‘Cheese Sharing’ in the Berner Oberland

Cows in Berner Oberland
Happy cows make tasty cheese...
Fondue at home, Gimmelwald
...which makes for for fantastic fondue.
By Fritz Hutmacher

Here in the Lauterbrunnen Valley of Switzerland's Berner Oberland, around the 10th of June, 20,000 cows go up the mountains into the alpine pastures. There are 630 dairy huts scattered throughout the mountains. From these huts, over two million pounds of Alpkäse are produced. Cheese aged for three years or more, called Höbelkäse, is the extra-special stuff, and sold in local restaurants.

It takes 10 kilograms (22 lbs) of milk to produce just one kilogram of cheese. Therefore, a day in the life of an alpine dairy farmer is very hard. A farmer's day starts by 5 a.m. and does not end until after 8 p.m. He or she gets only one day off each summer and must stay in the Alpen — high pastures — for 100 days. Throughout the summer the farmers may have to move their operation to huts at even higher elevations, in order to find more fertile pastures for the cows.

There are three different types of Swiss dairy cows: the browns in the east, the brown and whites in the central region, and the black-and-white ones in the French part of Switzerland. Unlike Swiss humans, the cows all speak the same language: "Mooooo!"

At the end of summer, around the first week in September, the cows of the Berner Oberland begin their descent into the plains and valleys. This is a time of great celebration. There are parties everywhere and the cheese is distributed to the owner of the cow after the daily milk report. The festivities around the cheese-cutting and distribution to the farmer are known locally as a Chästeilet ("cheese sharing").

This is a wonderful opportunity to see another side of the Berner Oberland — to venture into isolated areas that the average tourist generally does not get to see. Don't be afraid; my hotel guests have had outstanding adventures with the locals. Enjoying our wine and beer might also help.

The Chästeilet dates are published in local newspapers and transportation to and from isolated towns is organized. Ask your hotelier for more information. The best known Chästeilet is in the Justistal area, near Interlaken (usually held in late September). You can get to the Justis Valley by local bus from Beatenberg or by doing a one-hour scenic hike over the old military road. Other Chästeilet include those held at Mägisalp and St. Stephan, in the Simmen Valley.

Fritz Hutmacher was the longtime propreitor of Interlaken's Hotel Lötschberg