The Käsestrasse Bregenzerwald (Bregenzerwald Cheese Route) is a road that is well-known beyond the borders of Vorarlberg. But it is not a road at all, it’s a brand - for the rural region and its cheese. A network of producers and marketers. A philosophy of a quality and enjoyment product and, as a "theme street", a realm of experience for guests and locals. Initiator Reinhard Lechner comes from Eastern Styria but is now regarded as a "legend of the KäseStrasse". A title that he has truly earned with this idea.
The partner companies of KäseStrasse Bregenzerwald produce 55 million kilograms of cheese annually. The silage-free hay milk for the legendary mountain cheese comes from over 950 farmers in the region. This is because dairy farming and cheese production have a long tradition in the Bregenzerwald. In 1868, Franz Michael Felder, a writer, social reformer, and farmer from the Bregenzerwald founded the first cheese-making association in the forest in order to break the monopoly of the notorious cheese counts. Today, all cheese makers offer guided tours and exhibitions, as in Schoppernau's mountain cheese dairy or in the cheese cellar in Lingenau, where 55,000 loaves of mountain and alpine cheese are ripened. Six to seven varieties are usually common in a cheese region; the Bregenzerwald has 80 different types of cheese. "You won't find that anywhere else, and it's what makes the region so special," Reinhard emphasizes. This unique variety is presented by the ‘KäseStrasse Bregenzerwald’, but the focus is on the rural producers. Idea giver Reinhard knew how to stage this perfectly. He himself had an eventful life and came via detours from Styria via Spain to Switzerland and finally to Vorarlberg. In the neighboring country he earned his first spurs in gastronomy and got trained as a business economist. He celebrated this in a wine bar in Vorarlberg, where he spontaneously accepted a job offer from a guest and managed the restaurants of a food chain in Austria. In the 90s, an accident forced him to take two years off, after that he had to find his way back into (professional) life. "At that time, the Vorarlberg Chamber of Agriculture was looking for someone to market ‘Ländle’ products. “I applied with a neck brace and crutches," says the 70-year-old, laughing about his beginnings.
He has initiated and accompanied many initiatives in his career in the state of Vorarlberg, such as "Natur und Leben Bregenzerwald" and the famous "Bregenzerwälder KäseStrasse". There were also strong impulses for the "Young Hospitality Vorarlberg" and its partnerships with rural producers in the ‘Ländle’, "bewusst leben Montafon" and "Walser Bura im Kleinwalsertal". For the "Direct Marketing Association," Reinhard was always in dialogue with provincial politicians, business people, the hospitality industry, tourism businesses, as well as farmers and regional networks. In 1998, KäseStrasse was officially founded after a five-year development process.
Reinhard has recruited around 200 partner businesses in the development of KäseStrasse. Today, 12 alpine dairies, 38 alps, 50 catering businesses, 36 cheese hosts, inns and agricultural businesses from the Bregenzerwald are part of the initiative. "At that time, I motivated every mayor and mayoress and was in all 26 communities of the Bregenzerwald. After we held the first mountain cheese award ceremony in Schwarzenberg in 1993, we wanted to bring the region's 1,000-year cheese history to the outside world," the Styrian explains. An association for the promotion of Bregenzerwald cheese culture was formed with 180 members today. "What makes ‘KäseStrasse’ is its contributors and the region. Both have their own stories, which we are privileged to witness," says the idea giver and affirms, "We have found a function in KäseStrasse for each community that fits the place - not the other way around. This allows us to tell our authentic story.
Actually, it was supposed to be a Vorarlberg Cheese Route, from the Montafon to the Bregenzerwald. After all, the "Sua Kees" (sour cheese) from the Montafon is the oldest cheese in the country. "However, we then sensed that the Bregenzerwälder locals have their own mentality and history. But we didn't just want to describe their cheese in sensory terms, we also wanted to highlight special features of the people and their region," explains Reinhard. The Bregenzerwälder locals have the requirement to be "b'sundrig" (special). "Togetherness" is not only capitalized here, but actually lived, and that even in the case of disagreements. "Even when people 'argue' here, they always do so with respect for one another," Reinhard notes after his experiences in the forest.
"Meor ehrod das Ault, und grüssed das Nü, und blibot üs sealb und dr Hoamat trü" ("We honor the old, welcome the new and remain true to ourselves and our homeland").
In the Bregenzerwald, ideas don't just come from somewhere - they grow from within. "One's own identity has a high priority here. In another part of Austria, that would seem arrogant, but not in the forest. The locals may be full of tension, but outwardly they stick together", Reinhard says. That's why it was no wonder to him that he, as a Styrian, was sometimes allowed to have more of a say than someone from the Rhine Valley. "After all, they didn't have to share any country history with me. There's a reason for all that - the Bregenzerwälder locals were forced to be among themselves from an early age because connections to the outside world were lacking in the past. In addition, they learned their perseverance and tenacity in the Peasant Republic and because of the tunnel policy of Inner Austria," analyzes the trailblazer.
The ‘KäseStrasse’ is also a piece of culture and a diverse experience that is presented differently throughout the region. Just as the people of the Bregenzerwald have their own characteristics, each alpine pasture and dairy has its own individual trademark. Depending on the location, the cheese also tastes different. "It is a pleasure product that not only goes into the stomach, but deeper, into the body and soul. Here, you eat tradition and culture with it. We wanted to make that resonate with people with the ‘KäseStrasse’ and is this special value that you can only buy in the Bregenzerwald," emphasizes the idea giver.
The course for the future had also already been set, but now the further development of ‘KäseStrasse’ depended on the members and their ideas. "KäseStrasse is a living community that can have different facets," says Reinhard, noting, "In the forest, we don't have to invent anything, but there are always parallels and commonalities, even with other regions, such as the ‘Weinviertler Weinstrasse’ (wine road), for example, where you can dock. These stories are valuable, and the Bregenzerwald knows how to savor that."
For Damüls, which is the gateway to the Bregenzerwald coming from the Great Walser Valley, the 70-year-old would therefore like to see an even more intensive cheese culture. Alps, such as Alpe Uga or Alpe Oberdamüls, as well as some tourism and gastronomy businesses, are already members of KäseStrasse. "I could well imagine several village tours with cheese and wine tastings in summer and winter for Damüls Faschina. But also something stationary, such as a cheese affinity center," Reinhard tells us. After all, he says, all good cheese regions today have affineurs who refine and enhance cheese.
"Perhaps cheese cooking courses for guests and tourists would be a hit, 'Wälder Happa' - similar to Spanish tapas with cheese at member businesses, or an annual cheese festival that could become a tradition," Reinhard lists. However, every idea always needs someone who can credibly stand behind it. "This is already common practice in the Bregenzerwald. If there is an identity, it becomes a ‘Wälder’ product anyway. Because they are rightly incredibly proud of it," says the pioneer, for whom the preservation of regionality is a matter close to his heart.
If all you get to eat from London to Bucharest to Malta is the same thing, different regions are pointless, he said. "Regional value creation no longer works, and tourism also makes no sense. We must continue to produce our food and luxury foods where it is in keeping with nature and culture. Our regions must remain different - in taste, in smell, in appearance. Then it is exciting to discover them culinary", thinks the KäseStrasse-maker and emphasizes in conclusion: "We must consciously confess to our regionality and live it out. Everyone should do what they are good at. Then we come into a healthy competition and exchange, which secures substance as well as creation of value for the regions. This includes stories and identities with dialects and traditions. Because behind every product are its producers, the region and its landscape."