Saturday, March 6, 2010

Frog's Eyes and Cows

It's snowing today. In fact, the roads are now closed to anyone without chains on their tires. The radio just announced that there have been more than 100 accidents on the road during the last two hours and all schools are closed. We have a set of chains in the trunk, but Vreni and I have no plans to go anywhere. We have plenty of great wine, several delicious chunks of local cheese and stacks of wood for the fireplace. What could possibly be the problem?

Thursday night, after driving across Switzerland from her house in Reinach, we landed in Arosa, a winter dream. We haven't had a truly clear day so I'm not able to see the tops of the mountains but what I can see is incredible. There is something about loads of snow and the mountains that actually makes me feel warm! 

Yesterday we hiked through the Alps for most of the day. The interesting thing about this area is hikers have as much priority as skiiers and anything you can see on skiis, you can see on foot. The hike up was a little rough. It takes a couple of days to get used to the altitude but Vreni was kind to me and didn't try to kick my butt. Around noon we descended into a valley dotted with a few chalets, a hotel and our destination, a small fromagerie (cheese shop/factory) called Sennerei Maran.

There are many small dairy farmers in the mountains surrounding Arosa. Between all of them, they own around 400 cows that together produce more than 400,000 kilos of milk each season. Vreni tells me the cows here have priority and wander free all summer. It's not unusual to find them helping themselves to your garden and of course, leaving behind the remnants of their lunch. 

Each evening the hirts, (which are basically cow shepards) and their dogs round up their charges (and yes, the cows really wear those big bells around their necks) and milk them at a few milking stations located high in the mountains. This is done with a basic milking machine but the device also registers which cow is being milked, who it belongs to, and how much milk it has produced that day. The milk then flows directly from the machine to a pipeline that carrys it down the mountain, all the way to this little cheese factory. Yep, the Alaskan pipeline of Switzerland, gushing another form of liquid gold!

There, the two cheesemakers transform the milk into cheese of all kinds as well as yogurt and quark, which is a type of creme fraiche or sourcream. They bottle milk, buttermilk and Molke which is an interesting drink made from the liquid that drips off the draining cheese and is most often thrown away. (sounds horrible but it's not so bad).

This little fromagerie sells these products as well and we stopped for a lunch of cheese, yogurt, and bread and watched the cheesemaker mix his tiny batch of yogurt (he used a paint mixer attachement on his electric drill!) in 3 buckets on the floor, and carefully fill a few containers with his delicious yogurt.

At the end of the season, perhaps late August or early September, a festival is held at the fromagerie (now really, when isn't there an excuse for a festival?) and all the farmers come down from the mountains to collect their cheese. This traditional festival, called Chästeilet or The Sharing of the Cheese brings people from the area eager to join in on the fun. Tables are piled with 10-15 kilo rounds of cheese and, of course ,there are all the things that are festival essentials…traditional music, beer, sunshine and dancing.

I don't know why but I find this story so charming,but I do. Maybe it’s because I’m from farm country. And I think it's ingenious. It's not easy for small farmers anywhere and these folks have figured out a way to make it work in an environment that is against them.

As an aside, Vreni and I are doing great with the language. Most of the time I know what she's talking about and she struggles to understand what I'm getting at (and helps me) and that seems to work. However, when I first arrived, we were talking about spring and she was excitedly telling me how the frogs just left a bunch of eyes in the pond. Of course, this made no sense to me and we never did arrive at the real meaning. Until she showed me. Ah eggs....not eyes! But I think they actually look like eyes, don't you?

It's spring back home in Aix and in Reinach but here in Arosa, we're warming up our ski boots for a day on the slopes.


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