Cows on Parade: A Swiss Celebration

Stein is one of hundreds of Swiss villages that hold traditional dairy farming celebrations. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Throaty cowbells clang as flower-wreathed heifers parade through the streets of Stein, a tiny Swiss village in the Appenzell cheese-making region.

Dressed in traditional costumes, farm children and yodeling cowherds drive the cows toward the Viehschau (cattle show) judging area for the “Miss Stein” bovine beauty contest. There, the cows’ stature and coloring will be evaluated. It’s not just about pretty faces—honorable mention goes to cows with the best-looking udders and highest milk production.

On this late-September Tuesday morning, I’ve joined crowds of people jostling to watch the cows. Hundreds of people are clustered along the parade route. Stands sell toys and food; someone hawks balloons.

Appenzell cowherds carry traditional carved or painted wooden milk pails over their shoulders.

The streets in Stein, in the Appenzell canton of Switzerland, are festive on Cattle Show Day. ©Laurel Kallenbach

“Schools are closed today, and the whole town is here,” Antonia Brown Ulli, a tour guide, tells me. She lives in Stein and is wearing a dirndl dress for the occasion. “This is one of the village’s biggest annual festivals.”

Appenzell cowherds carry traditional wooden milk pails over their shoulders. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Indeed, the locals are impressively dressed, especially the men who are decked out in Appenzell finery consisting of red embroidered vest-jackets, fancy braces decorated with silver plates, black hats ringed with ribbons and flowers, and spoon-shaped earrings. Many also wear carry a wooden milking pail over one shoulder.

In the days of up-to-the-millisecond Swiss watches, I’m comforted that age-old cow herding traditions are still heartily celebrated by the entire community. And these cattle processions happen in rural villages all over Switzerland. (Germany and Austria too.)

In fact, the lead cows for each farm are adorned with bright flowers, ribbons, and fir branches on their heads. I’m giddy. As a cheese lover, I think it’s a grand idea to celebrate the cows (and goats too!) who provide milk for my favorite food.

Contestants for the Miss Stein title ©Laurel Kallenbach

The day before, I had visited the Appenzell Show Dairy, where visitors can see how the world-famous Appenzell cheese is made—and can taste it too! There’s a full restaurant on site.

The pageantry and music—bell-clanging and the yodel-like singing of the cowherds—is my farewell to Switzerland. An hour later, I’m zipping on the train to the Zurich airport. There, on the shuttle train to the international terminal, the piped-in sounds of mooing cows and cowbells makes me tear up. Even though I haven’t officially left the country, I’m already nostalgic for this scenic country.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor 

For more information, visit Switzerland tourist information and Appenzell Tourism

Originally posted: September 19, 2015

Read more about my travels in Switzerland:

In late September, Swiss dairy farmers parade their cows through the streets of the Appenzell village of Stein. ©Laurel Kallenbach

In late September, Swiss dairy farmers parade their cows through the streets of the Appenzell village of Stein. ©Laurel Kallenbach

 

Adopt a Swiss Cow & Support Sustainable Dairy Farms

Switzerland is famous for its fine cheeses, yet many small, family-owned dairy farms struggle to maintain their sustainable way of life.

Photo of Albert Breitenmoser holding a photo of Selma, a cow you can “rent” © Laurel Kallenbach.

Farmer Albert Breitenmoser of Eggerstanden (in Switzerland’s Appenzell region) devised a cow-“leasing” project that gives him financial support and offers visitors an insider’s glimpse into traditional Swiss dairy farming and cow herding

The program is also a great way for kids—and city dwellers—to better understand their food sources.

The cowherd’s mountain-pasture chalets. Photo courtesy Albert Breitenmoser

Here’s how it works: For a fee, you choose a cow—one with a sweet name like Maxine, Bleike, Selma, Arnika—on the Internet to “sponsor” for a season. (Pick your cow by clicking here. The website is in German only, but these bovine beauties speak for themselves!) You receive a certificate, a photo of your sponsored cow, a discount on the herd’s cheese and the opportunity to visit “your” cow on the farm.

Sponsoring a cow at a higher price gives you the unique opportunity to stay at the summertime mountain-alp pasture, get to know your cow, learn to milk her, spend the night in the cowherds’ cabins, and see how mountain cheese (called Alpkäse) is made. Alpkäse is considered the finest Appenzell cheese.

“People can learn a lot about the mountain meadows and enjoy eating cheese from a cow they’ve met,” says Breitenmoser. “They can also learn how much work it is to feed and milk the cows and make their cheese.”

Dairy lovers from all over the world have leased cows from Breitenmoser via the Internet; one cow lover from Thailand sponsored a cow for three years before he was finally able to visit Switzerland last year. Then he got to enjoy a mountain visit where the farmer’s breakfast consists of home-produced goodies: fresh milk, coffee, bread, honey, and cheese of course.

The alp cheese is made by hand on the farm. Photo courtesy Albert Breitenmoser

And oh yes, there’s that spectacular Swiss scenery to accompany your excellent cheese.

If you know of similar programs/ gifts that support sustainable farmers, share them by adding a comment below.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and cheese lover

 

Read more about my travels in Switzerland: