Friday, March 19, 2010

Remembering Raw Milk in Switzerland: The Old Way

When I was a kid, growing up in Basel, Switzerland, there was raw milk for sale at the little corner store down our street. It was a mom and pop shop, and literally just was big enough to walk into. There was one aisle from the door of the store to the counter. Food stuff lined that one aisle and much could be had from behind the counter, if one had the courage to ask. Mother would send me to the store with a litte list, which I usually handed to the shop keeper, who would fill my order.

I must have been five or six when my mother would send my brother and me down to that store for little items that she needed. The shop owner would always give us kids a piece of chiclet chewing gum when we came in to make a purchase. The first time we ever shopped there alone, and were the recipients of that gift of chewing gum, my mom asked us if we had properly thanked the shop lady for the gum. No, we had not. She marched us right back down to the that corner store and told us exactly what to say. At the time, my Swiss German was very much in its early stages, so the whole way there, I practiced my line. Feeling very shy when I finally reached my destination, I rapidly stuck my head into the shop door (of course there was a bell that chimed) and blurted "Danke fuers Kaugummi!" and got out of there like a bat out of hell. I don't know why I was so shy. Culture shock and not knowing the language, perhaps?

Sometimes, the item we needed to buy was milk. My mother always sent us to buy the cartons of ultra-pasteurized milk in the waxy cardboard 1 liter boxes. What else was there, right? But I do have a memory.

You see, across from that store, across the busy street that we were only allowed to cross at the cross walk with the traffic light, there was a farm. My kindergarten class even took a field trip to that farm one day, as I recall. This farm had maize fields growing near the street and a long tree lined driveway leading straight up to the farm house and barnyard. The buildings were typical of Swiss farms: Deep stone walls, wooden shuttered windows and a steeply slanted slate roof. Perhaps the cow barn was attached to the house. They usually are. I remember seeing cows, some horses, pigs, a hay mow, chickens and of course barn cats...all the usual things and animals for a typical, traditional multi-varied farm. We lived near the edge of town and the city had grown up around this farm that had clearly been there for centuries.

And the lady in the shop, one day when I was in there for something, was serving another customer. This was a mystery to me. For the customer brought in a bucket. And the shop lady dipped into a container behind the counter and filled the customer's bucket with fresh milk. Not milk in a carton. Milk from a big silver colored milk cannister. I had no idea at the time that it was raw milk, or what the deal was. I just figured it was "weird milk" that little old Swiss ladies drank who insisted on doing things the old way, and paid no attention to it. I did briefly wonder how one got into that particular loop, but it never occurred to me to find out more or to ask questions. I was too young at the time, and did not speak enough German, and I was never a very inquisitive child.

My other memory of raw milk was at the place where we used to go on vacation in the Swiss Jura Mountains. A friend of our family let us always use their vacation cabin which was situated on a Swiss farm. I suppose it was a dairy farm because they mostly all are, but there were pigs there too. And I do recall Herr Scheidegger working hard to fill his barn with hay for the winter. The cows, of course, were beautiful Swiss brown cows, each with her own bell. (Incidentally, each cow has her bell tuned differently and collectively each herd has it's own "sound" a good farmer will know when/if a cow is missing, just by sound alone. Not that these creatures have a tendency to wander off. They don't.) The pastures surrounded the farm were lush green and each day the cows grazed a different one. Healthy cows eating healthy grass in the fresh country air, and making lots and lots of milk, the old way.

Morning and night they would line up and file into the barn. We got to go and watch Herr Scheidegger with his old fashioned milking stool strapped to his butt with a belt and a single peg. Sometimes he would milk by hand and sometimes he would hook his cows up to a milking machine. I remember big pots of udder cream, and the ever present barn cats. Frau Scheidegger's kitchen was always immaculately clean, as was all the milking equipment.

As a child I was more charmed by the inch worms in the barn yard than the taste of this novelty item we got to drink while we were on vacation: Raw milk...served straight from the cooling cannister right there in the barnyard: The old way..

I can "visit" my old neighborhood using Google streetview. The corner store is long gone, but the farm is still there and looks exactly the same. This makes me so very very happy because maybe it means someone out there is still doing things the old way.


elizabeth said...

good memories here...

GothGirl said...

I remember The Cabin and landscape always had sort of creamy smell permeating everything... It was nice.

margaret said...

Streetview is amazing. I 'walk round' Stamford Hill sometimes.

I am so glad the farm is still there and looks the same because as I was reading your description I was thinking how sad it was that it had probably gone. May it last many years and see the return of more like it.

Anonymous said...

Isn't streetview nice? My husband hadn't returned to really see the changes in his old neighborhood in the bustling city of Omiya, Japan-- since the late '70's. He returned for his father's funeral in the mid-80's but, there was no time to see the effect of time and changes. He was able to relive a lot of memories and catch up on the effects of popular culture by going up and down the streets of his childhood.

I lived in a sparsely populated area of the country, and streetview isn't accessible, but the satellite view helps put into perspective the distance of my paper route and how far I walked to school 35+ yrs ago.

Nice to be able to relive these memories. One of my young married with small son memories is the corner store where my husband with baby in backpack and I walked in the evening past the singing tree (screeching actually, with starlings) to pick up a hand-dipped mint ice cream cone that our infant son had first dibs and thoroughly enjoyed.