Switzerland: More Than Cheese Fondue and Chocolates
Reading Time: 5 minutes
Visions of the snow-capped Alps, lush green valleys, and alpine meadows dot the rugged terrain of Switzerland in central Europe, along with quintessential Swiss chalets with their sloping roofs and window boxes filled with bright lights red geraniums. It’s a picture postcard that captures the imagination, delighting travelers from near and far.
One almost expects to see Heidi at the garden gate, calling her goats, Schwanli and Baerli (Little Swan and Little Bear), back to the barn. Her charming story lives on today in the classic children’s novel written by Johanna Spyri in 1880.
Cowbells and alphorns, the long wooden musical instruments used to call the animals back to the valleys, are also iconic country symbols. So are annual festivals where local men and boys wear leather lederhosen and women and girls appear in colorful dresses and aprons embroidered with flowers and hearts.
Switzerland is a land steeped in tradition, especially when herding their cows and goats to and from alpine meadows each season. Without any lowland pastures for grazing, yodeling guided the herds up and down the mountains for centuries. It’s a form of communication that the animals and other nomadic herders recognize. A language of its own, it echos through the mountains, mystifying those unfamiliar with alpine herding, but music to the ears of cows and goats finding their way from one meadow to the next.
Switzerland is famous for its cheese — over 475 varieties, including the ever-popular Emmentaler and Gruyère used in serving fondue. This favorite recipe originated long ago to use up hardened cheese and stale bread during the winter months.
The majority of cheese produced in the country is made from cow milk, but a handful of small purveyors provide a niche market with a selection of artisan goat cheeses. One variety is the tasty Tschigrum ricotta from the small village of Tschlin, tucked among the rugged mountains in the eastern part of the country bordering Austria. What makes this rich and creamy ricotta unique is how local farmers smoke the cheese for a good week in chambers filled with juniper wood that grows wild in the area.
One might think of ricotta as one of the main ingredients in lasagna, but the farmers in Tschlin suggest other ways to enjoy the versatility of this savory cheese. They’re more than happy in sharing serving suggestions and recipes, giving customers new ideas for enjoying their product. It’s delicious on toast with sliced apples or served with tomatoes and herbs for bruschetta as an appetizer. Adding ricotta to a frittata gives the dish a fluffy, creamy texture that pairs well with eggs, meats, potatoes, and other vegetables. There’s no limit to one’s imagination.
Finding One’s Niche
In the heart of the country is a goat dairy that discovered a way to utilize the milk produced by their herd of 98 Saanen and Chamois Colored goats. At Blüemlisberg Swiss Alpine Fine Food, they produce on-site a delicious gelato-style ice cream that they sell and serve at the farm Hofstübli (store and restaurant). It’s a popular treat for hikers, for dessert after a meal, or in cartons for takeout purchases. They also work with business partners in providing raw milk for a popular line of products: goat milk powder, chocolates, cheeses, and beauty lotions.
Blüemlisberg Swiss Alpine Fine Food has become a destination stop where visitors arrive by foot while hiking or via the revolving gondola at nearby Mostelberg mountain station, followed by a 45-minute walk through the meadows to the goat farm. It’s indeed a trek, but well worth the effort once there for some ice cream and other delicious foods. It’s an educational adventure about goats and alpine living that brings visitors flocking to the farm, proving that distance isn’t a hurdle when adventure awaits one on Blüemlisberg Mountain.
A goat parade?
During June through August each summer, there’s an opportunity in Zermatt, Switzerland, to see two daily parades — at 9 am and 5 pm when a herd of 50 or more Valais Blackneck goats follow a group of local children along The Bahnhofstrasse through town. Local farmers in neighboring villages own the goats and bring them to meander the meadows above the resort. At night the animals are housed in a goat barn on the edge of town and wake up to the children calling them in the morning. As evening falls, the children return, bringing the herd back to the barn.
It’s a longtime tradition that serves a purpose for summertime foraging and boosts tourism in Zermatt as visitors wait for the sound of the goat bells. After the parade, business is brisk as cash registers chime with the sales of postcards, coffee mugs, magnets, and more. It also allows the youngsters to earn extra money with a fun summer job. Zermatt may be known as the best place to view the mighty Matterhorn, but it’s a sure bet the goats take top billing when it’s time for the parade.
Karen Kopf, a feature writer for Goat Journal, has a special place in her heart for Switzerland, “I first traveled to the country as a foreign exchange student at 15 where I encountered a most interesting goat herder in his 90s. It was amazing watching the animals follow Hugo into the mountains. I was captivated with the sight, hoping someday to have goats of my own, promising myself that I’d return to this picturesque part of the world as an adult.”
Karen accomplished both wishes. She and her husband Dale own Kopf Canyon Ranch in Idaho, where they raise Kikos, a breed of meat goat originating in New Zealand. She has returned to Switzerland — one journey was visiting Thomas and Silvia Rupp at their small operation, Geissebei Trekkingg Eissen, a goat packing operation in the Alps. It’s a niche market that the couple sees as a growing business, offering a memorable way to get out and see the beauty of Switzerland. Karen’s article about her visit appears in the July/August 2019 issue of Goat Journal.
If traveling to the Alps, be sure to listen for the sound of bells. It just might be a herd of goats with an invitation to explore their homeland.
Originally published in the May/June 2022 issue of Goat Journal and vetted for accuracy.