Ballenberg's butcher, baker and...

Henry Kehrli interprets the past at Ballenberg

The Ballenberg open-air museum, with its preserved farms and rare animals, invites visitors into a world of living history.

This content was published on May 2, 2002 - 16:17

The heritage farmhouses of Ballenberg, which has opened for another season, are dotted across the sprawling countryside above Lake Brienz in the Bernese Oberland. There are houses from every part of Switzerland. Earmarked for demolition, they were brought to Ballenberg and rebuilt.

Rare species of farm animals graze in the pens and fields. It is the people of Ballenberg though, like guide Henry Kehrli, who really bring the past and its traditions to life.

Henry introduces me to the museum's butcher, baker and candlestick maker. But it is his insights into the easy-to-overlook details that I appreciate most.

Napoleon's bullets

As we follow a winding trail through the museum, Henry points to a number of holes in the wall of a small storage shed. They are actually bullet holes, he says, put there by Napoleon's troops who were after the cheese locked inside.

He then asks me if I know why the lower parts of many of Ballenberg's wooden farm sheds look as if they have been bleached. I haven't a clue.

"You can always tell if one of those sheds had or has cheese in it because the salt content of the cheese leaks out of the bottom of those sheds," he explains. "They are covered in salt dust."

He shows me a place where cows had managed to lick a hole through boards eight to ten inches thick.

We continue our journey and pass a man near an old sawmill using a long-handled tool to shave the bark off a tree trunk.

In a typical farmhouse from canton Valais, Henry introduces me to weaver Ida Huggler, who sits at a handloom. She has worked at Ballenberg for a quarter-century.

"I weave with my hands and feet," she says, "and not least of all with my head."

Weaving floorboards

Henry, as a trained carpenter, distracts my attention from Huggler and her loom to show me how builders of the Valaisian house cleverly wove the beams and boards together. The floorboards are not bound together, he explains, and the centrepiece is tapered and a few inches longer than the rest.

This plank extends a few inches from the outside wall. When the wood shrank in winter, leaving spaces between the boards, the man of the house simply went outside and hammered the centrepiece further into the house.

"Because it is tapered it pushes all the other boards aside when you hammer it in," Henry says. "That way you close up the cracks between your floor and ceiling boards so that the dirt and dust from the floor above don't end up in your soup".

Say cheese

And Henry wouldn't want any dust spoiling the fine foods made at Ballenberg. Sausage smoked in the museum's own smoke house, bread baked in a wood-burning oven and cheese prepared in a large vat over an open fire. What better way to round off a tour of Ballenberg than by sampling some cheese with Henry.

The cheese vendor lets us try thin slices of a two-year-old alp cheese. Henry, as I would expect any local to be, is a cheese connoisseur. "This is very good," he exudes.

"This cheese has been hobelled. Do you know what hobelling means?" he asks, and then proceeds to answer his question:

"We slice it very very thin with a plane and then when it's paper thin, it curls around. It's a mess to eat - you've always got your shirts and pants full - but it's really tasty. It's much better when it's hobelled than if you eat it in one piece."

It's not difficult to explain Henry's enthusiasm for Ballenberg. He returned to his hometown of Brienz, a few kilometres away, after living abroad for about three decades. It has given him a new appreciation for Swiss traditions.

"First of all for me, it's home. I can relate to it all," he reflects. "As I go on a tour, my first job is to try to get you to connect with what we are doing here. Because this isn't typical for Switzerland only, it's typical for the whole world."

by Dale Bechtel

Visiting Ballenberg

The Swiss open-air museum for rural culture, Ballenberg, is open daily until the end of October. There are many craft demonstrations and other activities to appeal to young and old. Alongside rare species of farm animals once typical to Switzerland, Ballenberg for this year only has introduced exotic breeds of cattle. Foods and products made at Ballenberg can be purchased as souvenirs: cheese, bread, sausage, chocolate, pottery, embroidery, to name just a few.

And the visit is even more enjoyable with an enthusiastic guide.

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