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Transhumance: What Goes up Comes Down Cheese


My favorite of the many sessions I attended at the American Cheese Society Conference late August was a love letter to transhumance. It was a damn good love letter, and I'm going sum it up for you.

Hosted by Daphne Zepos, cultural anthropologist Sandra Ott and Alpine cheese importer Caroline Hostettler, and coordinated by Sara Vivienzo of the San Francisco Cheese School, the session focused on transhumance's transformative effect on cheese and culture.

Defined as the seasonal migration or movement of humans and their livestock from lower to higher pastures in spring and summer, transhumance is when pastoral people or shepards move with their animals to take advantage of the seasonal landscape. The session focused on the migration in the Basque and Alpine areas of France.

In the summer, shepherds head up the hills with their animals. They  hang out, get a little sun, revel in the wild herbs, and make a little cheese. They migrate for four main reasons:

1. Varied vegetation grows at different elevations, and when the snow melts in the spring, tasty herbs, grasses, and flowers beckon the animals uphill. As a photo shown at the session of a cow eagerly eying the spring sky after being cooped up in a barn during the winter, animals are eager to prance around in the fresh fields and eat their favorite spring treats. We like strawberry ice cream and asparagus. They like wild herbs and flowers from the tops of the hills.

2. Pastoral people take their livestock uphill to save the lowland grasses. There is only so much vegetation, and often a small village can't support the feeding needs of their animals in the lower, open pastures. If the shepards head towards the sky, this means that the grasses nearer to the village can be saved for the animals during the winter, when the animals and people want to tread less on the rocky hills. In the case of the Alps, the cows also act as a lawnmover for the ski season, helping to trim the mountain grasses on the slopes.

3. Pastoral people do this because it is a part of their culture. It is a tradition and a choice to preserve a way of life. Could the shepherds make it so they don't have to climb the hills as much? In an era of vitamin pills, antibiotics, and additives, hell yes. But the imbedded values within transhumance and the benefits the honored tradition brings to cultures makes the practice invaluable. Not to mention healthier than the alternatives.

4. They do this because it makes good cheese. Or they make cheese because transhumance produces good milk, which is the key to good cheese. Plus, cheese has traditionally helped their cultures serve during rough winters. It's part of a beautiful cycle.

Why good milk? When the animals are eating the fresh grasses and varied seasonal herbs and flowers, they're healthier, happier, and their milk tastes better. Just as important, you can taste what they're eating in the cheese. More chives on the hills? You'll taste it in the milk. More dried grasses in winter? The cheese is less vibrant.

For example, during the session we tasted an Alpine cheese imported by Caroline Histettler. It was made from the milk of cows that feasted on the summer grasses that a shepherd pulled from the hard-to-reach rocks of the Alps. The cheese was intense- it smelled of sweet milk, hay, herbs, citrus, and pineapple. I've tried cheeses that exhibit similiar flavors, but this seasonal cheese made only in the summer time was like those, times five.

Another bonus of the conference- a homemade video by the Histettler's son. This eleven year-old spent a summer shepherding during the transhumance migration and wanted to share it with the session's attendees. He stressed the importance of supporting the pastoral lifestyle, paid tribute to the hard work and values it stood for, and told us that because he believed eating artisan was so crucial, he hadn't eaten junk food in three years. And yes, I did say he was eleven.

There is so much more to the story, but only so much posting space, so I hope you'll look into it on your own. I urge you to try cheeses from these regions that practice transhumance, and to check out the ethnography anthropologist Sandra Ott wrote on her time with Basque shepherds.

Plus, here is a Greenpeace link questioning the role of GMOs in some AOC cheeses (many transhumance cheeses are protected AOCs). You can translate it through google.

Do you have any experience with transhumance you'd like to share?

UncategorizedKirstin Jackson