Ask a Swiss person about the flavor of a cheese—especially the local specialty—and he or she will invariably say it depends on what the cow (or goat) is eating and where she’s eating it. Grass? Flowers? Hay? In the high-mountain pasture? Down in the valley?
To truly appreciate the cheese on your plate, you need to go to the source: the farm. I visited two in the French-speaking Val d’Hérens, (the Hérens valley, famous for its black fighting cows) for a glimpse at the farm life.
Claudia and Francois Morend-Gaillard raise diary cows about 12 miles south of Sion at Champasse Farm, near the village of Euseigne. Their 20 red-and-white Montbèliard cows supply the milk for 14-inch wheels of handmade raclette cheeses, a regional specialty. (Read my post about how raclette is served and eaten.)
Claudia and Francois are among a new generation of farmers who are boosting their farm income with “agritourism.”
They’re also committed to sustaining themselves through farming and to caring for the land in the way of their ancestors.
They invite visitors (reservation required) to see how and where they make the cheese by hand, sample the farm’s products (including raclette, goat cheese and tommes, a smaller cow cheese), enjoy views of the lush valley, and possibly meet their three formidable Hérens cows. In 2011, they hope to build a tasting room and small restaurant at the farm.
Visitors can buy cheese from the farm for a special price of 18 CHF per kilo. The raclette is also available at shops in Sion.)
The couple make great hosts. Claudia speaks fluent English; Francois, who speaks some English, is a chain-smoking jokester who exchanged the life of a policeman for working in the mountains, tending cows, baling hay and perfecting age-old cheese-making skills. Francois looks out of his cluttered dairy shed at the sun-drenched peaks at the other end of the valley. “Holy smoke!” he quips. “Mountains!”
Ossona Farm and Gîtes
A few miles outside of the village of St. Martin is another working farm—one with historic cabins/cottages for overnight stays and a restaurant that specializes in farm cuisine made primarily from its own produce.
Ossona is a private/public cooperative project between St.-Martin and farm managers Daniel Beuret and Maria Pires. Originally a farming village, Ossona became a ghost town in the 1960s as young people left this isolated area. Recently, the village of St.-Martin bought the land from and held a contest in 2003 to turn Ossona, including its 200-year-old buildings, into an agricultural project.
Daniel and Maria won the chance to fulfill their dream of creating a working farm and dairy while receiving financial support to operate the gîtes tourism.
Guests stay in rustic but beautifully situated historic houses for the week or weekend. There’s hiking throughout the alpine valley, and overnight guests can also help out with farm chores such as milking goats, making jam, helping make hay or harvesting fruit from the orchards.
“This is an ideal way to preserve farm life for future generations,” Daniel says over an espresso. (He speaks a little bit of English, but is much more comfortable with French.)
Ossona’s gîtes (country apartments) sleep four and include a kitchen, bathroom, and free WiFi. There are also nightly dorm accommodations for backpackers.
To reach Ossona, you drive the gravel road from St.-Martin and hike downhill for about 30 minutes to the farm. (Daniel will pick up your luggage for you if necessary.) Or, you can take a bus to St.-Martin and then hike all the way to the farm.
Meals are separately priced, and I can vouch for the wonderful home cooking. (In fact, the restaurant is so popular that the day I visited a hiking club of about 30 people were having a leisurely lunch there.)
I enjoyed a garden-fresh salad and a cassoulet (baked ham, potatoes, and cheese) eaten outdoors on the sunny patio.
There’s nothing like mountain air and a farm setting to stimulate the appetite.
—Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor
Originally published in October 2010.
Next up: Where Ricola cough drops come from (hint: from Switzerland!)
Read more about my travels in Switzerland:
- Eating Raclette in a Swiss Castle
- Swiss Wine Country: Picturesque & Superb
- Sleep in the Straw in Switzerland
- Switzerland’s Imperial Crown Mountains
- Adopt a Swiss Cow and Support Sustainable Dairies
- Swiss Farmer Grows Organic Herbs for Ricola
- Hiking the Valais Wine Trail
- Cows on Parade: A Swiss Celebration