Visiting a traditional Swiss dairy farm in the Gstaad Alps
Oh, my oh my oh my. I’m currently in my suite at Gstaad Palace, perched on a bed the size of the Titanic, propped up by around 242 humungous pillows that are so fluffy and uplifting they practically defy gravity. I’ve just got in from a day in Gstaad in the Swiss Alps and had one of the most incredible experiences of my whole life.
This morning were up bright and early. Usually I’m not a morning person but at the rate one pays for a room here (my suite costs £1500 a night) I think it’s fair to want to be conscious for as much as I can of my stay. Also- breakfast. Gee-whizz-golly-gosh, this breakfast peeps. I really, really love breakfast at hotels, particularly breakfast buffets, and this took the biscuit. And the pastries, the omelette, the fruit salad. You get my drift.
The lovely girls from the press trip bagged a table by the window and we sat together and strategised what to eat first. They went for yoghurt and fruit first and I took the controversial decision to start with the cooked breakfast, which to me makes much more sense- main and then dessert, amirite? I started with a hot plate of eggs and vine tomatoes, followed by an enormous heaped bowl Bircher muesli and every kind of fruit they had, which may have been every kind of fruit in Switzerland. I don’t know where Gstaad Palace get their fruit from but I need to find out- huge heaping bowls of fat blackberries, sweet nectarines the size of my head and pears soaked in cinnamon- this was a rainbow fruit bowl of heaven. I sipped on a cup of breakfast tea that came in a cardboard pyramid that was harder to figure out than a Rubix cube, but we got there in the end and it was delicious.
After I’d shaken myself from my awe-struck food coma it was 8.15am and time to head out. Our guide for the day was a lovely Swiss lady who drove us up a winding road to the top of one of the Alp mountains, where a traditional Swiss farming family lived.
It was one of the most incredible, fascinating and humbling experiences of my life. We were invited inside by an little old lady and her husband; if you were asked to draw a Swiss farmer couple, you would probably end up sketching them exactly. The cottage was dark, there were no electric lights or heating; just a huge wood fire in the corner of the kitchen, upon which sat a pot that I could have taken a bath in (had it not been full of boiling milk and/or fairly inappropriate to bathe in people’s kitchenware).
The walls were decorated with wooden Swiss carvings and were stacked with jars of home-made pickles and jams; because the family live so far up the mountain, they need to preserve a lot of their fruits and vegetables. We were taken through to the back of the cottage, where I was amazed to see a large room- a barn, really- with around 20 cows and calves chewing hay. It was nothing like I had imagined a dairy farm to be- the hideous, industrialised factories that are the status quo of dairy farming in the UK and the US are what I had been worried we would see on our trip today, and it blew my mind that people still farmed in this way.
I asked the lady a lot of questions, most of which my basic German was insufficient for, but we got there in the end. She told me that in the day, because of the large number of flies and insects in the Alps, the cows are brought inside and eat hay. (One of the only downsides to Gstaad is the flies- there are a fair few of them and they are pretty annoying in the restaurants!). The baby cows stay with their Mums and drink their milk, not formula rubbish like in the usual farms. The babies, including the boys (boy calves are usually killed at birth as they have no value to the milk industry 🙁 ) stay and grow up in the herd, and there is no artificial insemination- if they get pregnant, they get pregnant and they aren’t milked during that time to ensure they stay strong and healthy and have a healthy calf.
After a while checking out the beautiful cow-bells and stroking the calves in the barn (the adult cows weigh half a ton so we stayed back from them!) we headed back into the kitchen, where the farmers’ daughter had prepared some of their home-made food for us. The wooden table was laid with brown mugs and plates, and set with baskets of bread and meringues and huge dishes of fresh cream and cheese. This was somewhat horrifying to all of us as we had just indulged at breakfast, but it was obvious that it was a pretty special experience and we tried everything. There were four or five types of ‘Alpkase’, or ‘Alp cheese’ that the couple had made themselves, as well as a fresh cottage cheese that was being pulled from the cauldron as we sat, and was served to us hot. The older lady and her daughter took a sheet of cheesecloth and pushed it down to the bottom of the pot, scooping up the cheese as they came up. The husband then took the heavy bag and squeezed the liquid out over the sink before pressing it into a wooden ring to store. A jug was dipped into the pot and we were able to try fresh whey; a vitamin and mineral rich drink with very little fat.
It was a pretty magical meal; I felt as though we had stepped back in time 100 years. Afterwards we walked around to the cheese storeroom, which unsurprisingly had a very strong smell as it was lined wall-to-wall with shelves filled with huge wheels of cheese! We also saw the chickens wandering around outside; they have the whole mountain to roam and come home at dinner time! It started to rain at this point and we had other appointments on our schedule, so we had to say goodbye.
We left reluctantly and with a great appreciation of this way of life. It is amazing to think that people still live like this; the farmers seem fit as fiddles and must be incredibly dedicated to do what they do. The cows require care 365 days a year and as you can imagine it isn’t easy getting someone to ‘babysit’ while they go on holiday so there is very little rest.
I would recommend this experience to anyone having a holiday in Gstaad; it is a breathtaking place and there is a lot of modern luxury and extravagance, but the simple and traditional side of life is still very much celebrated and I would say that a trip to a traditional mountain cottage is a must-do when visiting the area.
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Travel journalists, home educating our lovely brood of 3 girls. Planning a year-long RTW trip late Summer 2017.