Love of the High Country
In this part of the world, it’s the same ritual every year. During the month of June, cows are led up to the mountain pastures, known locally as the ‘alpage’, to spend the summer. Doris and Charles-André Mudry are preparing to spend their 40th summer in Mondralèche.
“Charles-André always dreamed of the alpage life,” Doris reminisces affectionately. Her husband Charles-André, nicknamed Dédé, is having his afternoon rest. Their life on the alpage did not begin like a fairy tale. “We took over the alpage in 1978 on the spur of the moment when our predecessor quit,” she explains. “Although my husband was already working on a farm, I had no farming experience whatsoever. We had two young children and no idea of what was awaiting us. I cried floods of tears that year – enough to fill the lake,” she jokes while looking down over the Rawyl dam below. The alpage of Mondralèche is a picture postcard setting high above the dam and lake near the Anzère ski resort. If the area has a holiday feel for some, for the Mudrys and their seven employees it means work, work and more work.
Cheese, their source of income
“Up on the alpage, you don’t go to work, you’re surrounded by it. It’s your life,” Doris explains. After our first chaotic year in Mondralèche, Doris, a trained nurse, resigned herself to training as a cheesemaker. “The newness of it, our lack of know-how and skills made us lose time and cheese. I decided to do the training so that I could lend a hand when needed. Together with another woman that year, we became the first female cheesemakers in the Valley of Illiez.” Back from his nap, Charles-André confirms, “We agreed we couldn’t give up then, so we took the time to think and got together with good people. And as you see, we got it right in the end because now it is 40 years that we have been living from the cheese we make.”
The conditions on the alpage were rudimentary in the 1980s. There was no stable for the animals. Doris, Dédé and their three children slept in a caravan. The dairy was the only solid building, the bedroom providing accommodation for the Mudry’s employees. There were no toilets or showers. “We washed in tubs that we filled with lukewarm water from the dairy,” Dédé recalls. “On 19 July 1980, we had half a metre of snow! It was then that we realised that without a stable we couldn’t make a go of it. We have more comforts nowadays and we are coming up to standards. There is always work to do but we have modernised the dairy, it’s easier now. We still don’t count our hours but the conditions have improved.” As an example of their resilience and positive attitude, the Mudrys agree that two days of sunshine on the alpage makes them forget three weeks of rain.
Driven by the love of it
“We learned on the job, taking advice from right and left. Little by little we found our way,” says Doris. Making cheese occupies them for six months of the year, seven days a week. They make their living selling different types of cheese. The milk they use to make their cheese comes from their two herds. “We have 58 cows on one side of the alpage and 75 of the other as well as 117 heifers grazing up here for the summer. We produce about 20 tonnes of AOP ‘raclette’ cheese a year, of which five tonnes are used for ‘fondue’ and ‘tommes’,” Dédé explains. We sell the cheese from our premises as well as from shops around the area.
The cattle are divided up on two separate pastures on the alpage, in Vatzeret and Er de Chermignon. The team is made up of about ten cheesemakers and others who work with the cows. The herds are milked on their side of the alpage. The milk is then taken to the the dairy in Mondralèche. The cows are milked twice a day, between 6 and 7 in the morning and between 7 and 8 in the evening. They produce more than 2,500 litres a day for making cheese.
Doris gets up every morning at 1.30. While the milk warms, she takes the previous day’s cheeses out of their moulds and places them in a brine bath. She then starts the process of transforming the milk into cheese, and places the cheese into the moulds at around 5am.
The rest of the team wakes up at 3.45am. At 4.00 they leave for the pastures. The cows are led to the milking sheds to be milked, then they return to the pastures until the second milking of the day. Everyone meets for breakfast at around 9.00. Making the enclosures, checking and treating the heifers, cleaning – the work gets done one job after another until 1.30pm when it is time for lunch and an afternoon rest. Then the same procedure starts all over again at 4.00pm. Doris goes to bed at 7.30 and Dédé joins her at 10.
“With age we have learned to delegate work so as not to exhaust ourselves on the job. We have lots of great memories though. We live an extraordinary life,” the couple remind us, and themselves. Over the years, many alpage cheesemakers they've known have given up the life. “You only keep going on the alpage if you love the life. It is not an easy one and you have to be aware of that when you start. But no two years are the same. Sometimes you come across amazing things, such as eagles, bearded vultures or a white asphodel – a rare alpine flower,” Charles-André adds.
“The alpage keeps us close to our roots. Even after 40 years we aren’t tired of it. We find the life satisfying,” the Muldrys conclude. “The best recognition for us would be to find someone who would take over from us when we retire. But one thing is sure,” admits Dédé with a smile, “without my wife, this adventure would not have been possible.”