We had a short ride ahead of us today, only 25 kilometers to the town of Burgdorf where we would meet up with our friends, Ingrid and Yves! When we arrived we were greeted with warm hugs all around and as soon as we registered at the campsite, Ingrid and Yves whisked us away in their car for a traditional Swiss picnic!
As Ingrid drove us through the picturesque Emmental valley (without even a smidge of carsickness), it occurred to me what a perfect idea this was. After a morning of biking, we were covered in a film of drying sweat and encrusted with a dusting of dirt that never seems to fully go away no matter how many showers we take. No expensive restaurants where we'd have to look presentable and fork over our entire day's budget would have interested us. A traditional outdoor food-related event, though, where we could remain filthy and shamelessly eat like hyenas, among good friends and the scent of a fire—heaven! Thanks guys! You're so thoughtful!
When we arrived, Ingrid parked the car and we all divvied up the food to carry in our backpacks. Then we hiked up a 28% grade hill to a mountainous panorama, very glad our fully-loaded bikes were far away at the campsite. When we reached the top, we were rewarded with stunning views, and a perfectly tended fire-pit, complete with woodpile, axe, and a little change box to help cover any wood usage.
Yves got to work lighting the fire, while Tyler went off in search of a pair of roasting-sticks to complement the two Yves had whittled while waiting for us. Ingrid and I laid out the feast: cervelas (tasty sausages), two types of mustard, some pepperoni pickles, and bottles of the Swiss beverage, Rivella.
For an authentic Swiss picnic our sausages required some special preparation before we could roast them. Yves showed us how to cut them for optimal visual effect, ensuring they would open up like a flower in the heat of the fire. Maybe it it was because we were so hungry, or perhaps because we were deeply engaged in a time-honored ritual of food-preparation but these sausages were some of best food we have eaten, ever. They were so good! I cannot even describe how delicious and smokey and perfect they were!
After our feast, we cleaned up our messes and headed back down the hill for the second part of Ingrid and Yves' plan for the afternoon: the Emmental Cheesery! There are lots of small working cheeseries in the Emmental Valley, but the one we visited was a "show dairy". Not only do they produce fantastic cheeses, they also make it easily accessible to tourists, showing the entire process through viewing areas, videos, and audio guides. After a short drive we parked and set out for our cheese-factory exploration. From the milk being mixed in huge vats to the hundreds of 90-kilo cheese wheels, there was a lot to see!
While the cheese factory was interesting, the best part came afterward. First, Yves treated us to thick, rich ice cream made with local milk, and second, we explored the more traditional old-time cheesery next door. This was much more my style. Over a wood fire, two men stirred milk in a huge copper cauldron. While it was heating, they took maturing cheeses out of their molds and stacked them up with a large rock on top for further pressing. It was dark in the building, lit only by small windows and the warm light of the flames licking on the side of the cauldron. I can't wait to get home and make cheese!
After our cheesery experience, we headed back to the car for one final adventure before calling it a day. Yves suggested we go ask a local dairy farmer if we could have a tour of the first step in the cheese making process. A firm believer in the "It Never Hurts to Ask" mentality, Yves told Ingrid to pull over at a local farm and gave his plan a whirl.
He warned us first—they might not be willing, apparently Swiss people are sometimes a little prickly and distant, preferring to keep to themselves. Having a couple of American tourists in tow is always a good conversation starter, and along with his charm and winning smile, he scored us a farmer-led tour of a sixth generation Swiss diary farm.
To our collective delight, the family was more than happy to show us around! We met a spry 78-year-old farmer, his lovely wife (wearing galoshes and carrying buckets of feed), and their son performing the evening milking. The mother brought us a pitcher of delicious milk straight from the cows, while her husband proudly showed off a wall featuring their annual awards for excellent milk, some dating back over 30 years.
We met their cat, Molly, their dog, Jess, and their fourteen horses, including the one that was just a month pregnant.
With Yves translating we learned about the difficulties of being a small farmer in a modern world. They were a simple operation but regulations required modern equipment which is ridiculously expensive. If it wasn't for their tightly-knit community in the surrounding valley none of the farms would be able to afford to continue. They all pitch in to buy machinery and take turns using it. Even with the community working together funds were still tight; the fifty year old son has a part time job as a garbage collector to supplement his never-ending farm work.
Though they painted a dismal picture, the family seemed content with three generations living happily together in their centuries old farmhouse. They loved their cows, and their land and they clearly treated both with deep kindness and respect. After our tour, the son asked if we'd like to sit down for a coffee and some chocolates. Of course we said yes.
Tyler and I have been reading a lot about sustainable farming, something we plan to do when we return to the US. Though we know a bit about the troubles small farms face at home we realized we hadn't given it much thought in Switzerland, thinking that clearly here in this picturesque land they knew what mattered in the world. It was sad to learn we were wrong and for our part, we'll view the scenery a little differently as we carry forward.
After our visit, Ingrid and Yves drove us back to our campsite and we said our goodbyes. Thank you again for your generosity and kindness guys! We are both looking forward to the day we can return your hospitality in the US.