Photographers' Blog

‘Till the cows come home

October 17, 2013

Gruyeres, western Switzerland

By Denis Balibouse

In summer, some go to the seaside or countryside, visit a new city or country, but some choose to live a different way. The Murith family will not have a day off: they will work 15 hours a day, seven days a week from mid-May to mid-October.

I’ve known the Muriths for more than 10 years. Last December I called them to discuss the idea that I would photograph them over the 2013 summer. We met for lunch and over a meal I found out that Jacques, who is turning 65 (the official retirement age in Switzerland) was in the process of handing down his farm and its cheese-making business to the sixth generation: his 23-year-old son Alexandre. I was intrigued by this news, as I’ve been thinking a lot about agriculture in Switzerland, and how it faces a somewhat uncertain future, partly because the country is surrounded by EU nations with lower production and land costs, making it a tough way to earn a living. Despite this, exports have grown over the last 10 years and production has focused on quality.

I was struck by the intense concentration required during the six hour process. Because they’re working with what is essentially a living thing, every second counts: one minute too long and the cheese may be unsuitable for maturation, ruining hours of hard work. Every element, such as the temperature of the milk in the morning and the weather add a different combination of factors. Jacques’ senses were on alert: touch, sight, smell and taste especially. All the knowledge of the craftsman came in to play as he made the cheese. It’s not something you can learn in a book.

Jacques never actually studied cheese-making — he learned on the job. Each wheel of cheese weighs between 25 to 40 kilograms (55 to 88 lbs). Depending on the time of year one or two wheels can be produced per day. It takes a minimum of six months to mature but can last as long as 18 months depending on the quality required. The Murith family produce around 200 wheels each year from the unpasteurized milk from their herd of cows. It is not exported but can be bought directly from them.

INDUSTRY FACTBOX

• 35 % of the milk produced in Switzerland in 2012 was transformed into 450 different types of cheese, only 4.58% of which was exported
• Switzerland’s 8 million inhabitants ate 21.4 kg of cheese per capita in 2011, which is almost twice as much as the chocolate consumed
• 11 types of cheese are protected by a controlled denomination of origin (AOC) label. Gruyère cheese is gaining in popularity, compared to Emmenthal (commonly known as Swiss) cheese
• In 2012 exports increased by 3.7 % compared to 2011 figures and have increased every year since the start of liberalization of export duties with EU countries in 2005
• 70.4 % of Switzerland’s exported cheese was sent to neighboring countries (Germany, France and Italy)
• Some 6000 jobs depend directly on the Gruyère industry.

MY SUMMER DIARY

May 10th – La Poya

La Poya day is a joyful one: the men sport traditional jackets known as Bredzons, the loyi (a leather bag that used to contain salt and milking grease) and a finely carved and personalized wooden stick. The cows wear their special bells. Friends come along to help guide the herd up to the pasture. I’ve been told that we’ll leave at 9am, as there is a railway line to cross and, given that trains are on time in this country, you can’t be late and make the cows wait in front of a barrier. The cows are as excited as the men: they’ve been indoors (in barns) for the winter and now they can smell the fresh grass and feel the warmer temperatures.

May 28th – No production so far

I call Jacques’ wife Eliane to check if I can come and take pictures of the cheese-making. She tells me that they haven’t yet started production, as unseasonably cool temperatures and heavy rain are still forecast. Snow covers the fields in the morning and the cows can’t walk in the mud — they even refused to leave the barn for three days. The grass they have eaten isn’t growing back. Jacques will reluctantly take the herd back down the next day — the first time since 1960 that farmers have had to do this, according to the older people in the village. He must buy some bales of hay and he’s not happy. On the way back down the cows keep their heads lowered. Only the oldest makes an attempt to follow the path to the other pasture instead of back to the barn. Everyone is quiet.

June 13th – Production at last

I make my way to the farm. As usual, we meet early as Jacques leaves at 5am because he sleeps at home. At least the chalet is easily accessible by 4WD. It’s the second day that he’s been able to make cheese, a month later than usual, but he is relieved. They still need to settle into their routine, and he is unhappy because he made an error with the orientation of the words on the side of the wheel and the production date. These small mistakes may cost him a few points when the cheese is being evaluated by a quality control commission.

July 7th – Le Commun

I arrive at 5am to find everyone already hard at work. Alexandre and his younger brother Pierre, who is on vacation from his sports studies, gather the cattle outside while Jacques is busy lighting the fire and creaming the milk. The mood is better than on my previous two visits. A routine seems to have been established and they’ve been producing for three weeks.

After breakfast Alexandre tells me he is enjoying his time staying at the chalet with his father. He says it all makes sense and that it’s what he wants to do with his life. I notice that he’s very tall and that when we arrived at the maturing plant to deliver the wheels of cheese he is requested to wear a clean pair of boots. He asks for size 48 (I wear a 39). Jacques says that his sons’ help has made a difference. He is less tired and is happy that they are getting along so well.

July 9th – The big climb

We meet at 8am, set to climb to the highest pasture of Tsermon (1450m). It’s a good one hour walk with a steep difference in height (almost 500m). Jacques’ brother is here to help, along with two of Jacques’ friends, Michel and Jean-Daniel Daetwyler (the latter a bronze medalist in downhill skiing at the Grenoble 1968 Winter Olympic Games).

The herd now has 39 cows, as a few cows were placed by farmers for the summer. We will also take along 10 calves. All the gear is carried by a monorail cable-lift (which pleased me, as I have three bags with me). Altogether we’re a group of 12, including three fitters for the new milking machine that Alexandre has decided to invest in.

Tsermon is the only land and chalet Jacques owns, the rest of the land he uses is rented from the village of Gruyères. The men will spend the next five weeks in this chalet, which is only accessible by foot. We leave the cows at the halfway point of the ascent; they will follow us slowly, enjoying the rich grass, before arriving at the chalet at around 4pm, in time for milking.
The next morning I put my camera down and lend a hand. Some uncooperative animals that didn’t want to wait in their enclosure and preferred to wander back to the fields for some good grass need re-directing. At breakfast Jacques apologizes to me because there’s no butter to put on the bread, only the double cream he made earlier. I’m not about to complain.

Jacques reckons they will soon need to hire a new employee, as the previous one was fired for coming back late and drunk from his weekend break. This has increased their workload, which they don’t really need.

July 16 – The fences

Eliane tells me she is bringing the heifers to the pasture. They were staying at another one but now they want all the cattle together. New metal fencing to hold the cows is being delivered by the monorail. We need about 30 minutes to take them down as it is steep and it is too heavy and risky for anybody to hold. A heated exchange follows between Jacques and Alexandre on how it should be done – your standard inter-generational argument. Everything is settled by dinner time, but fatigue seems ever-present and in a quiet moment Eliane explains to me that the men are really feeling the lack of an extra employee.

July 31st – The day before Swiss National Day

Eliane walks up to the pasture to eat with us. We share a meal of pasta and cheese from a cream bucket, each of us eating with a wooden carved spoon — all very traditional. Everyone goes to bed at around 8.30pm, although I stay out to take some night shots. I’m surprised to see fireworks coming from the village below. Apparently it’s now a tradition to celebrate the Swiss National Day one day early. We overlook the tiny ski resort of Moleson and I enjoy the fireworks. I eventually go to bed around midnight, exhausted, but I can hear some music in the distance.

The next morning everyone is grumpy. They talk about the music. Apparently people must have rented the chalet that we can see in the distance and played music and partied all night. As I live in a city center near nightclubs it was no big deal to me (or to younger brother Pierre), but to the others it was hell — no one slept well.

August 26th – Hands in butter

I make a last trip to take pictures of Eliane doing her main job, which is molding the butter that they serve at the B and B she runs down near the town. She really enjoys looking after guests and serving them the local produce.

September 20th – Getting to the end

As their season starts to wind up I pay a visit to the Proveta pasture where I started my coverage four months ago. The cows are providing less milk now and only one wheel can be produced per day. Jacques tells me they will not reach their allowance but are still happy with the quality produced, as this will count as much as the quantity when in a few months’ time the wheels will be inspected by a quality control commission.

October 12th – End of season

Alexandre and Jacques tell me they are as happy to go down as they were to go up. They like the seasonality of it and are feeling tired. Over the last three days a few inches of snow fell, which is not unusual for this time of the year, but everything turned into mud and the animals struggled with the conditions. They are rewarded by the sun coming out from behind the clouds a few minutes before starting the rindya (a local dialect word for the return to the plains). As part of the tradition, a cow is selected to lead the herd: this year Ydile (the name means ‘a brief romance’) is picked, a wain (a cart pulled by farm animals) is prepared and a red cover is placed over the equipment in it as it means the family has no debts. A group of seven men will take the herd down to the plains for the one-hour walk. Along the way they are greeted by locals offering a glass of wine or a beer. Once the cows are in their field we go for another drink, which is offered by a 92-year-old neighbor. Not long afterwards we go to eat, as Eliane has prepared choucroute (sauerkraut) for 15 people. After a dessert of meringues with double cream everyone gets up: there is still plenty of work to do. The milking is in two hours and they must use a truck to fetch an injured cow that couldn’t handle the walk. We promise to meet again for a cheese fondue come winter.

Post Your Comment

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/