Lehmeli, the Man of Clay

Secrets of the Hay Berry

Drinking Kaffee Luz at Portenalp

It is 9 at night, and Lehmeli Chrigu is in the mountain hut of Portenalp, sipping on the homemade bottle of blueberry schnapps he has brought up in a wicker basket. It might be June, but it is cold here above the narrow valley, in the shadow of the next mountain where the road dead-ends, and we have nothing except dark coffee and clear alcohol to keep us warm in the old, unheated room.

A Gallowway arriving at Portenalp

Chrigu has driven his old Subaru up from the valley below, pulling a trailer with the last of his Galloway cows for the 100 days of summer spent on these bare slopes, part of the annual Swiss migration. Here, they will eat their fill, on grass and herbs that aren’t as rich down in the valley, before returning for the winter and their barn.

We drink a mix of schnapps and coffee called Kaffee Luz, named after the canton of Luzern. The same version is called Kaffee Fertig (Fertig means finished) in the canton of Bern, one valley away. Kaffee Luz is tradionally lighter: they say you should be able to read your newspaper through your tall, slightly tapering glass.

Arriving in the old Subaru Legacy with the adjustable suspension, Galloway in tow

Lehmeli, and eventually his Galloways, will return to the next valley between the Schrattenfluh and the Hohgant, to his house called Rässhaus and its older sibling, the massive farmhouse where he grew up, Grosshaus.

Grosshaus, or big house, is huge, and stands mostly unoccupied after centuries of hosting people. It is where Lehmeli Chrigu’s great grandmother always read and wrote, and it is where her daughter would bake her speciality: the soft buttery braided Sunday bread called Zopf.

Maria at Grosshaus

It is a house of small bedrooms (“Someone said you should sleep following the flow of the water down the Emme”) and low ceilings and creaking doors and floors, a maze of cave-like rooms with little light filtering through old wood. But, as his wife Maria says, “grandmother made it friendly.” She put up beautiful curtains of white lace, which she made herself, and she had her own loom on which she put pieces together and wove carpets. Only three such Webstuhls survive in the parent village of Schangnau. In those days they rented a part of the house to an old man, and there were two ovens, and the smell of burning wood enveloped the house and made it warmer.

“But in January and February of 1956 it was so cold, colder than -20, that many apple trees died, and they used so much wood they said they would have needed a big heater for every room, not just one large Sitzoffen. Some farmers brought the chickens to the pigs to keep them warm.”

Maria Gerber walks through the plantation, reaching out to her trees as if they were her own children. Above the flowering apple orchard, a thousand blueberry plants stand on a slope of mulch facing the sun and the Hohgant. But here, between Schangnau and Kemmeriboden, they aren’t called blueberries. They’re Heubeeri, named after Heu, or hay, because they fruit when the hay in this valley at the foot of the Emmental Alps is ready to be cut.

Maria grew up in Buchschachen, where Buche is the beech tree and Schachen is a courtyard. It is a hamlet of six farmhouses, up in the hills above Scharlig (which might have been named after a mouse, or Schar), between Wachthubel and Marbach.

Maria and Chrigu at Portenalp

After cutting the hay, Maria’s grandmother and her and her three brothers and four sisters into the forest, looking for blueberries. The family had a secret spot 2.5km beyond Kemmeriboden, where the forest rose up the side of the Hohgant at Ällgäu. It was on these shady, overgrown mountain slopes that Maria’s love for the Hoibeeri grew.

“My grandmother showed us how good this was. It was free, straight from nature, and we could eat it right away.” It would also feed the family for the next few days. They’d cook the berries with Geschwelte, or potatoes in their skin. “Grandmother would make Heubeeri Brei, with two cups of milk, half a cup of wheat flour and half a cup of sugar. And we’d cook the blueberries in it. “My husband Christian doesn’t like Brei so much. He prefers Heubeeri Storm, with a big spoon (an Esslöffeli) of flour browned in a pan, two spoons of sugar and a cup of cold milk. Cooked till lukewarm and topped with croutons of bread fried in Brätbutter.”

Roberto working the blueberries

“And this is how we started thinking of planting blueberries. We’d do something good for us, and also for other people. Something good from the earth, without chemicals. We started with two plants 28 years ago. And then we bought 250. The third time we bought 1,000.

“Wild berries are beautiful, but the foxes like them too, and can pass on the fuchsbandwurm, a kind of tapeworm. This scared us 30 years ago! That’s why we planted high trees, that you can pick standing up. And that the foxes can’t get at. Well, maybe only the lower branches…”

“The blueberry is a picky plant. It needs sun, mulch and good rain water that drains away. It hates tap water. The mulch (we have it from the barks of trees, or Rindenschnitzel) absorbs everything that the plant needs. It’s like a fertilizer (we don’t use chemicals), and turns into soil in time, so you have to add more every year.”

Maria and Christian have a few different varieties, but bluetta is her favorite, because it is the closest in taste to the wild berries she picked as a child. It is also the least economically sensible: the plant takes too much space and the berries take too long to pick because they’re so small. Bluetta blueberries sell for 18 francs a kilo, four more than others. “Bluetta,” says Maria, “is luxury.”

“Blueberries are also good for calves with diarrhea. You warm the fruit, mash them and mix them with water, and make the cow drink it.”

We sit down for a pre-dinner meal in the house called Rässhaus. Räss means sharp, and it might have been named for the strong cheese that people had made here generations ago. But we eat last year’s blueberries, unfrozen, with a brick of ice cream, broken bits of meringue and blobs of cream over everything. There’s always schnapps of prune to go with the coffee, but Christian pours himself apple schnapps, which he says is good for his upset stomach. Maria pours Amaretto over her cake.

The original apple trees were planted almost a century ago, near where the chicken farm now stands. But they were cut down 25 years ago to make way for the new road. And that’s when Chrigu’s grandfather planted 18 apple trees and one pear into the earth outside Grosshaus, the land that is so clay-like it is called Lehmeli, after Lehm or clay. And that’s where Chrigu gets his name from.

“Such soil doesn’t drain quickly, and retains water. So the grass doesn’t grow well, only some plants that like this type of mud do well here. Like the Hahnenfuss (or hen’s feet), whose roots are like claws.

Portenalp. Click to zoom

“We have a few different varieties. Like Boskopf, which is good for the mountains. We bring the fruit into the cellar in Autumn and keep them two months. Spring is the time for a yellow apple called Klaar, or clear. It can be kept only three weeks till it turns dry and like flour. Spartan and Idaret are for the cellar too. Jakob Lebel, which is sour, is only for cooking. A few buckets of machine-cut apples are fed to our cows. They love it!

“We sell 60kg of apples to the Rössli restaurant in Escholzmatt. We make 150 liters of apple cider, and after leaving it half a year have 20 liters of schnapps.

“Schöner von Kent is for Äpfelchüchli and Äpfelmus. To make Chüchli, you dip the slice of the apple into a batter of flour, eggs, milk and salt and then fry it. We eat it with vanilla sauce, cinnamon and sugar. You can also freeze it after cooking.

“Äpfelschnitzli are slices of apple dried on a stove. You can keep them half a year in a linen or cotton bag. Not in a glass! It’s too damp in a vacuum. It gets fungus. You can also do this with long beans too, the Stangenbohnen.

“The good apples that go into the cellar have to be picked, not allowed to drop and get hurt. They won’t stay good if they’ve been damaged.

“Apple flowers are very good for the bees. And the bees are good for the apples.”

It was Chrigu’s grandfather who started keeping bees, but he died when he was 52, before Chrigu was born. Christian learnt it from his father, who was very ill at the time, but managed to show him a bit of the craft. He did it for the blueberries and the fruit trees. And for the honey. He kept Landrasse, and got some from the neighbors and others from Maria’s father.

They get honey twice a year, in June and August. The first is flower honey, which is more yellow. In August, the bees go to the flowering pine trees, and this makes darker, deeper honey. Maria explains a strange phenomenon: “Honigtau is the sap from the pine tree, which the lice drink, and the bees milk the lice and take it from them.” Pine trees flower every couple of years, and when the pines aren’t flowering the bees go to the leafed trees. But the minerals and enzymes are richer in pine honey, which has Ätherische Öle, or essential oils.

(L) Rässhaus with blueberries; (R) Grosshaus with apples. Click to zoom

Honey is an essential part of their Sunday morning tradition, along with butter and Zopf, the buttery Swiss braided loaf made specially for weekends. Honey is also added to the herbal tea that Maria produces and sells, but it shouldn’t be added to anything hotter than 40 degrees.

“The place where you keep your bees is very important. The hives should face east for the morning sun, and should be protected from wind. They should be a bit above the ground because they don’t like it damp. The beehives need to be different colors so the bees can identify their homes. And each bee family has a different smell, and they smell each other. The queen mother has a strong smell, and the bees go to her. If you want to join two beehives when there isn’t a queen in one, you have to take the second beehive with a queen, and then spray a mix of water and schnapps to get rid of the identifying smell, and for them to accept each other. Bätzi, or apple schnapps, is best. You put one deciliter of it in one liter of water.”

Maria stayed in Buchschachen till she was almost 16. She was the eldest of eight children. There were six farmhouses on the hill, and they grew up in number three. Her brother, who helps with the honey, is still there. Her family has been in Buchschachen for many generations. “My great-grandfather left for a while at the end of 1800 to work in France, but didn’t make much money so he came back home. He wanted to be a Melker, someone who worked with cows.”

She spent three months in Zug in a household school, and then came back home to work for summer. The second winter she worked at the Hotel Löwen at Escholzmatt, where buses of tourists arrived from England and Germany. She spent another half year there. She had to work each summer, milking the cows, tending to the potatoes, doing the hay.

Buchschachen. Click to zoom

“I was always addicted to herbs. I always made tea. Auszug is when you put them in cold water: put the herbs in a jug, add cold water, let it stand for 24 hours. I crushed raspberries and made juice for my brothers and sisters and already dreamt of serving it to people. Why herbs? Because grandmother, Berta Wigger-Glanzmann, always did it. In her garden there was always Küchenkräuter, or cooking herbs. I love herbs because you take something from nature and it doesn’t take much to give something to your sisters and brothers that is healthy.

“If it grows by itself, without much effort on your part, without needing to hurt it, then it’s a good idea to make something out of it. Take the best out of it and let the rest go easily.

“Grandmother used to say there is a herb for every illness. Salbei for throat infections, Lindenblüten for cough, Schlüsselblumen (Schlüsseli in Swiss-German) for cough, Zitröseli for the throat, Wermut and Tausendguldenkraut for the stomach..”

Maria makes and sells Hohgantschatten Tee, or tea in the shade of the Hohgant. “Peppermint is good for the stomach. Zitronenmelisse with its lemon flavor is the most refreshing. Eisenkraut, also called Zitronenvervein, is good for your nerves. And for after a meal. Himbeerblätter rounds off the tea and makes it softer. It ties it together. It isn’t actually a particular ingredient that heals or does something specific. Goldmelisse is a bit like Melisse in its smell, taste and color. It’s also good for syrup. Kornblume is for color. Hopfen from beer calms you. Lavender is calming too. I’ve heard some people don’t drink it in a mixture and say you should have it separately. They say it tastes different and doesn’t mix well. But some don’t like it by itself. So I put just a little bit in.

“All these ingredients are in order of their percentage in the tea. This mix comes from trial and error. Our family liked it. My grandmother used to put in herbs from the forest like Brombeeren, the sister of Himbeeren. They grow wild, and in my mother’s garden. So I substituted it with Himbeeren.

“I cut the herbs in the morning before it gets too hot and drives the aroma away. I do this between May and September. I check the leaves for insects and damage, because I never treat them with anything. If there’s soil I wash them lightly, but they’re better not washed. Maybe it takes away some aroma. Then they’re laid out flat on pure cotton sheets for 3–4 days. And then they’re put in my grandmother’s cotton sacks for up to 1–3 weeks. She was born in 1908, and they have her initials on them: B. G.”

She also sells Furgge Tee, with Ringelblume, which disinfects cuts; Malve, which clears one’s system after a meal; and Sonnenblumen which picks you up. “It doesn’t affect your body: its more mental than physical.

“When I was small I wanted to go out and look around, and see where the sun sets. I wanted to follow the sun. I was late, and already 20 when I went to London. I was there a year and three months. I went to a lot of concerts. But I also loved the country, the sheep and the green grass. We had a good summer in 1976.”

“Chrigu’s great grandfather said that if you do something, and if you do it so that you forget everything else, then you do it right.”