By Shep Ysselstein, as told to Michele Sponagle

Shep Ysselstein, owner of Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese, near Woodstock, Ont., is one of Canada’s brightest young cheese makers. By the time he reached 30, he’d already snagged the top honour at the Canadian Cheese Grand Prix for his Five Brothers in the firm-cheese category. (And in April 2015, his Handeck won for best farmhouse cheese at the same competition.) A dairy-inspired life was mapped out for him as a child: His parents still own Friesvale Farms (right next door to Gunn’s Hill), which supplies the milk for Ysselstein’s Swiss-style cheeses. It’s all in the family there.

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Alpler macaroni is an old Swiss recipe. “Alpler” is the name for the people who work up in the mountains, milking cows and making cheese. Traditionally, this dish is what they would have eaten. For a summer, when I learned cheese making in the Berner Oberland area of Switzerland, I would have been considered an alpler.

While I was there, the head cheese maker had a friend who was a chef make us the macaroni dish with the cheeses we made. We ate it in a very traditional cheese-making hut: several hundred years old with thick stone walls built into the side of the mountain. It was very rustic and primitive with low ceilings that were black from all the smoke generated by the fire used to produce the cheese. In that space, we cooked and ate our own meals—we even slept upstairs.

When I ate alpler macaroni for the first time, I thought, Wow! I need to know how to make this! Obviously, I’m a big fan of dairy products, and this recipe has a lot of them, drawing flavour from the types of cheese you use.

The chef taught me how to make alpler macaroni, but he didn’t give me a written recipe. So I learned the steps but not specific volumes. He just told me, “If it’s too thick, add a little more milk. Too thin? Add more cheese.”

This dish is a meal—a heavy one. Historically, alplers would not have had access to a lot of foodstuffs since everything would have had to be trekked up the mountain. So they used what they had available, primarily dairy products: milk, butter, cream and cheese. For this dish, they would have just needed to bring dry pasta up the mountain.

When I came back home to Canada, I made it for my family: Mom, Dad and whomever of my four brothers was around. I’ve made it more than once for them, and I make it for different groups of friends, too. I also made it for my wife, Colleen Bator, when we were first dating. It worked out pretty good—she married me eventually.

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Alpler Macaroni is my go-to recipe for many occasions. It incorporates the things that are important in my life: my cheese factory in Oxford County; and my summer in Switzerland that helped me become a cheese maker. Plus, our cows make the milk, so it’s special in that way, too. This dish is handcrafted from the very beginning, starting with a cow. The only thing I need to do now is make my own pasta…

Alpler Macaroni and Cheese, courtesy of Shep Ysselstein

Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 40 minutes
Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients
1 cup (250 mL) macaroni
2 tbsp (30 mL) butter
1 onion, sliced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tbsp (15 mL) flour
1 cup (250 mL) (approx) milk
1 cup (250 mL) heavy cream
1 cup (250 mL) (approx) Handeck cheese (18-month cow’s milk Swiss alpine-style cheese)
2 cups (500 mL) (approx) Five Brothers cow’s milk cheese or Appenzeller cheese
pepper and nutmeg to taste

Directions
1. In pot of boiling water, cook macaroni; drain.
2. Add butter to large pan; fry onion and garlic until soft. Add flour (to thicken and bind mixture). Add milk and cream. Cook, stirring constantly, until mixture is warmed throughout and just beginning to bubble.
3. Add Handeck and half of the Five Brothers cheese, 1 small handful at a time, stirring constantly, until cheese is completely melted. Do not boil. Allow to slightly simmer; add pepper and nutmeg. If mixture is too thick, add more milk; if too thin, add more cheese. (You can never have too much cheese!)
4. In buttered baking dish, add half of the macaroni. Pour in half of the cheese mixture; sprinkle on remaining Five Brothers cheese. Add remaining half of macaroni; pour in remaining half of cheese mixture.
5. Bake, uncovered, in 400°F (200°C) oven for 20 minutes or until cheese is golden brown.

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