Take a tour of the Alps’ finest cheesemaking regions
Switzerland delivers eye-popping beauty whenever you visit, but in summertime, the high mountain meadows roll out a welcoming carpet of lush green grass popping with colorful wildflowers. The Alps’ irresistible allure dazzles even the locals. On any given day, you’ll find families, couples both young and old, groups of friends as well as solo hikers enjoying the trails, the scenic lakes, a picnic or a bike ride in their mountainous backyard. And what will you always find in their picnic basket? Cheese, of course!
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You’ll also discover some of Switzerland’s most popular locals roaming about the Alps; they are easily recognized by the musical jingle their bells make as they munch their way across the grassy buffet before them. Swiss dairy cows adorned in leather collars draped with bells make themselves heard on any foraging excursion. So it’s not too difficult to spot or hear one while exploring the Alps, as herds start to graze in early summer, making their way from the low to the middle and eventually the high Alps by the end of summer.
Look up at the high, grassy meadows that seemingly cling to the sides of the Alps and you may spot dairy cows close to the peaks. Their ability to amble around steep terrain is surprising; consider them the ‘mountaineers’ of cattle. Not that you would expect to see the cows on a gym climbing wall anytime soon, but their abilities might even amaze the likes of super hero Spiderman.
Nourished by high alpine fields all summer, these bovine citizens of Switzerland produce the legendary milk used to make all kinds of Swiss cheeses. According to the Bern-based Switzerland Cheese Marketing organization, the land-locked country produces more than 450 types of cheeses. On average, it takes 1 gallon of milk to make 1 pound of cheese. You might think that all the fresh milk produced goes to making cheese, but only half is used for production. Even so, cheese is “King” or more appropriately “Queen” in Switzerland, where a prized dairy cow is quite the celebrity in some mountain villages.
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Cheesemaking and its alpine environment, including the cows, are deeply connected to the fabric and lifestyle of the Swiss. It’s even believed that pastures above tree lines were being farmed thousands of years ago, when cheesemaking in the Alps during the summer offered a way of preserving milk and storing it for the winter months, adding to the villagers’ food supply. Making use of the alpine pastures above tree lines for grazing allowed the lower village grasslands to revive during summer. These traditions continue today.
Herdsmen walk the cows up to the alpine pastures at the beginning of summer, drawing crowds of appreciative onlookers as they make their ascent. Over the years, the tradition has been celebrated in a number of festive ways by the townspeople. In the Cantons of Appenzell, Valais and Fribourg, there are pageants, parades, events and even contests that stem from this tradition. Head to the small villages in the Canton of Valais and you might even see the “Queen” leading the herd. She wins the title amongst the breed of local Hérens as the strongest cow. This type of breed follows an order of hierarchy, often battling amongst themselves to determine which one will become queen and lead the herd to the best grass. The dairy cows sashay down the main street adorned with fresh flowers circling their horns. The tinkle and jingle of their bells serenade the crowds as they parade through the village. Herdsmen wear traditional Swiss clothing representing their area, adding more festive elements to the annual event.
A summer visit to the Swiss Alps isn’t complete without hiking or biking along a trail to a mountain dairy hut, where you may have a chance to taste cheese and visit with the farmer. You’ll see first-hand the cows in the pastures nibbling on the fresh herbs, wildflowers and grasses that make their milk so flavorful and the cheeses so delicious. Aromatic Swiss Alpine cheese is only made in the summer months at nearby alpine dairy farms. Alp Cheese is considered very special; most of it never leaves the country, as the Swiss enjoy it so much. Each summer, individual regions produce cheese rich with the aromatic flavors of the unique mountain environment. While dining out in the villages or cities, try ordering a few local dishes in restaurants using Alp Cheese, such as mountain farmer’s cheese and hörnli pasta (similar to macaroni and cheese), crispy cheese and pear slices or a specialty dish of Capuns, a baked rolled chard leaf stuffed with sausage, vegetables and lots of tasty Alp cheese. CC
Cheesy Swiss Summertime Excursions
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E-bike the Cheese Route of Emmental
Two easy self-guided tours are available through an app accessed online. You can use your own smartphone or rent one from the tourist office in Burgdorf. A map is included with your current location with a GPS function that details points of interest along the route. A short version of the route is about 22 miles and the long tour is about 50 miles, which can be broken up into a two-day e-bike tour. The route takes cyclists through the rolling hills of Emmental farmland, the Burgdorf castle, the Jeremias Gotthelf museum in Lützelflüh and the Emmental Show Cheese Dairy in Affoltern. E-Flyer Rental Bike locations are convenient for those wishing to rent an e-bike for the Cheese Route either in Burgdorf or at the Show Dairy in Alffotern.
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Take A Fondue Hike
Hike to a mountain tabletop dining spot with a backpack full of fondue ingredients. Pick up the pack at the Schönrieder dairy and the adventure begins along the scenic panoramic trail. You have your choice of trails to reach a final dining destination of either an open-air wooden table that resembles a fondue pot or head to a hut to prepare the meal stored in the pack of fondue mix from Molkerei Schönried, crusty fondue bread, spices, a fondue pot, a portable stove with lighter gel, plates and forks. Order the fondue backpack the day before from a list of dairies or order the fondue backpack from the Mountain Lodge Wispily and take the cable car. There are two fondue open air dining huts large enough for up to eight people.
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Be A Farmer For The Day
Small farmers, Daniel & Claudia Tschannen, offer a chance for people seeking a real farm experience to spend a family holiday at their farm in Thurgau.
Children and parents can tend the fields and help with the chores like feeding the cows and grooming the horses. Families get lots of fresh air when spending a few days at the farm that overlooks Lake Constance. Stay overnight in the barn on thick, cushy piles of hay and enjoy a fresh farm-style breakfast each morning. There are a number of Farm Sleep Over experiences in Switzerland to suit most desires. These unique programs offer a great way to connect with the locals.
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Walk The Cheese Dairy Path
The medieval walled city of Gruyère enchants visitors with its storybook castle setting. You’ll be tempted to just stay in the city and dine on fondue and eat chocolate all day, but do get out for a wonderful walk along paths leading from dairy to dairy. There are two Cheese Dairy Paths to choose from, either “Les Reybes” or “la Provêta.” The starting point is either the Maison du Gruyère in Pringy where your destination will be the high pasture cheese dairy of Moléson-sur-Gruyères or you can opt to start at Moléson instead. You’ll wander along forests and green pastures near herds of cows and alpine chalets with their shingle roofs between Pringy and Moléson-Village. Gruyère AOP and the Vacherin Fribourgeois AOP cheeses are produced in this area. The easy walks are two hours and worth every minute. Ask for a route map at either dairy.
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Make Alp Cheese
Within the heartland of Appenzell, cheese lovers have a rare opportunity to visit a historic alpine hut where handcrafted cheese is made. The historic hut, known as the Appenzeller Folklore Museum in Stein, is where traditional Mutschli cheese is handmade in a cauldron over a wood-fire stove. Guided and non-guided tours are offered that include methods of cheesemaking, such as stirring, and tasting the curds and whey. After the cheese is in its moulds, you can create your own cheese label. Maturation of the cheese takes about eight weeks, when the “Mutschli” is ready, it can be mailed to you.
To discover more about some of the more well-known Swiss cheeses like Emmental, Raclette or Gruyère, try visiting a Swiss Show Dairy.
What Is A Show Dairy?
A Swiss Show Dairy offers the public an opportunity to see how some of the most recognized cheeses are made in Switzerland. These facilities display a behind-the-scenes tour of authentic cheese production, where you’ll learn how cheese is made, cured and cared for at each stage. A Show Dairy offers programs and events to bring a greater understanding of how the area influences the culture of cheesemaking. These include active and educational excursions to showcase the alpine environment. Some are culinary demonstrations and special entertainment ranging from a ride in a carriage, making your own cheese, trying out an electric bike along rolling hills or going for a hike in the Alps where dairy cows make their home for the summer. Visiting a Swiss Show Dairy is an excellent introduction for visitors to start their cheese-tasting holiday in the Swiss Alps. Some offer restaurants and shops, too.
Interested In Visiting A Show Dairy? Here’s A List To Consider.
Emmentaler Show Dairy
Located in the Canton of Bern in West Central Switzerland
Appenzeller Show Dairy
Located in the Canton of Appenzell in Northeastern Switzerland
Le Gruyère AOP Show Dairy
La Maison du Gruyère
Fromagerie Les Martel
Located in the Cantons of Fribourg, Neauchatel and Vaud in Western Switzerland
Show Dairy Monastery Engelberg
Located in the Canton of Obwalden in the Center of Switzerland
Historic Dairy of Bellelay
Located in the Canton of Bern in the Jura Mountains of West Central Switzerland