Alpine-berry tart with traditional hazelnut-studded crust and spiced ice cream. Berries and nuts appear frequently in salads as well as baked goods throughout Switzerland. A treat by modern tastes, rich foods such as nuts, cheeses, sausages, and butter have a long history of production in the Valais and other Swiss regions; these foods have played an important role in the survival of mountain communities throughout Switzerland.
Cheeses at the open-air market in the charming city of Berne. In Switzerland, vibrant farmer's markets co-exist with Coop and Migro supermarkets which also carry regionally grown fresh produce and regional products such as eggs, sausage, and cheese. Because of wide consumer demand, Switzerland enjoys one of the strongest organic markets in the world.
Beauty in technology: An old cultivator showcased at Inforama, Switzerland's oldest school of agriculture. "The Swiss in general believe that farming should be done as close to nature as possible," says Barbara Thoernblad, our guide at Inforama. "'Bio' [organic] is still small because it is strict and so much more work, but the Swiss believe in using as little chemical pesticide and fertilizer as possible. Consumers here demand transparency." In addition to growing practices, the 150-year-old school teaches business management and how to supplement farm income with additional revenue from agritourism or other side business, without which most Swiss farmers wouldn't survive.
A relaxing alpine lunch at Ossona farm, a popular agritourism spot including restaurant and guest cabins in the Val d'Herens, Valais region. Once a small but vibrant farming community, Ossona was abandoned in the early 1960s. In 1995, the nearby town of St. Martin purchased Ossona lands from small parcel owners all over the world and started rehabilitating the local agriculture in a joint public-private cooperation. Switzerland continues to lose alpine farmers as youth leave rural areas for more profitable work in cities.
Cheese ripening at the Ferme de Champasse, a mountain farm nestled in a verdant valley opening out from the white-capped peaks of the Valais region. Using raw, unpasteurized milk preserves the subtle flavors from the grasses and plants in the cows' diet, says co-owner Francois Morend-Gaillard. Each wheel contains about 10 liters of milk.
Elderberry growing on one of the primary Ricola herb farm cooperatives in Venthone, in the Valais region. Ricola sources nearly all of their herbs from Swiss farmers. Used for centuries in folk medicine, elderberry has been studied recently for its antiviral and anti-influenza properties. Organic, alpine herbs grown in the fields next to these trees are harvested and carted to the farm's passive-solar herb-drying facility where they are processed at low temperatures to preserve essential phytonutrients.
The beautiful flower, vegetable, and herb gardens at the Bruffhof farm of Franz and Rita Schwarz in the Emmental region. Bruffhof is part of Switzerland's "Sleep in Straw" agritourism program, offering travelers a clean hay loft and a home-cooked meal for a nominal fee. Truly bucolic and relaxing in a down-to-earth sort of way.
Apples grown on the Bruffhof farm. Most go to Swiss juice-maker Sussmost, but a few are saved for guests to enjoy as snack or lunch on the go. Apples make the perfect palate-cleanser for the infinite varieties of Swiss cheeses which I discovered are served for breakfast, lunch, and dinner!
A fighting black cow, or "Herens," an endangered species that thrives in Valais. Each summer, the strongest females compete in regional competitions to determine the "Queen of the Alps." Owner of the winning cow is awarded a giant trophy cow bell. (And, no it's not tinnitus. All of the cows really do wear bells.)
Buffalo aren't nearly as aggressive as cattle, claims Christian Egli of his water buffaloes pastured in the Emmental region. (Shortly after this picture, one approached quickly and sent journalists running through the field!) The buffalo milk produced on his farm is worth more than cows milk and is processed into delicious cheeses just a few miles down the road.
Down the road from Egli's buffalo, we sampled a few tasty local microbrews at the Brauerie Hohgart. Co-owner Heidi Kammer sources ingredients locally: barley, wheat, malt barley, and flavor-enhancing ingredients such as cherries, honey, or raspberries.