There seems to be no division in his mind between his roles as chef and affineur. Both are all about his love of the land. As Baumgartner recalls, “I wanted to, in principle, do everything with the products of a land that I have always known and that I love, with the desire to make them known both to those who live here and tourists who flock to our mountains throughout the year.”

He combines his chef training and his role as affineur with aplomb, finishing cheeses with wine, cocoa nibs, walnuts, grapes, flowers, gold … you name it. And although Baumgartner’s fond of all of his creations, his favorite remains the Forma di Luce, a cheese he made specifically to be eaten with Casa di Luce wine.

Whatever he’s producing, though, Baumgartner's focus is on celebrating and promoting the region that is his homeland remains unbroken. “Degust was not born to simply sell cheese, but to develop a culture that was still little known,” the culture of his region, and its soul. As expressed in cheese.