Go to Switzerland and you’ll see what I’m talking about.
Switzerland doesn’t just boast great dairy products, they also celebrate the cow, and all the delicious cheese that is created from its milk. Now I know this isn’t the origin of the expression, but the cows in Switzerland, are there, literally, “with bells on” (I’ll explain later).
My first glimpse of this came when Jan and I headed into Berner Oberland, in the Jungfrau mountain region of the Swiss Alps. After a lunch of “Kebap” in Interlaken, we drove to Stechelberg (and no, that’s not a typo, it’s Switerland’s take on Kebab with the delicious addition of French fries wrapped inside). Here, we parked our car, grabbed our pared-down bags (we would be walking a ways uphill to our hotel), and boarded the Schilthorn gondola up to the car-free village of Gimmelwald. As we waited, we observed the happy mix of cows and paragliders, both courteously making way for one another as the paragliders sailed breezily down into the lush valley from the alps towering above.
The gondola took us up to the top of this picturesque world, enclosed in a little more security than what the paragliders were traveling in. Once in Gimmelwald, we walked up a hill to get to our hotel. Many cows greeted us along the way, and I was amazed to see them all wearing bells. It seemed the higher I got up the hill, the larger the bells were—some were about the size of my head!
I learned that these bells are called trichels, and they are made of hammered sheet metal (verses regular cast metal bells), giving the bells a clanking sound that helps locate cows that have wandered off. The sheet metal also results in a bell that’s not as heavy and easy to carry, which is good for the cows, considering the size of some of the bells.
After settling into the rustic Hotel Mittaghorn, it was time for a short rest. Windows open, it was the most amazing feeling to take in a deep breath of fresh alpine air and hear the soft dinging of cow bells outside, along with an occasional “moo” as they grazed nearby.
Later in the day, we didn’t go crazy with the cheese in Gimmelwald, since we were recovering from our first night in Zurich, where in a cheese-craving frenzy, we ordered both fondue and Raclette in the same dinner.
Rewind back a few days: At Restaurant Swiss Chuchi, we indulged in fondue even though eating fondue in summer is so touristy, we were told (apparently it’s a winter thing). But we didn’t care. We had to have it in Switzerland. And while it was good, I would have been satisfied with just a cup of cheese to dip bread in, verses a large pot.
This led to my first realization: It’s not so much about the cheese (I find Swiss, Raclette, and Gruyère cheeses to be relatively similar in flavor), but what you do with it. The Raclette—an interactive meal experience involving cheese, and also a type of cheese—is just about the coolest thing you can do with cheese (I’ll share more on Raclette in an upcoming post).
Back in Gimmelwald, instead of overdoing it on cheese we had that first night at Restaurant Swiss Chuchi, we enjoyed Swiss wine and a simple dinner of veal, potatoes, and vegetables. This location was more about seeing where the dairy products came from, not overdoing it eating too much of them. This day brought me my second and most important realization that despite hearing otherwise, happy cows come from Switzerland. Again, that it wasn’t necessarily about the cheese, but this happy, peaceful feeling behind it.
And when it was time to go home, it was the happy cows that wished me goodbye. Back in Zurich, one of the largest cities in Switzerland, in the middle of the city, the cows were there too. In the grassy area adjacent to our hotel, tucked between an urban area of hotels and businesses, they were grazing at twilight with bells clanging softly.
Wanting to take this feeling home with me and not able to pack cheese in my suitcase, I bought one small bell to take home with me. I was tempted to go for the giant size, I settled for a “baby” bell, about the size of a golf ball. It’s now tied to the door of our pantry, so I can hear the soft ringing when Jan is working in the kitchen.
Now, the sound takes me back to the mountain village of Gimmelwald, one of my favorite places we visited on our trip. And it’s also a reminder of my new appreciation for the simple joy of Swiss cheese.