This past weekend thousands of Swiss cows participated in La Poya, the annual ascent to their high summer pastures in the Alps and once again mountain alpage meadows are, to quote that famous song, alive with the sound of music.
The music of cowbells and mooing. In the Swiss-Romande, or French-speaking part of Swtizerland, this age-old transhumance procession is cause for celebration after a long winter in which man and beast have been confined to their winter residence in the lower valleys. For the move, cows are adorned with headdresses of fresh-cut flowers and ceremonial cowbells and farming families dress in traditional costume to accompany their herds up the mountains. Some will stay all summer tending the cows, making cheese and even offering hospitality.
The grass, herbs and flowers in the lush high pastures produce the richest, most delicious milk and the cheese made with it is prized. Most traditional cheeses from Europe’s alpine regions have winter and summer versions. To find a summer cheese produced on an alpage look for words like “alpage” “alpaggio” “fermier” “alp cheese” “alp käse“or “été” on the label. In France, “fruitier” or “laitier”denote cheese that is produced in a dairy (not on the farm), and “Hiver” is a cheese produced with winter milk. Generally alpage cheese costs a little more and for good reason; it represents the best cheese produced each year. If you are shopping for cheeses such as Comte, Gruyere, Reblochon, Beaufort, Fontina, Abondance, Emmenthal, Appenzell (just to name a few), this is something to ask your cheesemonger about. In Switzerland one of my favorite alpage cheeses is Etivaz, known as the “delicious secret of the alpage”. The rules for the AOC governing Etivaz are very strict. Each year this special gruyere-style cheese is produced only from May 10th to October 10th from the raw milk of 2,800 cows grazing on 130 alpage pastures in the Etivaz region. In the winter it is not made at all!
It is not just cows that are led to the high pastures. Depending on the region, it can be sheep or goats. Frequently it is a combination. Traditionally there would also have been a few pigs and chickens on the march. The pigs would be fattened on whey, the by-product of cheese-making, and the chickens would provide fresh eggs for those spending their summers on the alpage. In the fall the pigs would be slaughtered and extra income made by selling prized Alpage pork. Sadly, it is hard to find farms today that still take pigs to their alpage. But some do. In my small village on Lac Leman for a brief period each fall there is a discreet sign in the window of the butcher shop inviting “Orders for Alpage Pork”.
All over Europe mountain farms are open to guests and you can hike to them. Some are also accessible by funicular, mountain bike and increasingly by car. Income produced from tourism is often essential to these families, enabling them to carry on the alpage traditions. Many offer simple and delicious mountain meals featuring their cheese, local charcuterie, potatoes and preserves. Overnight accommodation is sometimes available, making alpage farms a valuable resource for hikers and mountaineers. For those seeking the truly authentic experience, you can even find yourself waking up in a hay loft dormitory.
Last Friday, Michael and I were returning from a hike and dinner at one of our favorite alpage restaurants on top of the Mont D’Or in the French Jura. The full moon lit the small mountain road we were descending as it snaked its way into Switzerland. Just as we crossed the border we heard a concert of cowbells and soon we encountered a local Poya. It is not the first time we have happened upon one of these events, and it is always a moving experience to witness. The cows and their farmers seem so happy to be on the go after a long winter. There was a sense the animals knew where they were headed, almost giddy with delight. I felt overwhelmed with gratitude for the farmers’ hard work and dedication that is preserving these ancient traditions and enriching not just the alpine landscape but the lives of all the people who get to experience their warm hospitality and exceptional cheese.
In October there is an equally celebratory procession when the cows are led back to the valley farms for the winter called the Désalpe. If you scroll down to the end of this post I have uploaded a wonderful video of that event I found on the Etivaz-aoc.ch website. To see the poya Michael and I experienced on Friday, turn up your volume and click on my instagram post below.
If any of you are planning to travel to the alps this summer be sure to make time to visit an alpage dairy. Not only will you experience some of Europe’s most majestic landscape, you will help support an ancient tradition and get to taste some of the most authentic and delicious cheese in the world.
until the désalpe in the fall….