Cows, and cheese making, remain an intrinsic part of Swiss life. All sorts of customs are bound up with them. Ceremonies are held in many parts of Switzerland, particularly in Cantons Valais, Appenzell and Fribourg, when the cows are taken up to the alpine pastures for the summer. In the French speaking area this is known as the poya or inalpe. Cows are decked out with flowers entwined in their horns before they make the ascent.
Many farms in the Gruyère region of Canton Fribourg are decorated with pictures of cows in procession. In Canton Valais the cows are led by the strongest cow, the “queen.” Cows of the local Hérens breed have a particularly strong sense of hierarchy and battle spontaneously between themselves to determine which will lead the herd and get the best grass. Organised cow fights are also held at local and cantonal level, attracting thousands of visitors.
Taking the cows up to the summer pasture is a time-honoured custom. A dairyman – Senn in German, armailli in French – and his helper looks after the cattle of several different owners, who stay in the valley to tend their crops. The Senn shares his hut with the cows, and it is his task to take them to pasture and milk them twice a day, and to make the milk into cheese. The cattle do not necessarily stay in the same place throughout the summer, but move up to higher pastures as the season progresses. (The “Mayens” which occurs as part of many place names in the French-speaking part of Canton Valais were the first spring pastures – although the herdsmen’s chalets have nowadays often been converted for holiday homes.) Once they have grazed the highest meadow they come down the same way, since the grass has grown back in the previous pastures. At around the end of September it is time to go back down the valley.
The work up in the Alps is long and hard – and poorly paid. Fourteen hours a day for four months, with practically no time off, for between 70 and 150 francs a day, depending on skill, which even for the best paid works out at about 75% of the average Swiss salary. Yet the dream of sun and freedom and pure mountain air has a powerful attraction for many city dwellers, and every year lawyers, doctors, teachers, artists and waiters can all be found looking after the cows. They include women as well as men – another break with tradition. All have to take a qualification first, and must spend at least one season as a helper before being allowed to go up alone. Many do not stay the course: dream and reality are often rather far apart, but most do, and today only about half the dairymen and herdsmen come from a farm background.
Dividing the cheese
A custom which marks the end of the summer pasture season in Canton Bern is the division of cheeses, or “Chästeilet”. The best known takes place in the Justistal, high above Lake Thun. At the end of September, all the cheeses produced over the summer are divided between the owners of the cows according to the amount of milk each produced.
For the division, the wheels of cheese are piled into towers. Not every wheel will be of the same quality, so to ensure scrupulous fairness, the cheeses are allocated by lot. The farmers write their names and entitlement on pieces of wood, which are pulled out of a hat.
Many people associate yodelling with herdsmen up in the Alps, but another less well known piece of musical folklore is the calling song, the Ranz des Vaches, which occurs in numerous regional variations. The best known is the Gruyère version, which is regarded by some as a kind of unofficial anthem of the French speaking part of Switzerland. So evocative was it, that Swiss mercenaries serving in the French king’s royal guard before the revolution were forbidden to sing it, because it made them homesick and even encouraged them to desert.