After a arduous, cold, grey winter spring finally arrived in the mountains,
but it took its own sweet time getting here!
During our favorite mountain hike, the local farmer passed us on the dirt lane; he stopped and opened the back gate of his livestock truck. Then we watched spellbound, as a herd of cows raced across the verdant field in a moment of serendipity.
Have you ever seen cows run?
The herd acted as if they’d arrived at summer camp. The calves romped with joy like children let out of school for the holidays.
Rich grass, clean air, wide open spaces!
The desalpes, the famous folkloric parade of cows coming down the mountain in autumn is a well known Swiss celebration; however, few people witness the inalpes when cows come up to the Jura’s green pastures for the summer season of fine grazing.
As we hiked, we could see across to the far side of lake where the grey veil of winter lifted, revealing the majestic Alps etched against a heartbreaking sapphire sky. The mountains, in different shades of slate, appeared to bow down to Mont Blanc, the queen bejeweled in her sparkling white crown.
Daffodils waltzed in the wind, leaf buds popped open, buttercups shot up, forsythia burst into golden flame and dogwoods danced in their lacy, white petticoats. In valley below us, the lemon yellow rape seed contrasted with green wheat fields. Grape vines like gnarled, old arthritic hands reached toward the light. Pink and white blossoms exploded on the apple and cherry trees.
Under a splash of spring sunshine, blessings unfolded around me. Balancing with sticks, stumbling for footing, knees grinding like bad transmission, I was grateful to still be upright and walking. In my heart, I was dancing.
When tourists visit Europe, one of the favorite activities is going to the market filling the town squares with luscious fruit that looked as if they were plucked from Eve’s garden, vegetables freshly dug from the earth , whole milk and cream squeezed from the dairy cow that morning.
Like everything in France, there is a savoir faire to open market shopping, an unspoken etiquette for waiting in haphazard lines that the locals would never breech for fear of a tongue lashing by their neighbors. As an American, I never understood the rules and was always overtaken by jumping little old ladies far more savvy. Forget the la crème fraiche; I’d be stuck waiting till the dairy cows came home! Same with bargaining. Social interaction at the market is a delicate interchange. Nor was I clear on the amounts measured in metrics. I order fruit and vegetables by number rather than kilo. How many cherries make a half-kilo? Nor was I fast on my feet counting out change and hold up the line waiting while I fumbled counting coins.
a farmer's stand
French open markets are a must see; however, visitors beware, street markets are not for the faint hearted. Shopping at a French open market is like trying to play a sport without knowing the rules. Here are few tips.
1. Bartering – friendly bantering over quality, quantity and price. Must be a native speaker to understand the peasants accents and expressions. Also helps if you understand metric system.
2. Etiquette – who’s turn? Lines as Americans know them, do not exist. Instead waiting in line the « queue », (also the French word for tail) has no end, or beginning. First come first serve rule does not apply- line cutting is also a fine art. Elderly French women, with years of practice, are very clever about this. Only a native speaker understands the innuendos to put someone in their place politely. Youth loses every time. Old ladies are best at this.
3. Choice – if indecisive like me, impossible to pick which item. Only medical students could positively identify animals body parts on display. We aren’t just talking liver, kidney, intestines. Noooo, French enjoy spinal column, pigs feet, tail, cows tongue, brain, etc.
Each part of France displays regional specialties. For example in Normandy, in addition to charcuterie, butcher, cheese stand, peasants sell « bootleg » calvados and cider pressed from the orchard. I once counted over twenty varieties of olives. How can anybody survive working the open markets only selling olives ?
pouring fresh cream
4. Pasteurized in France has different meaning. It does not mean sterilized, what it means is animal rights- freedom to grow up out in the pasture. Cow’s organic milk straight from the field to farmers bucket to market. Free range chicken. Wild hare, quail, and turkey.
5. Fish should still be flapping. In seaports, boats dock at the quay and sell fish caught that night.
fishermen sell their fresh catch on the quays
6. Don’t be discouraged if you find that the produce in your basket does not look quite as nice as that on the stand.
7. Best trick is to take a native along. If someone who regularly goes to market, the better.
In Normandy, the Parisian weekenders throng the marketplace elbow to elbow. My husband, now a foreigner living in Switzerland, would never be served without his mom. A loyal client at the same stands for forty years, she knows generations of farmers who sell their wares locally. Since she is so loyal, they would never think of giving her soured creamed or bruised fruit meant only for tourists, for she would be the first to elicit shame with her sharp tongue.
Customer loyalty is at a premium in open market where regulars will always get the best cut of meat, ripest melons and freshest fish. Just as referees always favor the home-team, merchants favor the hometown loyalty.
No wonder people love Switzerland. It’s a place where even the cows party. In October villagers throw a street bash in celebration of the livestock.
Cows were so commonplace in my childhood growing up in the Midwest, I couldn’t imagine why anyone would go out of their way to watch a herd of cattle, but during the désalpe, the day when cows come down from the mountains to the valley is a popular event, as much a part of Swiss tradition as Swiss cheese.
Thousands of visitors jam the cobblestone streets of Saint-Cergue perched on the Swiss side of the Jura, to applaud the herds of cows and sheep that parade through town. The désalpe festival honors the fat, four -legged fellows who keeps the country supplied in butter, milk and cheese.
The shepherds and herdsmen leave the highlands at the crack of dawn to arrive in the Swiss village on the lower slopes of the Jura mountains early in the day. The lead cows, wearing flowered headgear as elaborate as new brides wear, meander through town mooing. Leather collars a foot-wide hang around their necks, which attach to cow bells the size of lampshades.
For 24 hours at the end of summer, the quiet, ski village turns into a giant block party. The sidewalks and town square are filled with stands where merchants sell local Swiss specialties; raclette, crepes, sausages, soups, beer and wine. At overturned wine barrels tourists knock back white wine served in traditional tiny cups barely bigger than shot glasses.
Big burly-bearded men in jeans play the accordion, flute and violin. Bands of musicians dressed in traditional attire, black smocks embroidered with mountain flowers, black hats and gray pants, representing different mountain villages play the cor des alpes. The red-faced men blow into the the10-foot long straw-colored alpine horns creating sounds as forlorn as the nights of solitude that herders endure in the alpine pastures. Local choral groups sing equally mournful tunes. A short, stocky man in a black suit cackles when he demonstrates his whip cracking clearing a 100-foot circle in the crowd. A flag thrower twirls the red Swiss flag with a white cross.
In Switzerland the cow is sacred. Senntumsmalerei, herd painting, is a special part of Swiss folk art, depicting the semi annual pilgrimage of the cows up and down the mountain.
In the spring another festival will honor the cows as they return up to the highlands for grazing in the summer. Most likely, I will be there paying homage. After seeing the désalpe, I’ll never take cows for granted again.