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Village fetes cows' descent from Swiss Alps

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Photo: Caroline Bishop/The Local
12:15 CEST+02:00
As the cows come down from the mountains, Charmey in the canton of Fribourg throws a festival, like dozens of Swiss villages, to honour the traditions of alpine cheese-making, Caroline Bishop discovers.

You can hear them long before they arrive. The low, rhythmic clang of several dozen cow bells signals the approach of a farmer and his herd on their descent from the high alpine pastures to the valley farms. After 100 days of summer, the cows are going home, and in the village of Charmey, in La Gruyère region, 10,000 people have turned out to watch them come.

This descent – known in French as the désalpe – has been taking place annually all over Switzerland for centuries. Across the country some 12,000 herdsmen – called armaillis in the local patois – and over 100,000 cows spend more than three months in the mountains producing cheese, before returning to their winter farms in autumn.

Click here to view a photo gallery of the cows' descent from the Swiss Alps

The exact number of désalpes is hard to estimate given the different forms they can take. "There are regions where they don't make a big deal about it, they just bring their cows down," says Jörg Beck of the Swiss Society of Alpine Economy (SAV), which helps support and develop alpine industries.

Other regions treat it as a thanksgiving festival celebrating the farmers' cheese-making success over the summer, while some have recognised the event's tourism potential. "In Entlebuch, in central Switzerland, they restarted the désalpe in 2003 and now they get 40,000 people coming," Beck tells The Local.

Charmey's popular festival has been held in its current form for 34 years. In addition to watching ten processions of cows throughout the day, spectators can enjoy an artisan craft market, food stalls and music from alphorn players and cowbell ringers.

Most importantly, it's a showcase for the cheese – mostly Gruyère and Vacherin here – made by the farmers whose cows are parading through the village.

"The désalpe is important for us as it allows people to taste our cheese," says Francine Bourquenoud, a stallholder in the lively market. "It's a big promotion for us."

Some 3,000 tonnes of fromage d'alpage is produced every summer in Switzerland's high alpine pastures (the alpage). There are no modern mechanisms here. The armaillis make the cheese the traditional way, in a large copper vat over an open fire. It takes two hours and 200 litres of milk to make one 20-kilogram round of cheese.

Although comprising just three percent of Switzerland's total annual cheese production, alpine cheese is highly prized due to the quality of the milk.

"The cows only eat grass and alpine herbs, and that gives the milk a special taste and quality," SAV’s Beck says. "It is scientifically proven that alpine milk has more omega 3 and 6 fat acid than normal milk."

But it's not just to improve the milk quality that the farmers take their cows to the alpage for the summer.

"It's important for the farmer. When the cows are up in the mountains, he can harvest food in the valley region and conserve it for winter time. It allows him to have more cows because he can stretch the food base."

The cows benefit too. "They get fit, it boosts their immune system and their whole body condition," Beck says.

One armailli who is parading his 80 cows through Charmey is Gérard Biland. He and his herdsmen have been living in the alpage since May 15th and have made 12,000 kilograms of cheese over the season.

"It's hard but it gives me a lot of pleasure nevertheless," Biland tells The Local. "I can't imagine doing a desk job."

He has been up since 3am preparing his cows for the désalpe: washing them, cleaning their cowbells and decorating the 'lead' cows with floral headdresses."Cows are a bit like people: some are dominant, some are timid. The cows that are dominant, they walk in front and wear a fir tree branch and flowers on their heads."

The armaillis walk alongside, one carrying on his head the oji, the wooden mould containing the final round of alpine cheese. Biland and his wife bring up the rear in a horse-drawn cart containing the copper vat and cheese press. They are heading for their winter farm at Farvagny.

Like all the armaillis, Biland wears the traditional dress of La Gruyère region: a bredzon, a blue jacket with puffed sleeves and an embroidered Edelweiss; and a loyis, a leather satchel in which the farmers keep salt, an essential ingredient in cheese-making. The women wear a dzaquillon, a dress with a coloured apron.

Costumes vary regionally. This one is thought to have originated in the mid-19th century, when it was worn by working farmers. It was popularized in the 20th century when it was adopted as Sunday wear by the middle classes.

"Farmers are very proud,” says Beck, of the society of Alpine economy. "They don't wear this just for the désalpe but for meetings or social events. It's like their Sunday best."

And it's not just the armaillis who wear it. "I'm not a cheese-maker, but I'm wearing this for the festival," spectator Frédéric Tornare informs The Local. "In the region lots of people wear this bredzon for traditional events."

"It's a common interest of society to maintain these traditions," says Beck. 

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