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www.zidao.com Apprentice harmonizer, for sheer fun. Journeywoman writer, for work and pleasure. Starting point was Iowa, current stopping point on this journey is Switzerland, with frequent pauses around the world to watch and listen to the crowd, and occasionally make comments.

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Monday, November 14, 2005

Calypso cheese

We delay. Put off thinking about it. And then suddenly winter is imminent. There is a whiff of cold in the air, the breeze changes direction and we pull our collars around us. Apple pies go into the oven.

Sunday was that day in the Valaisan Alps. The lazy pace of chores was speeded up. The corn stalks were chopped down and the remaining ears heaped high. We had over-planted and I wonder how many friends I have who like November corn. The dill and bourache were cut down, taking the vegetable garden from a cheery limey-green fringed place with dashes of blue to a much tidier if barren brown area. Laggard onions were pulled and tied together, then hung on nails from beams. Next year I will learn to braid them and consider myself a Swiss farmer at that point.

Nick pulled out the tilling machine and went to work on the soil. Grr, grrr, chug chgg it went, bobbing up and down and creating a tidy effect. The sun was shining, the cows were munching.

But wait. The cows had in fact stopped munching. Farmer Bernard's beautiful black Val d'Herens girls, the famous Swiss fighting cows, were spending the weekend trimming the field next to our garden, but the noise of the machine caught their fancy. They came to watch. Some nibbled at our few remaining flowers while peering over the fence.

They spend winters in their barn, munching on hay and listening to opera and Mozart concertos and jazz. The barn is behind our house, just up the hill from us. They spend their summers in the alps above, and the October day when they gallop down the mountainside to return to their barn is one not to be missed.

But this was the in-between season, the time when they wander out at daybreak to tidy overgrown fields around the brown barn. For a month, before winter confines them to the barn, we hear their cowbells during the day. As dusk falls Bernard and his dog call out to them and begrudgingly, for they like their grass fresh, they head for the barn to be milked. Some, in particular Leila - she with the curly fringe on her forehead - and Bonbon, have to be chased from the outlying fields. Bernard bellows at them to come in, it's getting late now, the party's over. One day I will learn if cows are hard of hearing. As night comes upon us the bells quieten. A trick of the trade: Bernard stuffs the brass bells, some larger than our heads, with tennis balls for the night.

Bernard and the friends and neighbors who help with the small herd shared real excitement earlier this year when Calypso was a finalist in the Valais canton's cow fighting contests. The cows are natural fighters in the spring, when they are pregnant and preparing to head for higher ground. The fighting is in fact a means of settling on a leader, the one with the strength and sure footing to lead them to the best pastures and safety over the summer months spent in the Swiss wilds. The wilds are in fact fairly tame these days, but the skills are still useful. Every weekend during the spring season winning cows are led into arenas, bets are laid, and fortunes made or lost. Seeing one cow flip another out of sheer bravado is a sight not soon forgotten.

Calypso and her small band give Bernard plenty of good alpine milk for cheese. After chatting with the hefty girls, who eventually wandered off to eat more grass, we bought a round of cheese from Bernard. We will share it with friends in France next week, along with some of the Valaisan (hoarded) humagne blanc wine for which neighbor Hugues Clavien has just won an award. We will hunt for good beaujolais nouveau near Macon and perhaps nibble on French boar sausage and finish the walnut harvest.

As dusk falls we'll raise a glass to Calypso, and hope that my nasturtiums, nibbled on at the end of her autumn out of doors, will give her cheese that special Je ne sais quoi we consumers so love.


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