We had a long winter with many snowfalls, the last on
the 8th of May. And then the apple trees blossomed. Everyone who could
remember many previous springs agreed that never had the blossom been so
profuse and beautiful. There was no frost; even now we still have nights
which are warm for the time of year.
Nearly every farmhouse has close by a few apple trees
but they are also planted by the higher barns and shacks for hay storage
and even as solitary trees on grassy slopes. The fruit was mainly turned
into alcohol which was a standard remedy for man and beast; applied externally
as an antiseptic and taken internally against all manner of ills. I was
told when the armailli got up at five to milk the cows he took a dram of
apple to give him the strength to last until breakfast after the milk had
been delivered, or put to warm in the cauldron over the fire. A local story
told in patois is of an old man going to see the doctor. After examining
him and listening to his story, the doctor suggested
"You should give up drinking apple as alcohol. Instead eat an apple a day. That will do you good."
The peasant replied "Doctor, have you seen the price of apples these days?"
Nowadays the distilling of apples is strictly controlled. People take their fruit to one of the local distilleries and the result costs them more than a shop bought product. But they are guaranteed that their own, unadulterated, unmixed juice has been used.
This valley is noted for having very old apple trees of now nearly extinct varieties. These attract birds more than the modern commercially popular varieties. As well as apples, many gardens contain a botzi pear tree. This is a tall tree which provides tiny pears in bunches. They are served stewed whole with game. Hunting also is strictly controlled and it is only possible to eat locally shot animals if you are on good terms with a hunter and he is lucky.
We decided when planning our tiny garden to have two espalier apple trees. To make room we had to cut down a thuya hedge and get out its roots. We chose our trees in the nursery by tasting the fruit hanging on the boughs but getting them into the ground was delayed by days of rain. So we took three days holiday. The cows are down from the mountains and in the pastures close to the villages. In the canton of Luzern apple picking was in full swing. The trees are weighed down by the abundant crop. The village of Ramsei is the home of a famous apple juice. In general apple juice, still or sparkling, alcoholic or not, is a far commoner drink in the German speaking areas than among French speakers. In Geneva a drink is sold for a limited period which is freshly pressed apple or pear juice or a mixture of the two.
We were disappointed when we visited the town of Luzern earlier in the year to discover the old railway station, where I got off the train the nearly fifty years ago, to see the famous bridge and then continue to Italy via the St. Gotthard, has been replaced by a steel and concrete box. It houses an exhibition area where we had come to see works by a local artist, Robert Zund 1827-1909, who devoted his life to painting the surrounding countryside. His speciality was the light filtering through woods. This countryside is now largely urbanized, but not so much as the around Zurich. We wanted to go to Winterthur to visit the Oskar Reinhart collection. Theodor, the father of Oskar, was a patron of Zund. One of Zund's finest paintings is in the collection given to the city by Oskar. We were pleased that Winterthur still has its palace of a station and the Reinhart Collection of paintings by German speaking artists is still housed in a beautifully lit building in classical style, formerly a high school. Also naturally lit without annoying spots distorting the tonal balance is the rest of Oskar Reinhart's collection housed in the early twentieth century villa, with additions, where he lived in a leafy suburb. These pictures are classical and impressionist and it is instructive how much further the Reinhart money went on buying works of German artists still living or only recently dead.
We drove home via the Emmental and, on a walk by a river, talked a little with a white haired lady picking apples from her espalier tree. She pointed out the barn nearby dated 1692. Along the wall were displayed old cog-wheels from a water mill with hand cut wooden teeth to intersect with metal. She told us her apples have an excellent taste. Commuting traffic was bringing home workers and students by car and railway. The painter, Eugene Burnand, 1850-1921, insisted the line of the new railway north of Lausanne preserve the landscape of his native Jorat. He too had an exhibition devoted to him this year. His landscapes belong to the same realistic tradition as those of Zund and in his day he was internationally renowned. In all the genres he undertook he was to be overshadowed by the more talented and innovative Hodler who is well represented in Winterthur. How fortunate that Switzerland had artists who followed in the tradition of painting in the Netherlands, and recorded, not only majestic scenery, but also rural life and the forests of the river valleys, before these were marginalised by economic development and population growth.
Robert Zund: Sunny Meadow 1856
Eugene Burnand: Autumn 1907 Private collection
Burnand Museum in Moudon VD Switzerland
2nd November 2004