Cows have a very special place in the pantheon of Swiss animals, and these peaceful creatures are a fixture of the country’s landscape. Not only are cows icons of Swiss culture, they also play a pivotal economic role – especially in Fribourg. Even if you’ve never been there, chances are you’ve tasted something from the area: whether an authentic Swiss milk chocolate bar or a creamy fondue composed of Gruyère and Vacherin Fribourgeois cheeses, your taste buds may already be familiar with the region. And it is milk that is the stuff of life in this Swiss canton (county). The cows set the tempo for the local inhabitants, dwelling as they do in the collective consciousness.
The local arts community has always paid tribute to the role cows play in both the Fribourg economy and culture. Traditional pieces, such as poyas (wood paintings), can be seen in museums and art galleries but also on the façades of farms. They depict the long procession of cows, farm animals and herders climbing to alpine pastures. The Désalpe, or, descent from the mountain pastures, is the name of an authentic festival every autumn that sees hundreds of people clapping joyfully to bell-clanging cows fitted with colourful headdresses.
Other artistic homages include music, with many simple songs often in local patois recounting the story of herdsmen and cattle. The most famous, “Ranz des Vaches”, easily conjures a profound nostalgia for any Fribourgeois traveling abroad. Switzerland may be an increasingly urbanised country, associated with banking and multinationals, but Fribourg has a different feel, as many Fribourgeois still have family connections to a nearby chalet or farm, and often the memory of a bucolic upbringing persists throughout life.
Ferdinand Hodler, “Taureau fribourgeois d ans un paysage” (circa 1879) at the Musée d’Art et d’histoire of Fribourg
The sturdy “Bull fribourgeois in a landscape” at the Art and History Museum is a reminder that the black-and-white ungulates seen in pastures all over the country are often called “Fribourgeoises”, since they wear the colours of the canton’s flag. Unfortunately this breed, as captured by painter Ferdinand Hodler, became extinct in the 1970s, only to be replaced by crossbreeds, mainly the Holstein.
Equally admired and feared, bulls have always exerted a fascination on certain artists. Hodler, a major Swiss painter of the nineteenth century (1853-1918), was one of them, and he depicted several bulls and cows during his years teaching at the University in Fribourg. This bull figure blends seamlessly with the hilly landscape.
The museum also hosts an unparalleled collection of medieval sculptures, paintings and stained-glass windows. Fribourg remained loyal to the Catholic Church during the Reformation, and therefore managed to preserve numerous works of art – more than many other Swiss regions. Other collections capture the history of Fribourg’s economy, involving guilds and corporations of craftsmen that sold their wool and leather as far as Oriental bazaars, and the times when the male population provided mercenaries to popes and kings.
Three markets take place every week in town, two on Wednesdays (Place GeorgesPython and Rue du Simplon) and the main one on Saturday mornings between 6:30am and noon. About 70 stands spread out from the lovely City Hall square into the adjacent Grand-Rue by the Cathedral of St-Nicholas, a jewel of Gothic architecture. This market is where it should be: in the medieval heart of the city, where for centuries urban dwellers have met with farmers from the surrounding countryside.
The local population enjoys an immediacy with local producers: trading recipes, tasting new delicacies and ending their shopping stroll with an apéro. Join them to sip a local craft beer, or chat over a glass of white wine, such as an emblematic Chasselas, the most important autochthonous (native) grape produced in Switzerland. Look for a bottle from the Vully area of the canton of Fribourg. Note that the world here is slightly upside down, with the mild, lakeside wine-producing region in the north and the colder cheese-producing Prealps in the south.
For an unmissable cheese to savour during a picnic or at home, ask at any of the various stands or vans, where you can taste the distinct ripening stages of Gruyère or the singular tang of raw milk products.
This historic and somewhat mythical restaurant is a must. The warm and genuine hospitality appeals to locals, visitors, students, businesspeople, politicians, hockey players and artists alike – the Fribourg-born kinetic sculptor Jean Tinguely was a noted regular. The home-style no-fuss cooking features traditional Swiss terroir dishes, such as rösti (grated potatoes), horse steak, blood sausage, countryside salad, cheese on toast and meringues with voluptuous double cream, the perfect clou (finale) after any fondue.
Audacious eaters should take two fondue pots (“caquelon” in French) to compare the fondue moitié-moitié (half Gruyère, half Vacherin Fribourgeois, water and white wine, eaten with bread) and the fondue fribourgeoise (potatoes dipped in melted Vacherin only, a bit of garlic and some lukewarm water). Don’t lose your piece of bread (or potato) in the fondue or the round of drinks is on you!
The Vacherin Fribourgeois is a semi-hard and semi-cooked cheese that is only produced in the canton, originally only at the onset of the alpine pasture summer season, when milk was scarce. The world-famous Gruyère is the big brother of Vacherin Fribourgeois, and they traditionally age side by side in the cellars. Gruyère ages up to 18 months and has a signature pungent aroma, while Vacherin ages for only up to six months and retains a creamier texture.
Thirty minutes outside of Fribourg sits the Cailler factory, located in the village of Broc. It is open daily for visitors eager to get a taste of Swiss chocolate and its history. No surprise that cocoa is not a local Swiss product, but this exotic raw material was transformed into a national icon by grey matter and white gold. Chocolate lovers can thank Daniel Peter for inventing in 1875 a process to manufacture milk chocolate. This heritage was continued by Cailler, following a merger in 1911, and it is now the oldest chocolate brand still in existence in Switzerland, plus the only to add liquid milk, which it sources locally. You can see the cows peacefully grazing along the rolling green landscape of the Gruyère region.
To understand more about the pivotal role milk plays in Fribourg’s culture and history, visit the Musée gruérien in Bulle, located only a few minutes away from Broc. The museum provides a broad overview of the cultural heritage of the Gruyère region and its inhabitants. There’s also a beautiful collection of folk art, which continues to thrive in the region (cow bells, carved wooden cream spoons and poyas).