How to make a Swiss biscuit
It is the middle of November, and Chrigu Klötzli is freezing outside between two mountains: the Hohgant and Schrattenfluh. Chrigu stands surrounded by snow, with little for company except the old Defender and a cap with AEBI written on it (which he removes when he notices he’s being photographed) and the two frozen streams that mark the borders of Grossenbumbach. But Chrigu turns his back on all of this, his nose pointing to the stone hut his family bought in 1785. For it is from these depths of walls turned black with soot that the most incredible smell is coming. The smell of butter. Of old hot cast iron. Of burning wood. The smell of Bretzelis.
Inside, Erika is working on the old Schenk oven, adding chunks of flour, spreading butter with a little brush, and then closing the heavy cast iron mould with its signature floral pattern. Chrigu is hungry.
A Bretzeli (Brezel is German for pretzel, and the ‘li’ is often added as the diminutive to words in Swiss-German) is a traditional Swiss biscuit, made for centuries as the Klötzlis do now. These days most people just buy them from bakeries and supermarkets. The most famous of them is made by Kambly, which started off as a small bakery in the Emmental (where it is still based) till it became a giant.
Grosi, the oldest in Schangnau
We sit down a few turns below the hut, in the house where coffee is waiting. Coffee, two white kittens, a niece, an old album of photos of when Chrigu went to India and met ‘the Sikhs,’ and still-warm Bretzelis. And Grosi.
Grosi means grandmother, and everyone calls her that, whether family or not. Rosa Klötzli was born in 1923, and is the oldest living person in the village of Schangnau.
Grosi walks in bent over, and all eyes turn to her. Even the kittens seem transfixed. One leathery hand stays clenched shut. There’s a shock of unbelievably thick white hair. And her eyes turn to slits when she laughs, with an impish humor which never fades.
Grosi is poured coffee and milk and given a bretzeli, and she’s drinking and munching and staring at me, fascinated. She’s handed one of the kittens and she promptly lifts it up by the tail, and for a moment it hangs in mid-air, above the still-warm Bretzeli missing a bite. Everyone freezes. Grosi explodes in laughter.
(Update: Grosi died three months after I photographed her)
From Klötz to Klötzli
The family was first mentioned in the village of Schangnau as Klötz in 1751, and the village itself evolved over time, from Tschangnaw to Schöngaw to its present name. In those days the Klötz’s led a semi-nomadic existence, coming from the canton of Fribourg with their cows in the summer, and going back in winter (much as Fritz migrates today). Schangnau was only a summer alp for them. It was Ulrich Klötz who bought the house on the side of the mountain in 1785 — the little stone hut where the bretzelis are now made. They started to live here permanently from 1890, and built a barn in 1894. The cows never had to cross cantons again.
Ulrich Klötz bought the land from Marianna von Graffenried, part of the Berner Patrizia, the landowners from Bern who rented their fields to farmers. The plot was double the size it is today.
The land where the Klötzlis live is called Grossenbumbach, and is sandwiched between three rivers and two mountains. It has the Bumbachgrabe flowing down on one side and the Sädelgrabe on the other (Grabe is a stream). They both flow into the Emme at the foot of the land, in the valley with the Schrattenfluh rising behind the Klötzlis, and the Hohgant in front.
And the centerpiece of that land: the massive Linde, or lime tree, 8.6m around that Grosi said has stood since 1365, long before a Klötz ever set foot here. They make tea out of its blossoms, the lindenblüten, to cure fevers.
For love of a cow, and bees
It was a stone’s throw away from the Linde where we stood on the first day of November. It was 5.22 in the evening but the sun had almost set, and it filtered through the last leaves and barely bounced off the barn as it settled on Hans Klötzli, or Klötz Hansu as everyone calls him. The valley is full of men called Hans so it’s easier when you attach an identifying word before their nickname. That word might be the family name or might be geographical, like Münchi Hansu, who lives by another stream a bit to the west.
Hansu is greeting his favorite cow Arve, named after the Swiss Stone Pine. He went to many cow shows with her when she was young, and says there’s been a connection between them ever since. His other favorite is Annemone, who is now almost 16.
Back at the house, it is time for z’Vieri (vier means four), the tradition Swiss meal at 4pm, even if it’s not eaten at that exact time. Hans has a tall glass of instant coffee with sugar, and there’s a platter of sausages, ham, cheese and Ruchbrot (Ruch is rough and Brot is bread) on the table. Andrea, his youngest, joins him, as does their dog which has no name except its breed, a Bläss called Bläss. It is a dog spurned by city dwellers, but the only one found on farms here, the local version of the Sennenhund, the Swiss mountain dog (Senn is an alpine shepherd, and Hund is a dog).
Later, Hans will visit his bees. It was his father who started keeping them in the little bee house above the Linde, with the vegetable garden in front. He has 25 families of bees, the Beenenfelche. And each family has between 40–60,000 bees, a mix of Landrasse and Carnica. Hans lights a pipe, and blows the smoke into the hives, calming the bees. While the tens of thousand of them could potentially kill him, they rarely sting. “They’re lovable,” he says, gently swatting them off the comb with a brush. “They know me.” They’re more nervous when their house is full, so he prefers taking the honeycombs out when most of the bees have left for the forest and fields.
Andrea, 11, half-heartedly hides behind a door while Hans goes on, waiting for Chrigu to help him carry the wooden crate of hives to the house and barn below, where the brothers will extract the honey.
And there’s nothing more to do now except walk downhill, following the Bumbachgrabe as it comes tumbling down from Imbrig and flows past the house, emptying itself into the Emme, which in turn flows softly into the evening.