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After All: Of scraped cheeses, fighting cows and massaged fish

Image credit: Valais/Wallis/Promotion

From the saddle of an e-bike, our columnist continues to explore old and new technologies of the Alpine Swiss canton Valais

“Do not cut corners” and “do not overestimate your abilities”, advised my ‘E-Bikers’ Guide’, picked up in the Alpine village of Verbier where I ended up on the second day of my recent e-cycling tour across the Swiss canton of Valais. While being OK with the first dictum (cutting corners on narrow high-altitude cycling paths could lead to a hapless cyclist’s fall down the precipice – wheels first), I repeatedly breached the second one, which resulted in multiple scratches and bruises all over my body.

Undertaking this trip, only several months after major open-heart surgery, was one of my life’s biggest challenges – an attempt to prove to the world (yet primarily to myself) that there was still some gunpowder left in my powder bag – a softer Russian equivalent of “there’s life in the old dog yet”.

The latter metaphor was perhaps more relevant to Valais – home of the famous St Bernard breed of fluffy and good-natured rescue dogs. Originating from the ancient Great St Bernard Hospice, a sanctuary for wandering monks and pilgrims, the dogs have been used to rescue travellers lost in the snow and fog since 1707. The wellbeing of this endemic-to-Valais breed is now in the hands of the Barry Foundation (named after Barry, the legendary avalanche rescue dog), where about 20 pedigree puppies are born each year.

No St Bernards were needed to rescue me – not because I didn’t get lost, for I did, and more than once (albeit mostly in villages and towns), but rather due to the nice summer weather, with no fog or snow, and also because I tried not to deviate too much from the well-beaten mountain paths. Unfortunately, the famous road over the Simplon pass, built by Napoleon to connect France and Italy in 1805 (it was then the best in Europe – a true masterpiece of engineering) was not on my route, which took me higher and higher into the Alps.

At an altitude of 2,000m, I had to stop due to a loud mooing-and-jingling (‘moongling’?) , which I initially ascribed to a headache caused by oxygen deficiency, coming seemingly out of nowhere. But I was wrong.

On a vast Alpine meadow, multiple duos of compact black cows of the canton’s endemic Hérens breed were engaged in locked-horn embraces. The animals, watched by dozens of excited onlookers, pushed each other with slow and stubborn force, like horned and somewhat slimmed-down Sumo wrestlers in black kimonos. They mooed, or rather ‘moongled’, for all they were worth, with large copper bells on their necks jingling melodiously.

Since having had my aortal heart valve replaced with a bovine (i.e. taken from a cow) one last year, I regard all cows with affection, not unlike my non-existent second cousins, so my first reaction was outrage. “Why are you tormenting these beautiful animals?” I asked a local farmer among the spectators. “Tormenting? Nothing of the kind!” he smiled. “It is this breed’s instinct that prompts such clashes. Our Hérens breed are unique in their strong hierarchic nature – the world’s only fighting cows.” He told me that each year the canton’s dairy farmers organise fights to determine a regional and cantonal ‘queen’. It was one such event that I was witnessing.

Allegedly, the cows’ pugnacious character has no adverse effect on the quality of their milk and dairy products, particularly cheeses, as I was assured by Carmen Bateson, an Aussie who worked at the nearby ‘Alpage de Mille’ cheese factory. With her partner Christophe Prodanu, they produce the famous raclette – literally meaning ‘scraper’. To make it, they first go through the basic cheese-making process: coagulating the milk, cutting the curds, moulding, pressing, finishing, and then leaving the cheese to ripen while washing and turning it daily. At the final stage, the matured cheese is sliced and placed in front of an open fire. As the cheese melts, it is scraped (that’s where the ‘scraper’ name comes from) onto a dish and gobbled up immediately with potatoes, gherkins and pickled onions.

Savouring the richness of raclette, I couldn’t help thinking that cheeses – like wines – have memory. They ‘remember’ the aromas of fresh grass and alpine flowers, the rough tongues of cows and  the caring touch of the cheesemaker’s hands. In Valais’s Val d’Anniviere valley, that cheese’s ‘memory’ reaches sinister proportions: according to an old custom, when a couple gets married, a large cheese is set aside to be eaten by relatives on the day/s of their funerals, by which time it can get so hard that a chisel (‘cheesel’?) may be needed to ‘scrape’ it! They call it ‘death’s cheese’.

That gruesome ancient custom was, of course, triggered by practicality and extreme poverty: the newlyweds wanted to make sure that their loved ones had something to eat on the day of their demise. In contrast to that, modern Valais, like the rest of Switzerland, is overabundant with food and food manufacturers, including the country’s only producer of saffron – an ancient spice made out of rare crocus sativus flowers, cultivated on a beautiful sunny plateau according to centuries-old traditions – and the makers of the real beluga caviar. This is not a typo – the real Russian-style Kasperskian (the name is a play on ‘Caspian Sea’) caviar from locally bred sturgeons, which is not just sustainable but also ethical.

In Russia (and elsewhere), the fish are normally killed to retrieve the precious eggs, whereas in Valais they came up with an innovative method whereby the roe is retrieved from female sturgeons without harming them – by gently ‘massaging’ their tummies until the eggs are released. That is why the Kasperskian caviar has been nicknamed ‘caviar with life’.

Indeed, this small Swiss canton seemed to excel in ingenuity, which could be felt in everything it produced – from cutting-edge robots to Hermesetas sweeteners; from Alpine cheeses and locally cultivated bananas (!) to the ‘caviar with life’.

And, let me tell you the secret: musing over the canton’s official motto, ‘Engraved On My Heart’, I think that maybe, just maybe, my new heart valve has come from one of the battling cows of the Hérens breed.

Myself a fighter, I would welcome that, for sure. 

                                                     *****

Vitali Vitaliev was the guest of Switzerland Tourism and Valais Tourism which don't offer bookable biking holidays per se. Backside is the rental company he used in Verbier. Prices from CHF 50 per day – www.backsideverbier.ch/en/bike/rental. In Martigny, he used Valaisroule. Bikes are free from 14 locations (CHF 20 deposit). Ebikes are 5CHF per hour.  https://www.valais.ch/en/information/landingpage/bike-rentals

                                            *****

Vitali Vitaliev’s ‘After All’ has just won the Silver TABPI Award for best regular column

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