Both the cows and the cheeses are a bit sassy here

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

Head to the heights

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.

Local cheeses to savor

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.

The pièce de résistance of any visit to the Valais are those wheels of raclette. Locals swear that the taste of the milk, and therefore of the cheese, varies according to what the cow nibbled on in a particular alpage, or Alpine meadow - from grass to a bouquet of violets, columbine, forget-me-nots, and other wildflowers.

As raclette's French name suggests, a half-wheel of the cheese is melted and then "scraped" onto the plate,with boiled potatoes, bread, and cornichons often eaten on the side, along with thinly sliced air-dried beef and charcuterie.

Follow the rules for fondue

Besides this quintessential Swiss treat, there's the queen of dairy fare - fondue, the best-known specialty of French Switzerland, commonly made with combinations of Gruyère and Emmental or Gruyère and Vacherin Fribourgeois.

An expression of communal conviviality, fondue, most commonly eaten in winter, has an etiquette and a lore all its own. It's also like barbecues in America: Men usually do the cooking.

The slender fondue fork is only for dipping into the pot to convey the cheese-coated morsels of bread or potatoes to your plate, where you retrieve them with your regular fork and lift them to your mouth.

A woman who loses her cube of bread in the fondue pot has to kiss all the gentlemen at the table. To avoid this (that is, if you want to), make sure the fondue fork pierces through the crust.

According to the locals, the burnt leavings in the bottom of the fondue pot are considered the choicest part - "la religieuse."

After consuming all this heavy food, you may feel a need to take a hike. One option is to trek up to the Valais's Weisshorn peak (almost 15,000 feet).

For those in less than tiptop mountaineering condition, however, the "Swiss Riviera" along the shores of Lake Geneva - a brief train ride away from the Valais - offers gentler places to wander on foot.

The village of St. Saphorin invites a meander through its crooked, hilly lanes, hidden alleys, and terraced vineyards.

The promenade along Lake Geneva, particularly at Vevey, a little town that figured prominently in Henry James's novel "Daisy Miller," is a lovely place to amble. Lined with venerable hotels and other classical buildings, the boulevard has an Old World feel.

There, locals tend not to disturb the genteel atmosphere with jogging or other huffing-and-puffing exertions. Instead, entire families go out for a stroll, often with the family dog in tow. Swans swim in the harbor, waiting for crumbs. There's a carousel decorated with old-fashioned French and Swiss motifs. On a clear day you can gaze across the lake into France.

You'll pass a statue of Charlie Chaplin, who used to live in the area. Nearby is the Alimentarium, a food museum that is especially good if you're traveling with children. Its interactive exhibits include a giant wheel that you can enter and then run in, pretending you're a hamster in the eternal race to outpace calories consumed. Thankfully, after that, a reasonably priced lunch can be had right at the museum.

For more information, write Switzerland Tourism, Swiss Center, 608 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10020. Phone: 1-877-794-8037. E-mail info.usa@switzerland.com, or see the Swiss tourism website, Myswitzerland.com/us.

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