Transhumance

Get your ticket to the cow parade

I am a cheesemonger. Cheese happens to be my livelihood, my passion, my favorite indulgence. I consider it the most fortuitous accident of my life when I stumbled into this trade over 15 years ago. The people it has brought into my orbit continue to enrich my life and somehow it has never ceased to captivate and challenge me to this day. In certain circles, my name is synonymous with cheese. When someone mentions my name the response is waiting “oh, you mean the cheese girl?”... yep, that’s me! I do not mind the association, if anything, I relish it; if most remember me by the bits of cheese I have popped into their mouths and perhaps by the encyclopedic description that spewed forth as they chewed the morsel, I can only hope that I left a lingering impression on them like the afterglow of that cheese on the palate. They may not recall my name, but that’s ok, we shared cheese– the holiest of communions in my book. True connection is getting harder to come by, particularly in the current pandemic era, so if using cheese to foster an association is a dirty trick— consider me filthy!

Cheese has opened so many doors to worlds otherwise unknown and afforded me many awe-inspiring journeys that I wear the affiliation as a supreme badge of honor. In grateful servitude, I share my experiences and disseminate the good word of cheese for all who care to listen!

One such journey is a cheesemonger's equivalent to Mecca: I am among the fortunate few who have made the pilgrimage to the Alps to witness Alpage cheese production and attend DésAlpe, the most traditional of mountain festivals.

There is a Heaven on Earth for us mountain worshiping caseophiles, a place where cheese is not only at the center of the table but is the center of the socioeconomic landscape, steeped in history, ever preserved by tradition. As the name suggests, the family of cheeses known as “Alpine” originates in the Alps, the highest and most extensive mountain range in Europe. These cheeses represent a unique adaptation to difficult terrain.

Thousands of years ago the founding farmers had to overcome the challenges of their native topography to create and preserve enough of summer's bounty to provide sustenance throughout the long, harsh, cold winters. Villages sprang up in the valleys and the precious flat(ish) land surrounding was preserved for the cultivation of crops. The high mountainous peaks were not conducive to growing crops but had natural springs that nourished untouched pastures of beautiful grasses and flora ripe for grazing. The families in the villages would pull their resources together and form a herd. The designated cheesemakers and herdsmen would graze the collective village herd up the high mountain peaks as the snow receded. They made their way higher and higher as the season progressed making cheese in rustic chalets situated at very high altitudes and sparingly equipped with only the most rudimentary supplies they could schlep on their backs for their summer upon the Alp. Eventually, they would make their descent back to the village in the fall alongside the herd with all the summer cheese in tow. These cheeses were durable, designed to age for long periods of time, and would provide much-needed nutrition throughout the oncoming winter back in the Village. This ancient practice of seasonal rotational grazing is known as Transhumance.

To be clear, many traditional mountain cheeses outside of the Alps also share this practice, the famed sheep cheeses of the Basque region are also great examples, but for this story, all details and descriptions are germane to the Alps—in this case, Charmey, Switzerland in the heart of the Gruyère region.

The descent is the culmination of the summer Alp season and is marked by the DésAlpe festival where the villages anxiously await to applaud the return of the farmers and the cows both specially adorned for the occasion; the cows are coronated with crowns or bushes of flowers atop their heads and ceremonious bells around their necks ranging from large to gargantuan.

The farmers wear the traditional local costumes and haul some ceremonial wheels of their cheese using old fashioned wooden carriers. Today the majority of the cheeses are gathered throughout the season by the local affineur who tends to the aging and end sale/export of the cheese. Though modern Switzerland is known for its fancy watches and its ironclad banks, the original cash crop, the fruit of the Alps has always been the high-quality milk that encapsulates all the untouched natural bounty this region has to offer. Cheese remains a cultural as well as an economic linchpin.

Today, village dairies hum along all year long and create quality cheese daily— ones we see here in the cases of specialty cheese shops and grocery stores alike sold under the names of Gruyère, Comté, Appenzeller, Bergkäse, Emmentaler, etc. These village dairies dot the Alpine landscape no matter what country you find yourself in (Switzerland, France, Germany, Austria, Italy). They are aided by advancements in technology to hone their craft of turning exceptional high-quality milk into even better cheese. These represent the modern adaptation of the original Alpine cheeses.

There now remains only a small die-hard sect of cheesemakers committed to preserving the cultural legacy of Transhumance who still spend their summers crafting cheese over wood-burning fires, isolated from the rest of the world up in the Alps. Now they are the exception and no longer the norm. These torchbearers labor to uphold the tradition of tapping the local treasure, the Alpage. This term translates to “mountain pasture” and refers to both the place (the actual pastures) as well as the range of wild grasses, flowers, and brush that the ruminants feed on there. Cow’s too, are what they eat, or at least what they munch on is made manifest in the milk and their grazing fodder is directly responsible for a large portion of the aromas that intermingle with the tastes on your tongue, and together they constitute what we experience as flavor. Alpage is also the term that separates these special cheeses (Alpage in French, in German, Alpwirtschaft, and Alpeggio in Italian). I witnessed this magical, mystical cheese alchemy at a chalet that produces Le Gruyère d’Alpage.

Life in the Alps is a hard, solitary path. Upon my visit, I was coached to bring news of the real world below in the form of printed newspapers, since the limited generators on the Alps are reserved for only the most necessary tasks such as milking the herd. Cell signals at those altitudes are nearly non-existent. Cut off from the rest of the world, these chalets are frozen in time high atop the mountain peaks, the cloudline delineating them from the rest of us down below, entrenched in modernity. These farmers toil, their hands tell the story; they are weathered, worn, scalded and strong. Their spirits belie the effort they undertake daily. As they go about their grueling tasks, their hearts are full with pride knowing that their dedication to crafting Gruyère d’Alpage preserves the land, and upholds the deep-seated traditions embedded in this ancient practice.

Atop the mountain, a rare tranquility washes over me. Otherwise, I consider myself a high energy, go, go, go kind of girl… but a few stifling grand views and moments such as this force me to take pause and just breathe. I let awe and wonder consume me as I take in the peaks and valleys, waterfalls and streams with lush green grasses strewn about in the panorama below. The fresh, fragrant Alpine air is so pure I cannot help but feel high as it fills my lungs and I experience my purview in all the glory of its natural high definition.

Inside as the dawn breaks the cheesemaking begins. It is all crafted by hand over a natural fire which lends a signature, subtle smoky or savory note to these Alpage cheeses you would not otherwise find in the everyday valley-produced variations. The smells of milk and smoke fill the small make room and I am enthralled watching all the machinations that go into the making of these large 60+ pound wheels. Most chalets only produce 1-2 wheels of cheese per day.

After the cheesemaking duties conclude the family fills me up with their cheese and freshly skimmed cream by the massive spoonful and I go on my merry way. Adorning the edelweiss shirt that is a staple of the region and was gifted to me by my host, I make my way down to the Village of Charmey for DésAlpe just in time for the first procession of cows to make its way through the streets. Being short in stature, I (along with all the small children in the village) climb the hill to the side of the road to get a better vantage point. We are all anticipation as we start to hear a rumble in the distance… as the first herd approaches our stretch of road the rumble increases to a roar… it's a visceral auditory experience, the bells resonating deep in your bones. Big bellowing baritone bells mix with the tinkling of more delicate bells. You hear the distinct tottering rhythm of each cow creating a cacophony with the sounds of the other cows in her herd. My heart swells with joy and my eyes tear up watching these cows pass with their elaborate headdresses bobbing and swaying with every clomp. The feeling intensifies with each successive herd that makes its way down the thoroughfare, and by the time the last herd is being showered with the crowd’s reverence and adoration the tears stream down my face. I am not alone. I look around as the locals swell with pride and also shed tears as they cheer their revered ruminants. This quaint little Swiss mountain village could not be further from the city of Chicago that I call home, but never have I felt more in tune with a collective group as I did than cheering and reveling in our appreciation of these beautiful creatures.

Beyond the parade, the rest of DésAlpe is a festival of all things Swiss. Groups of people singing traditional yodels are accompanied by the alpenhorn (you might recognize these long horns from the Ricola commercials), people slinging cheese, hocking traditional carved wooden spoons, forged cowbells, woodcuts portraying Alpage, and other sordid traditional clothing and knick-knacks.

As the day goes on the formal festivities conclude and descends into drunken revelry. All day long the locals marvel at hearing the novelty of my American accent in the mix. All my interactions began with the same question: “What exactly brings you here?” My answer: “Cheese, your beautiful cheese is what brings me here.” This earnest answer turns out to be the ultimate key to immediate acceptance among the local fold. What follows is an explanation of how I sell their local Gruyère and Gruyère d’Alpage at the shops I buy for here in the States, and they, in turn, respond with their connection to the cheese, and in Charmey, with a population below 2000— trust me, everybody has one… ”my brother makes the cheese,” “our milk from our herd is made into the cheese,” “I built the local dairy,” and so on and so forth. The setting and details of our day-to-day lives could not be more disparate but on this day we are friends in cheese!

As the evening progressed I continued to forge bonds over cheese that were further solidified by mutual knowledge of American Pop music lyrics. I never would have guessed I would dance arm in arm with old and young Swiss natives alike on the dance floor of a tiny village bar singing Macklemore's “ceiling can’t hold us” with such fervor and gleeful abandon. My heart was full, I was in my cups and all up in my feelings. The number of times I yelled “I love cheese and I love you!” to and with complete strangers over the course of the evening are too numerous to count. Can cheese be a love language? Because I am pretty sure it's mine.