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In a basement kitchen, a pot on the stove full of what looks like soured milk sat on low heat. Thrayron Morgan had her arm submerged in the liquid, and she was carefully cutting up the mixture with her hands.
“It just feels like oh goodness, like jello,” Morgan said.
But it’s not jello, it’s curds. And after a few more steps and some time, it would be a block of cheese.
Morgan is a third generation descendant of Swiss immigrants. Her grandfather immigrated to Helvetia, West Virginia from the canton of Bern in the 1870s when the community was just forming. Helvetia is a rural town nestled close to the Monongahela National Forest, and like Morgan, most of its residents can trace their heritage back to Switzerland. The town preserves and shares their culture and traditions through annual community festivals, including the famous Fasnacht festival held every February. You can sample Swiss dishes at the Hütte Restaurant and browse local goods at Swiss Roots, the community store.
When Morgan’s husband Russell retired recently, the couple wanted to pick up a new hobby. They settled on making cheese – but not just any cheese. Morgan and Russell wanted to make the kind of cheese Morgan’s grandfather and other early Helvetia residents made. That meant reviving a family tradition that had been dormant for decades. One that takes knowledge, skill, and the right environmental conditions.
Morgan didn’t have her grandfather’s recipe written down, but she knew her neighbor, Nancy Gain, could help her. Gain’s ancestors are from the same region in Switzerland as Morgan’s, and she remembered her mother making the same kind of cheese as a child.
“So we just went down and I told her… what I knew,” Gain said.
With her friend to guide her, Morgan was able to recreate the recipe and knowledge of cheesemaking that had been lost in her family.
She needed than just a recipe to make this cheese, however. A key ingredient was missing: fresh cow milk. Finding a dairy cow these days was harder than expected.
“It’s hard because no one wants to milk. If they raise cattle, it’s usually beef cattle, they don’t want to have a family cow. Used to be everybody had to have a family cow to have milk,” Gain said. Morgan would have to look beyond Gain in order to secure some milk.
“We’re really blessed to be able to live in a place where it’s not just that you have neighbors, but you have family,” Morgan said.
It’s not uncommon for her to trade some of her cheese for sausage, or for her to give away some buttermilk or homemade butter. Morgan knew a friend who lived a county over that still had a dairy cow, so she was able to get the necessary ingredient.
The final step in making cheese is the aging process. The Morgans converted a section of their basement into a cheese cave, one that would regulate the temperature and humidity and create the ideal aging environment.
Having a cheese cave like this one is a modern luxury. Morgan’s ancestors made their cheese in much different conditions.
“All the old farmers was making cheese in their kitchen and they were curing it, or aging it, in their cellar. And in those cellars, you have dirt floor, rocks, that you know are moldy – perfect situation for aging cheese,” Morgan said.
With the right recipe, the essential ingredients, and the ideal environment, the Morgan’s hobby took off. The nostalgic taste of the cheese reminded community members of the cheese their parents and grandparents used to make. Cheesemaking is a laborious process, and many community members don’t have the time or ingredients needed to make it. Demand for the cheese began to soar, and the Morgan’s started to sell their cheese down at the local Helvetia market.
“It was a surprise when we took the first load down to them the first week and within 24 hours they were out,” said Morgan.
West Virginia has expansive cottage food laws that allow individuals to sell products that are made in their own homes. “The legislature was nice enough… to create a bill to waiver [regulations] of that so that now we can make the cheese in our kitchen and cure it in the cellar,” explained Morgan. Without these laws, the Morgans’ cheesemaking would have had to remain a hobby.
Although the cheese is now available in the community, Morgan has a real concern about Swiss traditions like cheese-making being lost as the younger generations move out of the area. To combat this, Morgan has made sure to share this recipe and process with her granddaughter, Georgia Gizzi.
That her grandma started making cheese one day was not surprising to Gizzi. “Well, she’s always been very much into things like canning foods and doing all kinds of different things. We’ve made things like dandelion jelly,” Gizzi said fondly.
Gizzi doesn’t live in Helvetia, but she visits every so often and has enjoyed learning the process of cheesemaking alongside her grandmother. Her favorite part of the process is getting to stick her arm in the pot and cut up the curds. “I have a couple of friends though that have come up and they like refuse to put their hand in it because they thought it was gross but I love it,” laughed Gizzi.
Seeing the enthusiasm of her granddaughter gives Morgan hope that the community of Helvetia will grow again and preserve not just the tradition of cheesemaking, but other Swiss traditions as well. Morgan and other members of her generation in Helvetia have made deliberate efforts to teach their children and grandchildren how to do things like cheesemaking and folk dancing.
Making a block of cheese isn’t just a day’s work. It takes weeks or months to age the cheese to perfection. If you have the patience and dedication, however, the result is delicious.
This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, which is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to Inside Appalachia to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts, and culture.