MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Next up on The World and Everything in It: One famous cheese brand features a grinning cow. But in Switzerland, cows and cheese are no laughing matter. They’re serious business!
NICK EICHER, HOST: Every fall, ten thousand tourists usually arrive in the village of Charmey for the parade of cows. Like so many other things this year, the public celebration was cancelled. But, the cows still needed to come home.
WORLD correspondent Jenny Lind Schmitt was there and brings us this story.
MUSIC: [ALPHORN ENSEMBLE]
JENNY LIND SCHMITT, CORRESPONDENT: The first snow fell this morning on the high mountain pastures above Charmey. Winter is on its way to the region of Gruyère, and it’s time for the Désalpe, the annual Swiss festival of the descent of the cows.
Every spring Swiss farmers take their herds of milk cows up to communal grazing land on the mountainsides of the Alps. The word for those pastures in both French and German is, in fact, “alp”—and it’s believed that those pastures gave the mountain range its name.
Farming families spend the summer months on the alp in rustic chalets. They care for their animals and make creamy Gruyere and Vacherin cheeses from their milk. Then, after four months of grazing on lush grass and herbs, it’s time to bring the cows back down to the valley for the winter.
Over generations, the descent became an elaborate celebration of heritage and tradition.
ANDREY: [SPEAKING TO DESALPE ATTENDEES IN FRENCH]
Pascal Andrey is the event’s official announcer. He explains traditions to visitors and tells about the herds passing by. This is his 40th Desalpe. His face is lined and reddened from living outdoors. He wears the traditional costume of alpine shepherds: sky-blue button down shirt, and a gray jacket embroidered with edelweiss, the white star-shaped flowers that only grow above 6,000 feet.
This year, instead of several thousand people lining the road to watch, there are just a couple hundred. So Andrey describes the festivities for a live broadcast for Swiss at home.
ANDREY: Le jour de désalpe c’est surtout la fête des armaillis, les gens des montagnes, et puis le retour à la ferme en plaine, après 4 mois passés sur un alpage. C’est un jour de fête, un jour de plaisir, on retourne, on reprend la vie normale, avec un peu plus de confort, c’est particulier… C’est la récompense de toute une saison de beaucoup de travail.
TRANSLATION: The Desalpe is most of all the celebration of the armaillis, the mountain cowherds and shepherds. It’s also the return to the farm in the valley, after four months on the Alp. It’s a day of joy and satisfaction. You’re returning home to normal life, with a little more comfort. It’s special. And it’s also the reward for a long season of hard work.
It may be a celebration for the shepherds, but the cows are the stars of the show. The farmers wake before dawn to pressure wash each of the twelve hundred pound animals.
Then they decorate them. Each bovine gets an elaborate headdress, made of pine branches, ferns, berries, and colorful flowers. Some of the best milk cows have crowns 2 feet high!
AUDIO: [CHOIR AND PARADE]
Each one wears a cowbell. Bells were originally used to help farmers find animals over huge areas of mountainous terrain. Now, in the days of GPS markers and helicopters, most farmers keep small cowbells on their herd for the sake of tradition.
But these enormous bells are for special occasions. Many have been passed down for generations. The largest weigh over 12 pounds and have a year embroidered on the yoke—marking occasions like weddings, anniversaries or an especially good milk year. The oldest and best milkers get the biggest bells and lead the way.
It’s only 10 in the morning, but the herds have already made the 7 mile descent from the pasture. As they enter the village, the road climbs. Andrey says it’s intentional so that the cows’ effort makes the bells ring louder. As they pass, you can hear the difference in the bell sizes in the way they ring.
First come the big bells.
AUDIO: [BIG BELLS]
Then the middle sized.
AUDIO: [MEDIUM BELLS]
Then the small bells.
AUDIO: [SMALL BELLS]
And last of all, tiny bells on the goats.
Farmers dressed in traditional garb walk with their herds, whooping them onward. One gives a cow a prod with his wooden staff when she gets too curious about a spectator and wanders off the road.
AUDIO: [SMALL BELLS, MOO]
A toddler rides on his father’s shoulders. A group of adolescent shepherd boys and girls also walk dressed in traditional costume, practicing their cow calls—a look of collective pride on their faces. Finally, a horse-drawn wagon filled with traditional cheesemaking gear and the smallest family members brings up the rear.
ANDREY: [DESCRIBING BREEDS IN FRENCH]
Pascal Andrey knows each of the families and their herds by name. As they walk by he points out traits of various breeds.
In his own chalet, Andrey produced over 12,000 pounds of cheese this year. He says he’s fairly sure he could recognize his farm’s cheese among others by taste alone.
AUDIO: [ALPHORN MUSIC]
Near the parade route, an Alphorn ensemble begins to play. The wooden horns stretch 12 feet from each player’s mouth to where the instrument’s opening rests on the grass.
It would all seem touristic, except that this year, the crowds aren’t here. Along the parade route are mostly locals, who say they came out to support the farmers in this strange year. This man says it’s important to remember the region’s identity.
ATTENDEE: Pour soutenir toutes ses traditions. C’est traditions c’est nous. On est né là-dedans, on est avancé là-dedans, c’est ce qui nous fait grandir.
TRANSLATION: I came to support all these traditions. These traditions are us. We’re born into them, we’re formed by them. They’re our upbringing.
Andrey is optimistic events like this will continue as young people return to farming, and society moves to support local agriculture. That attracts visitors to the Desalpe. Even though some farming methods have changed and the traditional costumes are just for today, people know that the work being celebrated is real.
ANDREY: …on est dans le vrai de vrai.
Reporting for WORLD, I’m Jenny Lind Schmitt in Charmey, Switzerland.