The cows go marching one by one, hurrah, hurrah! This song is guaranteed to permeate through your brain if you’re lucky enough to visit the Désalpe Festival in Charmey, Switzerland. Guest contributor, Angela Hawn from Ramblings of a Menopausal Mom Abroad had the pleasure of visiting Switzerland’s beautiful Gruyère region in time for the festival and let’s just say she was very moooved by the fun event.
Celebrating a cow homecoming at the Désalpe Festival
What better way to wile away a few hours on a sunny September morning in Switzerland’s Gruyère region than with a cow parade? Once the mercury begins to dip into the low fifties at night and the late summer sun slides towards the horizon shortly after dinner, it’s time for the cows to come home. And by home, I mean some grazing spots a little closer to civilization. When winter arrives, no cow in its right mind wants to be left stranded on the snow-covered slopes of Gruyère’s pre-alps. And, as long as it’s a cow homecoming of sorts, why not dress up and make some noise ? In fact, let’s make a party out of it and call it Désalpe!
Most Swiss living in this lovely cheese-making mecca have witnessed Désalpe at least once in their lives and if you’re really lucky, one of them might even invite you to his farm just above Charmey to watch pre-parade preparations over coffee and fresh-baked croissants. He might even offer some advice on where to park and how soon to seek out said parking spot. No driver wants to be touring the area’s narrow, winding roads, desperately looking for a place to pull over once the cows begin their descent!
To the delight of everyone in our little group, especially those with a fondness for animals of all sorts, we lucked into just such an invitation during a friendly conversation at the local pub. Gerard Bilan, cow-breeder, restaurateur and cheese-maker extraordinaire, suggested we drive up to his chalet in the mountains and get an up close and personal introduction. He even insisted we show up to do some reconnaissance a few evenings prior. That way we’d know exactly where to head Saturday morning, meet some of the livestock and heck, as long as we’re there, why not stay for some fondue?
Anne, Gerard’s wife, is rumored to be an artist in the kitchen. And everyone knows Gerard is a whiz with curds and whey. How could we say no?
Planning ahead for the Désalpe
On the Wednesday before Désalpe, four of us made the trip to Gerard’s place. Nestled in a slender valley amongst a few snow-capped peaks, Gerard’s farm also hosts the popular restaurant Buvette des Invuettes. Popular with both locals and tourists seeking something a little off the beaten path, the restaurant was full even on a Wednesday night. We thanked our lucky stars (and Gerard) for securing us spots at a traditional long wooden table. Our seat mates for the evening would be Gerard himself, as well as two of his friends, both partners in the cow-breeding industry.
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But before we sat down to dine, it was time for a tour of the farm. Gerard happily escorted us around back where the cows would be brushed and outfitted for the big event Saturday morning. Indicating a trough filled with corn feed, Gerard explained the significance of this regular pre-désalpe bovine treat. If the cows indulge in enough of the stuff, it helps prevent runny bowel movements during the march through town.
Made sense to us. One of our party (yours truly) had foolishly opted to wear open-toed sandals for the farm tour. Not the wisest footwear choice for dodging cow patties!
While mountains conjured up a Heidi-esque backdrop, we met some of Gerard’s herd. The farm has both black and white Holsteins and lovely brown Jerseys and knowledgeable Gerard happily pointed out the differences between the the two with regards to milk production. While both yield an amazing amount of milk, Jersey milk generally contains more butterfat. No wonder Swiss chocolate and cheese reign supreme!
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An excuse to sample the Swiss region’s delicacies
And speaking of cheese, Gerard insisted we head in shortly for fondue. What kind of fondue do we like, he asked, and when we claimed not to know enough about fondue to choose, he genially made the decision for us. Always the generous host, Gerard insisted we try both the traditional style as well as one flavoured with truffle oil. Both rely heavily on a perfect mixture of specialty regional cheeses: creamy, melt-in-your–mouth Vacherin and the harder, slightly saltier Gruyere.
Whirling our bread-studded fondue forks around each pot, we took care not to lose a single morsel. No one wanted to have to buy a bottle for the table, the penalty for watching one’s bread disappear into the gooey, cheesy mixture, even if it’s another round of the fine, light Swiss rosé with which we’d been toasting each other!
Post-dessert, housemade vanilla ice cream with a dash of Grand Marnier on top, we offered to help cart in some of the decorations Gerard’s friends had brought for Désalpe. Each cow must wear a bell and, in this case, size matters. Some of these bells are downright enormous, practically the size of a cow’s head. The bigger the bell, the lower the tone, explained Gerard, and for Désalpe, the farmers aim to create a symphony of different notes. Some weigh as much as 30 pounds, noted Gerard before reassuring the animals lovers in the crowd the cows only wear such onerous finery on special occasions.
Before we left, Gerard offered us each a kitten from the latest barn litter. And though everyone loves cats, we all gave a firm non merci! See you Saturday, we called, and started making our own descent down from the alps.
On the day of the cow parade
And we did eventually see Gerard again on Saturday, though he didn’t really see us. When we arrived at the farm, he was busily putting hats and ornate flower headresses on freshly groomed cattle. Helpers in traditional costume ran around herding cows. The boys and young men wore knickers or dark trousers with matching vests; the girls and young women, long woolen stockings with embroidered smock-style dresses over pretty white blouses. In fact, embroidery was everywhere, even on some of the elaborate leather bell straps for the cows.
Fearing parking spots might be reaching a premium, we only hung out for an hour or so, taking the morning chill off by cupping hands around ceramic mugs full of piping hot coffee. Then it was time to hit the road for Charmey and see some of the sights.
Since the first cows wouldn’t show for a while, we decided to check out all of the other Désalpe activities on offer. A few us tried our hand at playing the alpenhorn while souvenir seekers explored the vendors’ booths, examining everything from traditional wooden bowls designed to hold delicious Swiss double cream to gorgeous hand-made lace and, of course, decorative cowbells. Everyone sampled a number of fresh, local cheeses on offer before submitting votes for best-tasting. Various choral groups in traditional dress strolled about the square, stopping frequently to serenade festival goers and lend some music to the party atmosphere.
But when faraway bells started to jingle, everyone quickly abandoned everything else. Even the beer drinkers and fondue eaters got up. Désalpe watchers in the know started to jostle (politely—it is Switzerland, after all !) for position. Everyone was seeking the perfect spot curbside to take in the big show. A cow parade was happening and no one wanted to miss it!
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