So, what happened? Why all the cows and cheese?
A bit of history…
Well, the best way to understand what happened yesterday is to explain why, every year, dairies from up and down the Val de Bagnes collect in the little village of Le Chable, below Verbier, and have a raclette festival.
The quick answer is that raclette was invented here, and it’s a source of great local pride.
What is raclette, then?
Well, you take a half cheese, and partly melt it by holding it close to (traditionally) a wood fire. Nowadays they tend to use electric grills, but however you heat it, once it starts to melt you scrape the cheese onto a plate of potatoes and with pickled onions and gherkins. And you eat it with a glass of local white wine – Fendant. Genius.
Where do the cows fit in?
One feature of mountain life is that the seasons are pretty major here, and when the cows come down from the high pastures for winter it’s a pretty big thing. The snow’s coming and these are the animals that are going to keep you alive when it arrives. So a bit of a celbration is in order – and if you invented raclette, it makes sense to celebrate with some of that.
Which is why we all nipped down to Le Chable and joined in yesterday afternoon.
Cheese for beginners:
The event itself is brilliant – the whole valley descends on the little village, and farmers from all over come to do what they do best – namely stand around drinking white wine. There are bands, bars and dozens of raclette stands, each representing a different area’s cheese.
Suddenly everyone becomes an expert…
But the best part is that everyone gets involved – from the teenage kids hanging around the bars to the old ladies nattering under the giant marquees. There a toddlers trying to escape from their parents to get to the swings, young couples (this is, apparently a pretty cool dating location), and at one point a train of half a dozen kids about eight years old following a man in a giant squirrel outfit. Everyone was getting involved and just having fun.
You get the feeling that it’s a real community – being British, that’s a pretty rare thing. Here it’s just normal.
And, being British (and Swedish and Dutch and French and South African, etc) we weren’t sure if we’d be shunned and frowned at – the etrangers from the ski resort invading their community.
The complete opposite is true – you wind up chatting (literally) about the price of cheese with locals, getting handed shots of Williamine and advised which wine to drink with which cheese. I got cornered by an old woman from Champsec who gave me the run down on who was the best raclette chef (yes, they are “chefs” – even if they just hold a peice of cheese next to a grill).
Apparently too many people rush things and burn the cheese keeping the cheese to close to the grill – one big bloke was quietly singled out as regularly guilty. Like everything round here, patience is a highly valued quality.
The trip back up
The thing that summed it up was the cab ride up to town. Normally the cab from Chable is the most ridiculously over-priced journey in Switzerland. Last night the driver (who’d just come from the festival) just dropped us off and said give me 5 CHF each. Normally it’s three or four times the price, but he said “well, it’s the festival, isn’t it?”. Normal rules don’t apply.
We thanked him enthusiastically but don’t anticipate it happening again until the spring festival – when they celebrate the cows going back up.
Naturally, we carried on celebrating cheese, cows and all things Bagnarde until the early hours, and today we’re all going on a small holiday from Fendant and cheese. And especially that bright green stuff the guys at the ‘young people of Bagnes’ stand were giving us…