Transhumance is the term that describes the movement of shepherds and their livestock between seasonal pastures. The cheese we brought in for our March cheese club- Schlossberger- is made in Switzerland where there transhumance is still an active part of agricultural practices. Just to give you a sense for how embedded in the culture this practice is- the photo above shows toys in a toy store…totally awesome, right?
Although the production of Schlossberger (a farmstead Gruyere) does not specifically involve transhumance, it represents a style of cheese that evolved from the practice of transhumance.
In my search for things I’d written about transhumance in the past, I stumbled up on a little paragraph about a specific Gruyere I’d sent to the chef at a restaurant in NYC where I helped select cheeses for their cheese program- I think it sums things up nicely. I didn’t edit this at all- you can see that my enthusiasm for cheese has not changed a lick since 2008 when this was sent.
Gruyere Alpage: raw cow’s milk, Switzerland
I know, you’re thinking Gruyere- how pedestrian does it get- but as with all of the grandfathers of mountain cheeses (comte, beaufort, emmenthaler) there is gruyere and then there is GRUYERE. this is the latter. The word Alpage tells us that this is cheese made only with milk collected during the warmer weather months when the cows are grazing on mountain pastures. This is a traditional method of pasturing cows in Switzerland because there is a limited growing season down in the lush green valleys- the dairy farmers needed to put up all hay and forage that grew in warmer months to sustain their animals through the winter- so a handful of men would volunteer to take the cows up into the alps where they graze on open mountain pastures with a wide variety of wildflowers and grasses- I swear you do definitely taste the difference. In fact- you could have the staff taste the alpage against the center cut Gruyere blocks we get for sandwiches, etc. Often the cheeses produced up in the mountains were larger format wheels because this made them easier to transport (less fragile) and also meant that they were more durable and could be aged throughout the summer before being brought down. The practice of moving the animals up and down the mountain is called transhumance. The man who runs Formaggio has connections to great cheese producers and affineurs in Switzerland specifically and so I’m hoping that this one is a gem.
I remember when I first heard about transhumance it struck me as poetic and practical at once. I searched all over the internet for information about the practice because I was curious to know if people were still doing it. There was nearly nothing specifically about transhumance- only academic papers about pastoralism…
Michael and I went to Switzerland to see where some of the majestic mountain cheeses are made- see how bright eyed and bushy tailed we were on our very first cheese trip?
(Although we did not witness the movement of livestock into the alps- we did get to taste incredible cheeses and visit some wonderful producers- all tales for another occasion.)
Fast forward nearly ten years, search for transhumance and you can find many youtube videos of dairy cows, sheep and goats making pots and pans jangling noises through through mountain ranges everywhere from Bavaria to Switzerland, and Spain. Here is a nice short one that gives you the gist- it’s also by one of my cheese industry favorites Kate Arding (co-founder of Culture magazine among many other talents and accomplishments).