In Aosta Valley, an ancient practice has survived, which consists of pasturing dairy cows on the mountains. In summer, the cattle are taken to graze in the mountains to find the coolness of the peaks, pure water and the scent of herbage. These are ideal conditions for producing milk of superior quality and a cheese with an incomparable aroma and flavour.
100 days surrounded by the scent of flowers, fresh grass and pure air
For centuries, during the warm months, herds of cattle have been led up into the high mountains to graze on the vast high-altitude pastures, of which the Aosta Valley is rich. Traditionally, the summer grazing period starts at the beginning of June and ends on 29 September, the feast day of Saint Michael. The summer grazing lasts about 120 days and allows the cattle of the various farms, usually divided into herds of 80-150 cows, to graze in a cool climate and enjoy abundant grass.
The grass in the mountain pastures is lower than in the valley, but very nutritious and rich in flowers. As a result, the milk is fatty and aromatic, giving dairy products such as Fontina PDO produced there a unique aroma and taste. Mountain pasture also offers another advantage: while the cows graze in the mountains, in the valley the meadows can be mowed and hay stockpiled for the winter.
Everything is more difficult at high altitude, but the result is a fine cheese
In the mountains, nothing can be left to chance. This is why the organisation of the mountain pastures must be precise and scrupulous. Alongside the shepherd are the assistant shepherd, the cheesemaker – who manages the production of Fontina PDO – and the maturers, who take care of the salting. There are also people who irrigate and maintain the streams, clean the cowsheds, transport food and other materials, and carry out milking twice a day.
Despite the fact that automation is now widespread in the dairy sector, the Fontina PDO produced in the mountain pastures is still based on a lot of manual work. For this reason, it is an even more precious, valuable and rare product, fruit of the hard work of shepherds and cheesemakers who work respecting the ancient Aosta Valley tradition.
The return to the valley, an ancient festival that still survives today
When the mountain pasture season ends, the désarpa, or descent of the herds into the valley, takes place. This is when the crowning of the “Queen of the Horns“, the dominant head of the herd, and the “Queen of Milk“, the most productive cow, takes place. There are several municipalities where the désarpa is still celebrated today, including Valtournenche, in the Cervino Valley, or Cogne, in the Gran Paradiso area, where it is called “Devétéya“.