LETTERS FROM THE COUNTRY:
3. THE RETURN FROM THE ALPS
In the long history of man and the Alps the reign of the cow is recent. Only towards the end of the sixteenth century did prosperity reach a level where townsfolk could afford to eat dairy products and a market in cheese developed. Towards the end of September animals and men return from the upper pastures to the valleys and plains. In the old days the chalet lads had to turn over the herds to their owners by the feast of St. Denis, the 9th October. The owner then paid them off and offered them a feast accompanied by music and dancing. When every able bodied person went up to the chalets for the summer leaving the villages to the old and infirm, the mainly wooden buildings were often lost in fires due to the inattention of some old woman cooking on an open fire and the lack of strong arms to quench any incendiary which started. Whole villages might burn down. The children only went to school in the winter months when they were living in the villages.
Today many people living in this valley consider the time spent each summer up at the chalet the best part of the year. The sadness of the return with the prospect of winter is allayed by making a ceremony which many families observe for their own pleasure and those of their neighbours. They cannot view without deep emotion the procession of decorated cows and the cart which years ago carried up all the equipment and brought down in addition the cheeses made at the chalet. Nowadays this is always done on a Saturday so that the schoolchildren can participate. Preparations begin several days before. The walk can be as long as 40 kilometres. White wine is offered to sustain the drovers and shouts of encouragement for the cows.
For at least a hundred years in this part of the Alps the whole of
September and October have been months of huge meals in which the traditional
food consists of bread made with butter and flavoured with saffron and
served with a spread made from apples and pears stewed down to a paste
and a flavoured with spices, hams and sausages, roasted goat and lamb.
Each village has its own day of festivities but the second Sunday in October
is the most important day of all. For over a hundred years, since the coming
of the railway, the people of the market town have gone out to the villages
to share in the food, music and dancing.
I hope the pictures tell the story.
email@example.com 17th October 2002