Postcard from a Cheese Journey(s)
Last September, on a wet and rainy morning, I found myself in a green Swiss valley. I – and my fellow travelers on the Cheese Journeys’ alpine tour – had woken up early because it was a very special day. It was the day when the cows were coming down from the mountains after a long summer – and that’s a serious party in this part of the world!
But first, let’s take a look at the background.
‘Transhumance’ is an ancient tradition found in European regions with mountains. When the snow starts to melt in the Alps in early spring, cows are taken up hill where they graze in lush meadows throughout the summer, producing abundant milk which is used to make delicious cheeses. As fall approaches, the cows are brought down to the stables in the valley for the winter.
Whereas cows move up and down in the Alps, in the Pyrenees, it’s all about sheep. Typically, the grass around the farm in the valley is turned into hay, which the animals are fed with in winter. Whereas the summer menu says lush grass, wild herbs, flowers and whatever grows in the heights. This practice is often described in the protection of origin behind the cheese (the AOP designation if it’s a French cheese).
Intangible cultural heritage
In 2019, transhumance was inscribed on UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage. As well as being about animals and feed, transhumance is also about knowledge and skills passed down through generations and relationships between people, animals and ecosystems. And it’s actually a sustainable way of maintaining livestock.
A day of celebration
When the season comes to an end, it’s time for celebration. We took part in a cow parade in Switzerland near the French border.
Early in the morning, cows were dressed up with small hats and lots of flowers (and no, not all cows liked that idea). The air was full of the sound of small and large cowbells. Men, women and children also dressed up.
Wait for your turn
At ‘our’ farm, we waited until 10 am, which was our slot in the parade. Off walked cows, a couple of goats, a horse and the whole family. There was the occasional cow who wanted to eat some grass on the way, but otherwise they walked down to the village, where it almost looked like the Tour de France with metal grids on the side of the road and lots of people in a festive mood.
The Tour de France of the cows
Throughout the day, cows kept arriving in small groups and people cheered and clapped every time. But it was still impossible to drown out the sound of the many cowbells.
Meanwhile, you could visit the stalls selling everything from socks with cows to cowbells, and if you got hungry, you could choose between raclette, fondue, lots of gruyère and so much more.
This is probably the biggest celebration of cows and cheese that I have experienced to this date.