Imagine setting aside a wheel of cheese at your wedding. What would it look like if it were served at your funeral? Probably shriveled and brown, pockmarked from decades of mite and mouse nibbles and, above all, hard as a rock! You’d need an axe to slice it open and strong booze to wash it down. Of course, this is the cheese you don’t want to cut even though it’s aged to perfection. However, a fossilized funeral cheese means you lived a long life!
Jean-Jacques Zufferey’s home in Grimentz, high in the Swiss mountains of Val d’Anniviers, is one of the last and rare places you’ll find evidence of this peculiar practice: keeping a wheel of cheese to be eaten at your funeral!
The Val d’Anniviers, a remote valley which snakes up the highest peaks of the Swiss Alps, is a case study in how mountains isolate valleys and villages, breeding unique traditions. In fact, when Swiss anthropologist Yvonne Preiswerk first arrived to conduct fieldwork here, she noted strange funeral rituals reminiscent of ancient Egypt.
“We are struck by a special kind of mountain Catholicism,” she wrote in the 1992 paper “Death, the Priest, the Woman and the Cow: Chronicle of Research in the Village.” In centuries previous, she explained, visitors appalled by these pagan practices had labeled the locals “barbaric,” speculating that they’d descended from the Huns.
The rituals that shocked them involved a peculiar mix of death and cheese, probably an unlikely pairing, but it is the territory that offers an explanation. Along the valley’s winding road to the small mountain village of Grimentz, remote villages cling to the cliffs in the shadows of craggy, glaciated peaks, with a ground is rocky and steep. Seasons are short, except winters, and to survive the cold, villagers had to preserve nutrient-dense food.
That’s why residents of Grimentz, like people elsewhere in the Alps, breed bovines adapted to the steep landscape, bringing them to high pasture in summer. So, with abundant quantity of summer milk, they make giant wheels of cheese.
To render the wheels sturdy, cheesemakers cook the curds to firm them, and press them to expel as much whey as possible. Moisture and heat cause spoilage, speeding up a cheese’s aging process: in the dry, cold mountain air, these cheeses age slowly. While aging of cheese can continue for years, most Alpine wheels tend to reach peak ripeness months later, during the worst of winter when, historically, little else was available. Sliced onto rye bread or melted fireside, cheese ensured a calorie source in winter.
“Devotion” to dairy and cheeses has taken different forms throughout the Alps’s remote valleys. In Grimentz, for example, it manifested in elaborate funerals: after a death, the bells of the deceased’s cows were removed, so that the animals, too, could mourn him. Moreover, families added a “picnic of the dead” to the coffin, which included a bottle of wine, bread, and cheese, but also sturdy boots, because ghosts were rumored to wander the glaciers after dark.
The same foods comprised the all-important burial meal, which symbolized the reconstitution of the community after its tragic loss.
Thus, in a historically poor area, everyone had a wheel of cheese so that they had something to serve at their funeral. When the inevitable time came, the chiseled cheese was washed down with vin des glaciers, the local wine.
While the Valaisan Alps modernized during the 1900s, and villages moved away from subsistence economies, fears of cheeseless funeral tables waned. According to anthropologist Claude-Alexandre Fournier, families gradually stopped overseeing funeral rituals at home. “Mortuary knowledge was no longer transmitted,thus depriving families of the death equipment box,” he wrote in the 2013 ethnography Odette Fournier, Sage-Femme. Yet in a few basements scattered throughout the valley, it is possible still find carefully stacked wheels of funeral cheese!
In Grimentz, Jean-Jacques Zufferey, a local who work at the local department of agriculture, has a family that had forgotten their funeral cheeses, until his grandmother died in 1944. That’s when Zufferey’s father found two very old wheels in her basement.
Instead of eating the cheeses, whose engravings suggest a production year of 1870, Zufferey’s father decided to preserve them and then, the family has added wheels from time to time, building a collection. Rather than prepping for a funeral, they’re dutifully preserving evidence of a disappearing old tradition and what might be some of the world’s oldest wheels of cheese.
Images from web.