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For the Love of Sheilings….

As a child I loved Johanna Spyri’s ‘Heidi’ the story of a young Swiss girl’s life on the alm. When I give presentations and mention the role sheilings played in our food heritage, many look questioningly, and I say, ‘Think Heidi!’ Unless you have an interest in Scottish food culture, a diminishing number of folk have heard of sheilings these days…but this need not be so.

With supermarkets and airfreight ensuring a constant supply of out-of-season-plastic-wrapped food to our doorstep we are in danger of losing our appreciation of the flavours and scents of seasonal delicacies and knowledge of our food culture. Transhumance was an integral part of that, where farmers moved their animals to summer grazing in a seasonal cycle, bringing them closer to home, sometimes inside, over the winter months. This not only ensured they could harvest hay for winter fodder on the lower pastures but also produced high quality products from the upper meadows, where summers were shorter but long daylight hours resulted in wild meadow flowers and herbage giving flavours we can only dream of today. The sheiling was that summer place in Scotland, with living quarters for the crofter and where prized sheiling dairy products could be made.

In parts of Europe transhumance still exists: Seter in Norway, Fäbod in Sweden and Alm in some alpine regions of mainland Europe. Regular readers know we love visiting Fäbodar, returning home laden with delicacies, so it was awesome to witness Swiss Cows descending from their summer pastures in Vaud last year. As I write this in the Fife sunshine, thoughts turn to the forthcoming summer and these beautiful animals on the move once more – plus the exceptional raw milk cheeses from their milk - all within EU regulations I might add, although not part of EU!

We are very lucky to have dear friends living in the Valais Canton of Switzerland, not far from Lake Geneva, an absolutely beautiful part of the world, surrounded by vines stretching far up the slopes towards forests and rocky crags. We decanted from the ultra-efficient Swiss train and spent a few days exploring the surrounding countryside and foodie haunts – what better way than with locals who know us well! With clean air, picturesque villages, stunning vistas and civic pride this land is good for the soul.

Every September in L'Etivaz they celebrate the descent of their cows from the alm. This pretty hamlet in Vaud gives its name to a hard raw milk cheese similar to Gruyère. In the 1930’s local families felt government regulations compromised their cheese quality so they withdrew from mainstream production and set up their own cooperative. Today the village has approx. 500 residents swelling to 25,000 that weekend, bussing in visitors for 5€ (using the nearby vacant ski slope car parks) whilst the village remains predominantly car free to rejoice in the cow parade.

A fine example of food tourism and enterprise at its best. It is a festival of all things cheese: wheels and wedges for sale, production to view, related crafts to purchase, melting cheese specialties to consume, all to the music of alpine horns and cow bells. As you can see the cows are dressed appropriately in their finery – and seem quite relaxed about it! Their cheese commands a premium price and is worth every penny. I would love to return.

We stayed in the chocolate-box town of Saint-Maurice, steeped

in history, once a Roman outpost and with the revered medieval Saint-Maurice Abbey.

It is also home to The Chapel of Notre-Dame-du-Scex, perched on a vertical rock face, built in the 18thC on the remains of an 8thC

building, and pre dating this as a hermit's retreat from early on in Christianity …something to explore next time when I hone my mountain goat skills!

What better way to see the lie of the land but to zigzag up the valley, past idyllic villages, and hop on the chairlift to the revolving Restaurant Tournant Le Kuklos.

Not only are the local platters delicious but it rotates 360degrees every 90minutes, giving breath-taking panoramas from the Eiger and Mont Blanc to Lake Geneva. Add paragliders overhead and the red helicopter mountain rescue team visit and we could have been on a film set!!

Knowing Bosse’s love of traditional farming methods our friends had arranged a visit to their neighbour who farm organic pedigree Limousin, all born and raised on the family farm, pasture grazing, supplied direct in boxes to consumers. Winter fodder is produced on farm and the cows live a good life. We had

great chat about Swiss agriculture before adjourning in the sunshine for refreshments - a bottle from their family’s vineyard! What a lovely family, great produce and warm hospitality. Our sincere thanks.

Another mountain, this time to a traditional l’auberge nestling on a ledge with dazzling views over Lake Geneva and magnificent charcuterie platters of regional meats – wow, what a feast! Simple, effective and superb quality. The Swiss take a genuine pride in their local produce and display it beautifully too.

Readers, I hope you realise, as I re-live this delightful trip, I am recalling Food Tourism, a subject close to my heart all my working life and a hot topic in Scotland – so let’s just say we could learn a thing or two from the Swiss!

The quality was consistently high and whilst perhaps not cheap it is value for money if excellence is what you receive.

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