We gaze at the rows and rows of cheese moulds, just filled from the morning’s milking. How long does it take Madame Missillier to pour all these? “Bofff…,” Monsieur Missillier exhales and raises his eyebrows, “15, 20 minutes at most,” he says, and shrugs in that dismissive French way, as if the Herculean task is nothing. That’s what happens, I think (wondering whether I’d manage to complete a single row in that time), when you do a job twice a day, every day, 365 days of the year, with no holiday. That’s the reality of local jobs for local people.
We’re on holiday, of course. We’re in Haute-Savoie, high in the Aravis valley. The farms here teeter on the edge of Switzerland; in summer, roaming with the cows in their mountain pastures, you can peer over the Aravis peaks at Lake Geneva. When the snow falls, the pretty villages of La Clusaz, Le Grand-Bornand, Manigod and St Jean de Sixt fill with skiers, mostly French, who are drawn to the 200km of pistes and laid-back ambience of the valley. But in the spring, and again in early autumn, the cowbells ring out not for ski races but for their intended purpose. This is Reblochon country.
Reblochon, Monsieur Missillier tells us, was one of the first cheeses to receive the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC), that certification that symbolises staunch French defence of local produce. Thus sparkling wine produced outside the Champagne region is not champagne, and the soft, fresh, delicate-tasting cheese that is Reblochon comes only from the eastern slopes of the Haute-Savoie – plus one small adjacent valley in Savoie. And nearly two-thirds of it is produced here, in the Aravis Massif.
Monsieur Missillier talks to us directly, almost urgently, but he speaks through a translator. Who has the time to learn English when there are cows to be milked twice a day, and six weeks’ worth of cheese to be turned and rinsed and moved up a rack in the sharp-smelling cellar?
We stand there in the cool in a fug of off-milk as Monsieur Missillier describes the process. The milk must be used directly after milking; it is unpasturised and aged on boards of spruce. Having come here rather begrudgingly, I’m surprised at how engaging it is. Farm tours are listed like an afterthought at the foot of tourist office pamphlets and websites, and until now I’d always associated them with primary school; something to keep the kids happy on a rainy day. I’d forgotten, though, just how good primary school trips could be: that window of wonder into another world.
This has been the Missilliers’ world for three generations, Monsieur Missillier continues, but Reblochon in this valley goes back to the 13th century. Reblocher is a single verb to describe the repinching of a cow’s udder. Milk was taken as a form of land tax, so the canny farmers left their cows still dripping. Milking was resumed once the collectors had visited, and the resulting fat-enriched second serving used to make cheese for the farmers’ own consumption.
We step out into the brightness of the farmyard, the earthy scent of manure and early spring a pleasure after the sharp stillness of the cave. We meet the cows – local, of course. AOC regulations state that they must be one of just three alpine breeds: Abondance, Montbéliarde or Tarine. Now, as the snow starts its yearly ebb, they are getting ready to make the transition from barn to village pastures.
In the barn, explains Monsieur Missillier, they must eat hay only from local fields. When the snow in the village melts, the farmers move them into the fields. And then in the summer – that is when the Reblochon is best, he beams. The cows look bored, as cows do, but then the exciting part of their year is yet to come.
The transhumance is the moving of the cattle to the high alpages, the mountain meadows. This is when the cow bells come out, giant bits of metal strung around bovine necks. It’s like keeping track of a cat, only on a larger scale.
On go the bells and the garlands of flowers, and up go the cows, along with the farmers. With more than 60 Reblochon farms in this valley, there’s a lot of clanging in the streets. For a week in May and again in October, local life is celebrated with traditional foods, and dances, and gossip. This is not neatly packaged heritage; it’s making light of the yearly grind. Life then goes on, but at a higher altitude. The cows are milked twice a day, the Reblochon poured and turned; it’s just that the summer farms are a day’s walk up valley. Or a truck drive, these days, if the distance is too far to cover comfortably by foot. “Although you know so-and-so?” says Monsieur Missillier to the translator, “he still walks and they live practically in Annecy.”
Were this a primary school trip, it would be time for packed lunch. Fortunately, Monsieur Missillier produces plates of Reblochon and its regional cousin, Tomme, along with bottles of crisp Savoyard white. Then we’re ushered back into our own worlds. At the farm, spring is just round the corner, and there’s milking to be done.
Les Fermes de Pierre & Anna (00 33 4 50 51 54 99; fermes-pierre-anna.com) is a traditional Reblochon farm now converted into a B&B chalet in the pretty village of Le Grand-Bornand. For thematic consistency, stay in the room named Les S’nailles (the Cowbells), and sleep beneath a hay trough. Two room apartments also available. Doubles from ¤80; breakfast ¤10.
Farm visits booked through Le Grand-Bornand tourist office (legrandbornand.com) cost € ¤4 for adults, €¤2.30 for children. The village also throws a Fête de l’Alpage in August (2 August in 2009). Annecy celebrates the transhumance on the second Saturday in October with a Savoyard festival, the Descente des Alpages.
Office de Tourisme du Grand-Bornand, Place de l’église, Le Grand-Bornand (00 33 4 50 02 78 00; legrandbornand.com).