Before there were roads

Mon, 10. Sep. 2018

Getting the cows up to the alps to make cheese isn’t easy. Fifty years ago, it was unbelievably challenging.

Midway up the Sunnigi Louwene, the ‘sunny’ flank of the Lauenenhorn to the northeast of Lauenen, lies the fragment of a dirt track in the midst of a farmer’s field, detached from any paved road. Two muddy ruts a wagon axle’s-width apart extend for a distance of about sixty meters. This otherwise nondescript slash in the grassy slope is a remnant of the old Torweg, or ‘horse wagon track’ that once provided access to the farms that dot the hillside. And since the current paved road has only been around since the early 1970s, memories of the effort required for travel up to the high alp pastures or down into town are still pretty fresh among the area’s more seasoned residents.

Alpine transhumance, or the seasonal movement of grazing livestock between valleys in the winter and high mountain pastures in the summer, has been practiced in the Saanenland for at least a millennium, and perhaps for several. Anyone with more than a casual acquaintance with the Gstaad area will likely have seen the Züglete, the twice-yearly sashay of bovines in flowered headdresses down the Promenade, escorted by their traditionally-costumed family minders, who reprise the age-old ritual of relocating the cows from the sweet, floral grass that gives Alpkäse its distinctive flavor to the warm wood stalls of their winter lager.

But today this mostly occurs on paved roads, the same ones that the farmers utilize to bring trailers full of milk down daily in metal cans to the local Molkerei, a journey that might take an hour round-trip.

Fifty years ago, in Lauenen, that asphalt strip was a wagon track where the land was steep, and little better than a footpath elsewhere. Farmers had to prioritize their travel according to their distance from town and what conveyance was available. Often milk was brought down by horse wagon, or, for the fortunate, by an Einachs-
schlepper, a two-wheel tractor where the driver steers the pulling-engine motorcycle-style from a seat on the trailer. Needless to say, transit times were considerably longer. Farmers were forced to make concessions to their agricultural output that are no longer practiced today.

Back then, cheese was made on the alp as it is today, but it had to be stored there in a cellar until it could be brought down, often on frame backpacks. In winter, most of the milk was separated by centrifuge into cream, which meant less weight on the sled down to the cream collection depot in town. The remaining milk skimmed from the creaming process would be fed to pigs and calves. Cream could also be churned into butter, which lasted longer.

Grass, the driving component of milk and cheese production, was also handled differently. Instead of today’s rapid transport by helicopter or truck as soon as it is cut, dried and baled, in the old days it had to be stored with care onsite in barns (if poorly dried, grass can ferment and self-ignite under the right conditions). High alpine summer grass would be stored over winter, and brought down when needed on Horeschlitte, which were skeletal sleds with high-curved runners that were lowered on ropes through steep, vertical cuts in the forests and steered by courageous drivers. Naturally, it was extremely dangerous.

So, the next time you pop into the local Molkerei for some butter, milk or cheese, give a thought to the local farmers, who still put in a lot of hard work today.

Alex Bertea

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