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Confracourt and Alpe Fidels Cow Day

Having won the favor of some friends by lending them a scanner, you were invited to a holiday house in the French countryside for the weekend. The weekend after you worked for a day on a dairy farm, learning how cheese is made and clearing trees to expand grazing land.

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Contrafort France

Following your purchase of a Nikon CoolScan 4000 (real name), several people jumped up and asked if they could borrow it to digitise their old 35mm films. Happy to take a break from scanning your own 1500 photos from Japan, you lent it to Grèg and then planned to give it to Flora. As thanks, she invited you and Meike to her parents holiday house in the French countryside.

Guillaume arriving in Confracourt

On Friday evening you headed off from Zürich with Flora, Guillaume and Athénaïs (their baby daughter) to Confracourt - a place situated equidistant for all landmarks and cities in France. In other words: as far from anything else as possible. Three hours drive later, after dropping your cherry tomatoes at Guillaume's feet and you ducking down towards his crouch find them - such things apparently prohibited by Swiss law - you arrived in Confracout after dark and fumbled your way inside.

With daylight the next morning you took a tour of the house. It was a big old country home, made mostly from stone and rough wood. The previous owner, the postman, had renovated the house himself over many years giving it a personal, if not somewhat hotch-potch, feel to it. The house opened on many sides to a large grassy garden with a vegetable patch and swing set. Nestled between the house and garden was an airy courtyard adjoining several rooms with wooden shutters. The front of the house was, in comparison to the back, quite run down with several crumbling walls. Many houses in the village were in a similar state: some more decayed, and others remastered into fantastic country homes. The village seemed to be a renovators' paradise.

In the garden

You got to work mowing the lawn - part of your contribution to the weekend, but also fun - while others played with Athénaïs and tended to the house. After half a day's toil you had some snacks (cheese and wine of course) in the courtyard. Athénaïs sure was a hungry baby. She protested the moment her hands were empty and wanted to try everything people were eating.

Playing with hay bails

That afternoon you went on a small hike through the nearby forest. The road you took trundled past fields of sheep and hay bales, and then wound its way up into the woods. You took the unbeaten track through the middle towards a lake. Upon emerging from the trees Meike assumed some mud to be dirt and almost lost her thong. Her leg was covered in thick smelly mud for a while after that.

Relaxing in the garden, French style

Saturday evening you went to a restaurant in the village. They had been talking it up for most of the day, yet you weren't sure what to expect. Athénaïs, having played hard all day, fell obligingly asleep leaving everyone in the restaurant to think the stroller was empty. The restaurant was part of a hotel and had a talented young chef. Rumor had it that his restaurant earned a star rating but declined it to keep the place accessible for the locals. Firstly Flora and Guillaume spied the wine menu, trying to get the insider scoop from where their wines were sourced. The food stood up to the rumours. For only 44€ you were lavished with a three course meal, interspersed with appetisers and pallet cleansing gelato creations. The food was fine and yet still country sized, so you had some trouble to eat on. The appetiser was pea mouse with frozen gaspachio, the entrée terrine rabbit, mains lamb, post-mains cheese cart, pre-desert mint mouse, desert cakes and after-desert tarts. Already by the time the cheese cart was wheeled around you were exploding. That cart must have had over forty cheeses, and Guillaume seemed willing to coste it all.

Speedminton: a fast game

Sunday was spent sleeping in and relaxing in the garden. You set up the slackline between two trees for a while, and played speedminton - like badminton but faster - while Athénaïs ate and napped. During the day you went to the roundabout / water spring for some more drinking water. The village was actually provided with water from an underground spring, pumped up and left flow into a central basin. The building was designed as a prototype structure for many future constructions a certain architect would propose and build. It was really cool. The village had a small market, where you spent an hour wandering, then drove back to Zürich into some heavy rain.

Alpe Findels Cow Day

Last year in you were on the train heading towards Säntis and talking to Meike and Steffen about birthday presents for Sandra. You had nothing to contribute so just read the Züricherzeitung (newspaper) someone had left on the seat nearby. Inside was an ad for cow rental - a curious offer to reserve the rights to cheese and butter a cow produced, on the condition you went and helped on the farm. That seemed right up her alley but was a tad pricey, so you got her half a cow instead.

Present day, and you both offered to help Sandra tend to her cow on the alp dairy farm. The day started at 6am at the gondola station in the valley. Getting there was only possible by car; without a proper navigation system you ended up touring through several nearby mountain villages and doing some high-speed rally driving to get there on time. You took the cow gondola up and walked the twenty minutes to the farm.

The dairy farm house, and the Käser making Käse

The dairy collective were a cheerful bunch of mountain farmers, all quite happy to be working on a weekend up a hill in the rain. For you, the weather could have been better. Their barn and farmhouse sat on neat area half way a hill, which looked over the valley in one direction, and towards Bodensee in the other. Affront the house was a quaint garden of rocks, flowers and old boots. You noticed the old boots were being used for flower pots in several spots over the farm, which had a subtle charm.

The cheese dude explained all about cheese making while performing his daily cheesing duties. He mixed the milk in a huge copper vat - heated to the precise temperature to keep his bacteria and enzymes happy - adding water and stirring with a washing line thingy (cutting, mixing tool). Following which, breakfast was served in the shed: thickened milky goop with sugar - a hearty alpine substance of which 400g would keep you going all day. It tasted like warm lumpy butter.

Clearing yew trees to make way for grass

After breakfast the fifteen or so participants split up into groups. Some went to repair fences, while you headed down the mountain to lop some trees and open up the space for grazing. The rain hadn't subsided and most people had donned their raincoats. The weather didn't seem to bother some Marmots, who poked their heads above ground and were squeaking. The area was on a lower plateau spotted with pine and Eibe (yew) trees. It was a rough descent.

For the next three hours your task was to drag logs to the fence and throw them towards the cliff. The farmers took care of the chainsaws, which was probably for the best, while everyone else did the heavy lifting. The rain became slowly heavier, soddening the ground into a muddy mess and soaking people through. By z'nööni (morning tea) Sandra's back was feeling it, Meike could have entered a wet t-shirt contest (if he'd worn white, that is), Steffen's boots were full of mud and you had scratches on your face from javelin-throwing tree branches. The group only lasted another hour. You'd run out of space to pile logs anyway.

Cheese storage and art

After the hard work you retired to the cow shed and had some alpe macaroni amongst the piles of cow poo. The big surprise came after your made your way back down the mountain and were just about to leave. All day people had been wondering just how big the allotted 30kg of cheese would be. When they began unloading the goods from the gondola and Sandra went to claim her present, she was given not three full cheese wheels, but six! That, together with her 2.5 kilograms of butter, took up some space in the boot of the car.