Monday, October 8, 2012

Le désalpe

It’s that time of year... (that is, if you live in northern hemisphere temperate latitudes) 
     ...when the days get shorter,
    ...the leaves start to change color, can eat lots of pumpkin and squash,
    ...and the COWS come down from their mountain pastures!!

Ok, this last one happens mostly in the alps (where I’m currently hiding out), and here it’s celebrated with style.  The cows are decorated with flower headdresses and pine boughs and the goats wear leis of crepe paper flowers.  My Geneva-based friends arranged to check out the désalpe at Charmey (in the Swiss mountains between Montreux and Fribourg) the last weekend of September.  On the main street through town, an announcer called out each troupe as it passed by the keen crowds, highlighting the number of stock, the owners’ history in the region, their pasture and (for all of the groups) how their health and the quality of their pasture helps them produce such flavorful milk.  Some of the groups has been walking for hours before arriving in Charmey and occasionally were running slightly behind schedule.  A steady rain kept the crowds to a minimum but the atmosphere remained festive.  Alpenhorn players performed, as did a brass band and a group of teenagers walking with cacophonous cowbells.

Parading though Charmey

Throughout the town, there were handicraft and kitsch sellers and food stands offering sausages, local ham sandwiches, chalet soup ladled from huge cauldrons, raclette, and plenty of drinks.  The dessert on offer was merangues in heavy cream.  Most importantly, there were also quite a few local cheese vendors.  We picked up some gruyère d’alpage, tomme de chèvre d’alpage, and a fresh goat cheese.  The “alpage” cheeses are made with the milk that the goats and cows produce when they are in the summer highland pastures.  The quality of the grass makes these cheeses particularly perfumed and different tasting (even though it comes from the same animals) as compared to the milk produced when they are in lowland barns during the winter.

Soupe du chalet

After the festivities in Charmey, we stopped in the lovely medieval town of Gruyères.  The town buildings were picturesque and views out over the valley below were cloudy and misty, but usually you can see the surrounding mountains of the Gruyères region.  The désalpe (or démontagnée in France) festivities stretch over a couple of weeks around the beginning of autumn depending on the town.  Other festivals we read about this past weekend included ones dedicated to apple cider, donkeys, and cows sparring for troupe supremacy, so there’s plenty to explore even once the cows have come home.

View from Gruyères castle

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