Both the cows and the cheeses are a bit sassy here
Every June, when Swiss Alpine meadows have shed their snows and begun to sprout summer carpets, an annual drama unfolds. Its prologue is an epic struggle; its climax a tasty protest against the mighty forces of cultural homogeneity.Skip to next paragraph
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Its protagonists? Some cows in high places.
The annual production of artisanal mountain cheeses is not just a bit of gastronomic quaintness; it is an expression of Switzerland's culture.
With all due respect to chocolate, what could be more Swiss than cheese? And what could better symbolize this country's self-reliant tradition than farmers, milking herds by hand in the high pasture, using generations-old recipes for a velvety raclette?
The yearly ritual, and its unpasteurized product, offer an authentic taste of culture in an age of fakery and shrink-wrap.
One of the best ways to experience it is to take a summer walking tour of the Valais, an area of abundant sunshine, spectacular views, and villages that range from simple to chic.
The terrain offers something for every kind of walker - from vineyard trails in the valleys, to more challenging upward climbs, to high glacial peaks.
The funicular and cable car from the village of Sierre take you up to 8,500 feet, where there's a restaurant, as well as a wind-whipped viewing area where you can commune with nature sans guardrails. From there, you can also admire a side view of the Matterhorn, known as Le Cervin in the Francophone part of the Valais, which is split between French and German areas.
The cheese season - which is the opposite of the other great season in the Valais, skiing - is heralded by colorful festivals and displays of bovine bellicosity.
The local breed, the dark-brown, horned Hérens, has a long reputation for feistiness. Traditionally, fresh out of the barns and rambunctious, they were pitted against one another to decide who would lead the herds up to the high pastures in June.
Today such matches, held around the Valais on Sundays from late March through early October, mean big money for the farmers.
Beasts with names such as "Mouse," "Dallas," and "Rambo," vie for the "queen of the herd" title, which assures the winner's owner handsome breeding fees, and the winner a pampered life. A local expert notes that the queen of the herd is much like a queen bee; the hardest working drone receives the less exalted designation of "milk queen."
The contests are nothing like bullfighting and usually end without gore after one contender cows her opponent into submission.
Every cow wears a huge bell, and the chiming in the meadows is one of the pleasures of a walk in the Valais.
It's worth a hike or a drive up from the village of Crans Montana to the Alpine Mountain Museum of Colombire to find out more about the history of high-altitude cheesemaking.
On the way you pass a present-day Alpine dairy station, where once a week during summer, tourists can watch the cheesemaking process, from the milking to the heating of the fresh liquid in a cauldron to placing the new cheese into the round, wooden molds.
The walk between the two stops is especially pleasant. It's level and takes you around the side of a mountain, through towering stands of larch and pine.