A well-aged tradition marks end of summer

Let the sharing of the cheese begin! Keystone

People across rural Switzerland have been celebrating the end of summer. The beginning of autumn and the coming of the cold weather is harvest time, and when herds of cattle and sheep are driven down from the high pastures.

This content was published on September 26, 2000 minutes

The "Cheese Sharing" festival (Chäseteilet) in canton Berne's Justis Valley is one of the most traditional and colourful. The deep-cut valley, with dense pine forests climbing up the sides, belies any sign of farming activity.

But nine farmhouses and cow stalls are scattered between the north shore of Lake Thun and the top end of the valley. Around 200 cows graze during the summer months on the steep slopes, their milk taken down to the cheese maker who stores the cheese in a group of wooden huts.

The daily routine differs little until the end of September when the time comes to march the cattle down from the high valley to winter in the barns around the town of Sigriswil.

It's an occasion celebrated by the farmers, cattle owners, townspeople, and for the last few years, hundreds of visitors from across Switzerland and beyond its borders.

They come because of the unique ceremony accompanying the sharing out of the cheese among the cow owners. The ceremony is necessary because the farming community is organised into a cooperative, and since time immemorial the same system has been used to divide the cheese among those possessing "cow rights".

The mayor of Sigriswil, Hans Boss, is one of the largest livestock owners in the valley despite having only three cows.

He inherited the cow rights from his father. "No one has more than three or four cows. Most have rights to only one cow. We're one of the largest with our rights to three cows," he says.

On the day of the ceremony, Boss, like the others with cow rights, will receive an amount of cheese equivalent to the amount of milk his cows produced. "I would say we're going to receive between 140 and 150 kilogrammes of cheese. In "säumen" (the old measurement used), that's nearly eight. I'm anxious to see just how much."

He steps between farm vehicles and trailers crowding around the storage huts, and looks anxiously at a sheet of paper pinned to a door of one of the buildings.

"It says here how these two people are going to have to share the cheese. A "bigi" (a stacked pile) of cheese equals four säumen. It says here that Hans Amstutz can claim three and a half säumen, and Walter Santschi a half a saum - that equals four. They have to agree amongst themselves how they're going to share the bigi of cheese. They can't always agree."

Inside the dark hut, cigar smoke mingles with a strong cheese smell. The round slabs are placed on long planks, each one marked with its weight - in pounds - and a date. Boss, like the other owners of cow rights, waits anxiously for the cheese to be taken out and stacked up in bigis about a metre high.

At this point, he doesn't know how the cheese, young and mature, will be distributed among the bigis.

"We would prefer to get the more mature cheese, not the fresh cheese which still needs to be tended to. And because the cheese is a natural product, it's not all of the same quality. And then there are bigis with more cheese and those with slightly less."

Slowly, everyone gathers around the huts for the ceremony. Boss takes his place in a line of about a dozen owners of cow rights. Their fathers and grandfathers took part in the same tradition, year after year.

It's said one "cow right" in the Justis Valley is worth at least SFr40,000. There are many eager buyers even though any new members of the club can't expect to see a profit in their lifetime. It's a question of prestige.

One by one, the owners pass the cheese out of the building. The man at the end of the line stacks them into bigis.

Boss' wife Regina nervously eyes up the slabs in the various piles, trying to ascertain the quality of each one.

"The green mark there, that's the date it was made. That's from August 28 and that's August 20, and that's from June - June 7. And that one is September 8. That's a fresh cheese. You can see from the colour. It's much lighter than the rest. And there's one missing (in another pile), that means it's still in the salt bath. That's a very young one. It will be handed over later."

There's a lengthy wait after the last slab is brought out. It's nearly midday but the sun has yet to breach the eastern ridge looming vertically above the valley. There's much talk, cameras flash and a group of men break into a spontaneous chorus of yodelling.

A hush finally falls over the crowd as a man steps up to the cheese with a small sack in his hand. It's time for the drawing of lots - the high point of the day. One could say high noon.

The man pulls small wooden tickets from the sack, each marked with one, but in most cases, at least two names. He ceremoniously reads out each one - last name first, as he gives each stack a card.

The drawing of lots doesn't last long. It's a very short affair considering this is what seals the fate of each bigi of cheese.

Hans Boss is pleased with his draw, satisfied with the quality and age of cheese in his seven and a half säumen. He wins an approving smile from his wife. Family members and friends quickly remove one of the two bigis to their farm trailer.

Regina remains, her hands on top of the pile they'll have to share with someone else. She sees that Hans has already tracked down the other owner.

After brief negotiations, a deal is cut. Hans Boss pulls a fold of bills out of his wallet.

"We're very happy. Yes. We've bought his share of the cheese. That was 17 and a half pounds. A kilo is 15 francs so we simply gave him 135 francs for his cheese," he says.

"We're going to load the cheese onto our wagon and we're going to have a bite to eat, drink a toast to the beautiful cheese and then we'll drive home. I'm very proud and very satisfied with the day as a whole. Beautiful cheese, wonderful cheese. I'm very happy."

by Dale Bechtel

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