As the days shorten, autumn approaches and colors turn to russet and gold, countless festivals in the Swiss Alps mark the passing of summer. In splendid time-honored ceremonies, great wheels of cheese made from the creamy herb-rich milk of dun-colored cows who spent their summers grazing in higher pastures are distributed among participating farmers. At the end of the day, the cows wend their way back down to their winter quarters, their huge burnished bells echoing through the valley, their horns tricked out with fresh flowers.
One fall morning, I fell in with the throngs of locals as they made their way up from the village of Beatenberg to the annual Chästeilet, a classic end-of summer festival that takes place in the Justistal, high above Lake Thun in the Bernese Oberland. Our goal was the Spycherberg, a flat, wide-open meadow beneath the Niederhorn where the storage huts, or Spycher, are grouped, and where the cheese is distributed to farmers whose cows have grazed up on the alp during summer. Some festival-goers were on foot; others were perched on straw bales on trailers pulled by tractors from the local farms.
Up on the plateau, I had a date with Hans von Allmen, who has a small mixed farm (some cereals, 25 cows, lots of calves) with 20 hectares on 22 different sites dotted around Beatenberg. His task was to initiate me into the joys of the Chästeilet and to explain the arcane system of allotting the cheesy bounty to the farmers.
Wine, beer, bread, cheese and more
By 11 a.m. the Volksfest was well under way. In a makeshift tent, farming family volunteers stood behind long scrubbed trestle tables and dispensed liberal quantities of wine, beer, thick slices of rye bread, cheese, sausages and pastries. People waited in line to be served, then settled down on long benches at more trestle tables with their food and drinks or flopped on the grass outside the tent.
Farmers young and old, resplendent in short-sleeved black velvet jackets with white piping and edelweiss-embroidered lapels, were already well into the party. A burly, bearded farmer for whom the fun had clearly started a while earlier approached unsteadily, wreathed in smiles, and proffered a shot of Schnapps from a bottle shrouded in a crumpled paper bag. There was a mournful, muted sound of alphorns, the great wooden horns shaped like giant pipes that were traditionally used to call the cattle, plus jaunty riffs from piano accordions and the occasional exuberant burst of yodeling.
At the appointed hour, a bunch of stout keys was produced. The doors of the ancient wood and stone storage huts were unlocked, then thrown open with a flourish. Along with a view of the rows and rows of neatly stacked cheeses came a wonderful whiff of old socks, pregnant with the promise of fondues and raclette feasts.
A line of farmers formed in front of the hut, and one by one, the cheeses — of varying dates and dimensions, 270 of them from “our” hut — were passed down the line from hand to hand in a rhythmic relay to be stacked up on great wooden planks, the broadest at the bottom and the small, dumpy Mutschli cheeses perched on the top.
Von Allmen made an elegant speech to thank visitors for coming and showing their support for this grand old alpine tradition. He paid tribute to the hired cowherd who watches over the cows all summer, and the cheese maker who milks them twice daily, warms the milk in huge copper cauldrons, cuts the curds and shapes, salts and matures the cheeses.
For the assembled, expectant farmers, Von Allmen then embarked on an explanation of how cheeses would be distributed. Here, I admit, my grasp of Bernese dialect came under pressure. Luckily my guide for the day had taken the trouble to give me a bit of background. On this alp there are just 20 cows, he explained, owned by 17 Beatenberg farmers.
The math was further complicated by the fact that younger cows yield more milk than the older ones, and this too must be factored in. “But we’re not really into yields,” explained Von Allmen, adding that the cows who spend their summers on the alp live longer than intensively reared animals, some up to 20 years old. “And they have a much better life,” he declared with a broad grin. How does he know? “You should see how they carry on when they first come up in June – you can just tell they love it up here!”
One by one the farmers came forward to claim their pile, then staggered away with their cheeses and stowed them in the back of pickup trucks or trailers. Some cheeses would be sold to affineurs, whose job it is to mature the cheeses in special caves, but most would be stored in farmhouse cellars. Throughout the winter, they would be pressed into service in raclettes, fondues and cheese salads, or in that best of Bernese dishes, crusty Rösti with melted cheese slithering over the top.
The day drew to a close and the shadows cast by the Niederhorn deepened. From above we could hear the sonorous tolling of the cowbells as the animals began their descent to Beatenberg and their winter stables. Though the cows may regret leaving their summer pastures, I like to think there was a bit of a gleam in their deep brown eyes as they consoled themselves with the thought that next May, they’ll find their way back up here again.
Information on the annual Chästeilet: Gunten-Sigriswil Tourismus, 3655 Sigriswil, Switzerland, phone (from the U.S.) 011-41-33-251-1235, firstname.lastname@example.org
Zester Daily contribuor Sue Style lives in Alsace, close to the border of Baden, Germany. She’s the author of nine books on subjects ranging from Mexican food to the food and wines of Alsace and Switzerland. Her most recent, published in October, 2011, is Cheese: Slices of Swiss Culture.
Photos from top: Swiss alp cheeses. Credit: Gabriela Schaufelberger/Istockphoto.com
Photos, from top:
Cows festooned with flowers. Credit: Sue Style
Slideshow credit: Sue Style