Transhumance in the Swiss Alps

While hiking in the Jungfrau region of Switzerland, the contrast of craggy mountains and soft wildflowers was something I could never adjust to. Rounding a corner onto a new vista repeatedly left me speechless to the raw, natural beauty. Gushing waterfalls, lush meadows, whispering forests, and sharp reliefs of rock and stone. All this contrast hiding in two valleys. For me, it defines the landscape of the Swiss alps in summer. 

Up past the tree line, the world is at first a soft grassy green, and then turns sharp, edgy and grey. While standing in the meadows, it’s easy to get lost in the expanse when there is so much right under your feet. Peek a little closer at the green and you’ll see that it is full of animals and summer blooms. Look up a little and dotted around are clusters of slowly-moving, grazing cows—tails swooshing back and forth, bells chiming. They too are enjoying the wildflowers.

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These vast high Alpine meadows—or alpages—come alive in summer, filling with wild grasses, herbs, flowers and brush. At the same time, herds of cows and their caretakers enter the high Alpine region. Every year for 3 to 4 months, alpine herders and their cows follow the slow retreat of the snow line up into the mountains. As they gain elevation, the air is clearer, the streams filled with fresh water, and the meadows rich with new grasses. It is heaven for all the cows who escape the winter isolation of their barns to roam freely in the sunshine. This process of moving beast and man up the mountain is called transhumance and has been practiced for thousands of years, conceivably ever since man domesticated ruminant animals. 

Why transhumance?

Consider the high alpine meadow. Above the tree line and closer to the sun, the intensity of the sunlight increases. The alpine plants that grow under such increased sunlight produce more energy. When consumed by a ruminant animal like a cow, it results in higher levels of protein and fat in the milk. 

In the same way, cows grazing at this higher elevation require more energy. These cows produce less but higher quality milk compared to a cow milked in the valley. If a cow produces milk with 15 to 30 percent more fat, the cheese will be richer and more flavorful. For any farmer and cheesemaker, a more flavorful cheese is a clear winner on the market. In the search for better milk and better cheese, transhumance developed into a tradition that has survived centuries.

Meadows and Flavor

In the winter months, the high alpine meadows often serve as ski slopes. Cows grazing through the summer provide a valuable service of maintaining and “mowing” the steep slopes. While the herds are up in the mountains, farmers can use the valley fields to make hay for winter. 

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A herd of cows can even change the makeup of an alpine meadow by preferring different grasses and flowers over others. Over time, different regions develop different compositions in the meadows. If the cows are eating certain grasses, herbs, or wildflowers in one area and not in another—as close as the other side of the mountain—the flavor of the cheese is affected. 

What the cows eat shows up in their milk and the cheese. The summer fauna is full of essential oils. When consumed “en masse” like a cow does, grassy characteristics show up in the milk and cheese. Those “herbal” or “grassy” notes (as often declared) make it more complex and flavorful. This why winter cheeses are whiter and softer in flavor, while summer cheeses are robust and herbal, showing shades of yellow and hay. (I’ll tell you more about the cheeses we tasted and the alpkäserei we visited in the next post.)

For now, I’ll simply remember the beautiful days spent hiking through the alpine meadows. Each time we turned a corner, I marveled at the journey the cows take every year. Slowly up to bountiful fields full of flavor and sunshine, and slowly down after they successfully clear it all away.

Around each corner, we weaved past the herds of cows and I would always be caught singing, “There were bells in the air, but I never heard them ringing…”

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