Descente des Alpages, or, “Honey, the cows have finally come home”

In the two years since I have been back in Geneva, I had heard some of my culinary cohort talk about the Descente des alpages festival that happens each year in October in Annecy, a town located in neighboring France in the Haute Savoie region, where the culinary traditions are very close to Geneva’s own (think lots of melted cheese, potatoes and cured meats).

A Traditional Celebration of our Farm Foods

The concept to me is fascinating, a real reconnection to a tradition that to most of us spells ancient history. And yet, the traditions are alive, they are well, and thankfully so, because they bring us some of our favorite foods. The Descente des alpages is in fact a celebration of when animals come down from their summer pastures. Many villages celebrate this, but the festival in Annecy has become particularly renowned for the incredible diversity of entertainment it provides. The day is mostly centered around a parade of all sorts of animals through the streets of Annecy: from great saint bernards to sheep, to calves, to Alpenhorn players and, finally, the cows, in all their crowned glory.

Some of you may have been around for the great Cow vs Chicken debate, that arose around the dinner table one evening: if you had to live in a world without one of these animals, which would you choose to eradicate? Believe it or not, some serious debate ensued about the relative value of these animals in culinary terms. After weeks of consultations with all sorts of people, the resounding conclusion seemed to be that we just could not live without our beloved cows. And the rationale? beef is delicious, yes, but what would we do without cow’s milk, and all the products that derive from it?

Farm Fresh Fantastic

SO, a dedicated group of gluttons braved some seriously chilly, wet weather to celebrate these fantastic creatures, and I think we would all agree it was by far worth the effort. The streets of Annecy’s old town are lined with producers wearing mostly traditional garb and enthusiastically promoting their best products. The classic reblochon cheese was there, of course, but even more interesting was the tomme de montagne, a slightly yellowish cheese that tastes remarkably like cheddar, but less salty and more subtle. There were also over 20 varieties of sausages on display, ranging from the ordinary, to the peppered, to the nutty, and even a variety that is made with blueberries! But the star of the meat show was a beautiful chunk of smoked ham. I bought a half a kilo of it, along with one each of the blueberry, hazelnut and pepper sausages. A lot for one person, but they were so fresh and tender that they will likely keep for another couple of weeks.

As the rain came and went, we warmed ourselves up with regular cups of hot mulled wine – the first of the season for me, and not a minute too soon. We paired it with a healthy portion of tartiflette, a dish that was basically invented in the 1970s to boost sales of reblochon. Although far from the best I’ve tasted, it did the trick: the potatoes, cheese, leeks and bacon did a fine job at keeping us full and warm.

The bakers were all in fine form as well, with fresh loaves of bread coming out of the oven every 15 minutes. Needless to say, one of those disappeared so quickly, we didn’t even have time to add the butter being churned and packaged fresh a few stands down. The local varieties of desserts unfortunately were lacking in apples, but I managed to find a beignet (donut) with apple sauce in the center, which went marvelously well with the fresh pressed apple juice.

Crafts to Carry it all Home

The market is also peppered with demonstrations of traditional crafts, like saw-milling, doll-making and basket weaving. At the end of the day, hands full of plastic bags with enough treats to feed an army, I couldn’t resist the temptation to buy one of the baskets. When else would you ever have the chance to buy something that was crafted just minutes before?

In sum, the day was a real delight (what rain and cold?). What was perhaps most remarkable was the atmosphere of the place and the attitude of the people. It is so clear that the producers love what they do, that they do it with passion and dedication and a respect for tradition that makes these products so good. And the whole town contributes to that passion, the streets alive with song and dance, musicians in little tunnels singing with gusto and feverish emotion, the crowd clapping and singing along to old French songs, and in the background the sounds of cow bells and Alpenhorns to complete the total sensory experience. What can I say, this one is not to be missed- next year!

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