Holidays at an Alpine farm

Holidays at an Alpine farm

Here is a proposal for all those who wish to experience the great regenerative “medicine” offered by the rhythms of life of the peculiar upland world. Whether traditional or modern, you are invited to climb up to an Alpine farm in the early morning so as to see and hear the cattle grazing and witness the processing of milk to produce butter, cheese and soft curd ("ricotta"). Milk products can be bought directly and the cheese-maker is always happy to quench any curiosity you might have. Remember that tastes and flavours change at every Alpine farms: why not searching for the “perfect taste”?

The younger visitors have also the opportunity to follow herdsman to the pasture and, under their safe and competent guide, appreciate blueberries and raspberries, know medicinal or culinary herbs and flowers, see or hear the true inhabitants of these places such as – to name just a few – eagles, chamois, roe deer, deer and groundhogs.

In addition to the accommodation available at every Alpine farm, which is specified on our website, you will find that at some structures you may savour traditional dishes and taste products of the mountains of Friuli, sleep, maybe in a sleeping bag, and thus enjoy an enchanting starry night with all its sounds.

Don’t forget, whether outward bound or on your way back, to visit the hamlets and villages from which you set out to climb to the farm with suitable means. These places, framed by mountains and woods of incomparable beauty, contain amazing curiosities and spots of historical and cultural interest.

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Alpine grazing

Alpine grazing

The century-old practice of Alpine grazing means cattle farming with herds at high elevations.

It mainly owes its origin to agricultural, economic and practical reasons.

In the Alps and Pre-alps the livestock, particularly cattle, was the main source of income, therefore the greater the number of heads that could be maintained, the greater the livelihood opportunities for a family.

Tightly linked to the economic aspect are haymaking operations which, in the villages of mountain valleys, lasted from June to September and occupied people from dawn to dusk.

At the same time, a stable with animals to tend to required a strenuous daily commitment, to the detriment of haymaking. It is evident that, by sending the cattle to graze on the mountains, farmers could spend more hours producing hay in the amount needed to maintain their animals when they went back to their stables at the end of the season.

Even considering the vast social changes of the last few decades, the basic reasons for the origins of transhumance still apply, although we are no longer talking about small family farms, but of larger livestock production units that are managed according to the latest management techniques.

The Alpine farm

From the 13th of June – the feast of St. Anthony – to the 8th of September – the Nativity of the Virgin Mary – the uplands fill up with cows, sheep and goats who discreetly live side by side with the typical frequenters of Alpine pastures, such as chamois, roe deer, deer, hares and groundhogs, to name just the most famous. Let’s now make our way to the Alpine farm, that summer residence which some children called “the summer house of cows”.

We define the Alpine farm as the assembly of four elements: the pasture “passon”, the drinking trough “aip” or “poce da l’aghe”, the barn “loze” and the dairy hut, “casere”.

Of the four, pastures and water are the most important, since the width, location and quality of the grass of the former and the crucial availability of the latter are fundamental for the cattle to “stay” here, for their numbers and the quality of their lives. Herd shelters – “las lozes” in Friulian – are brickwork buildings whose roofs were once covered with slabs of larch wood – the “scjandules” – and hatched in the sloping direction.

The “casere" is a brickwork building resembling a normal house built near the stables, often closing a circle or another geometric shape according to the soil structure.

A traditional dairy hut is an austere building with the bare essentials for living and for milk processing.

At the ground floor there are two rooms: one used as a kitchen/accommodation for the farmer and for the full milk-processing cycle, the other, smaller room is used for ripening the “celâr” cheese. The floor is made of stone and at the centre is an open-flame hearth that allows smoking ricotta cheese loaves placed over a grill, the “secjarole”. There is no ceiling and the smoke leaks from the special rise in the ridge beam of the roof.

The staircase built in a corner leads to the upper floor where the wooden attic over the cheese ripening room includes a garret for sleeping over.

Nowadays almost all these buildings have been renovated, made more functional and meeting the current hygiene regulations.

A bit of history

As all over the Alps, on the Alps and Pre-Alps of Friuli Venezia Giulia mountain grazing has a century-old history with atavistic rhythms, timing and customs.

There is precise evidence of transhumance dating back to the time of the Patriarchate of Aquileia (1077-1420). Particularly significant is the concession made in 1275 by the Patriarch Raimondo della Torre to the population of Carnia, who allowed them to reclaim lands previously used as meadow and pastures after paying a “tithe”.

The most fertile areas were reclaimed to try meeting the growing feeding needs of the population. The resulting loss of plots of land drove farmers to search for alternative pastures, causing the expansion of those in upland areas by clearing woodland. In mid-high mountain lands barns – the so-called “stâi” – were built in order to accommodate the cattle in the summer: it climbed up there in June and fed on the meadows removed from the village, while the forage fields in valley floors were scythed to create the hay reserve for the cold season. Alpine farms (or "malghe") were built at higher altitudes.

After the fall of the Patriarchate and its replacement by the Republic of Venice (1420-1797), the exploitation of summer pastures was regulated and restrictions for sheep and goats were introduced to protect beech woods, in particular.

In the short Napoleonic period (1797-1814) the municipalities ("comuni") were set up, with no new developments for the uplands.

During the Habsburg rule (1814-1866), the use of pastures and woods was increasingly regulated and the Municipalities, which had received their Alpine farms as gifts from the patriarchs, sold some of their properties to private individuals. In this period the survey of Alpine pastures became very important. That they were assigned a higher fiscal value than meadows near villages or on valley floors shows the importance of Alpine farms for the Habsburg administration.

In 1866 Friuli was annexed to the Kingdom of Italy and late 19th century laws favoured woods to the detriment of pastures, but most Alpine farms were not affected, as they were often located beyond the timber limit.

Yesterday and today

The negative impact was particularly heavy on Friuli Venezia Giulia, where mountains – accounting for more than 40% of the Region's surface – are hit by adverse economic and social circumstances, in addition to being marginal compared to most of the other Alpine areas. In the early 20th century our Region hosted around 350 active Alpine farms and their number remained large until after WWII when, following the expansion of the industry and of the services sector, a swift drop set in.

In order to correctly read the latter data, which might imply a dramatic slump, the recent phenomenon of the consolidation of some summer pastures into a single economic entity should be taken into consideration. Hence, fewer but larger farms.

The modernizing process of Alpine farm structures caused structural and sanitary adjustments of housing and processing rooms and the enhancement of access and service roads to Alpine pastures, thus simultaneously promoting tourism. Over the 90s a number of high-altitude production units were modernized in order to develop rural tourism including catering and accommodation.

Human presence

An Alpine farm is located in high mountains and only opens in certain seasons. The main individual in charge here is the farmer who, whether owner or tenant, steers the various activities: from keeping and looking after the animals under his care to managing pastures, from organizing the working day to coordinating human, animal and material resources. Usually his practical tasks consist in processing milk and tending to the kitchen. He is helped by his collaborators – the assistant cheesemaker and the herdsmen – who are specialized according to their age and experience.

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Alpine farm products

Alpine farm products

The scenery of the mountains of Friuli, from an agricultural viewpoint, is historically linked to the presence of numerous small households, each cultivating their own small plot of land, in all its production and environmental protection aspects, so as to reap all its fruits for themselves and their families.

In the past we had witnessed a slow, irreversible abandonment of shepherding practices in Alpine pastures. Nowadays, thanks to the revival of typical cheese productions, numerous young Alpine breeders are encouraged to renew their interest for mountain agriculture and to make cheese, ricotta and butter with inimitable characteristics.

Those are tasty products with a long tradition, so much so that it can be said that every Alpine pasture brings to the fore multiple taste notes and aromas with their dairy products.

The variety of soils, vegetation, and microclimates of each “malga” and the absolute natural qualities of feed rations for animals make their milk rich in ferments and microorganisms whose number and species are typical of each environment.

This lively microscopic world, which is populated by billions of organisms, along with the characteristics of the buildings where milk is processed and ripened, positively affect the development and the fullness of the aroma of these products.

Malga cheese, smoked ricotta and butter are the dairy symbols of the Friulian mountain; also remember that the “Formadi salât”, the “Cuincîr” and the “Formadi frant”, along with goat cheese, are rightly counted among the historical dairy cultures of our land. The “Cuincîr” or the “Scuete frante” is the just pressed and ground ricotta which, after adding cream, salt, pepper and, sometimes, wild fennel seeds, acidifies and ripens in special containers for 40 - 50 days.

Malga cheese

Formadi di mont, or Çuç, or Formai de malga

Typical of the uplands throughout the region, malga cheese is found in Carnia, Val Canale, Canal del Ferro, near Gemona and in the mountain area north of Pordenone. Its typical cylindrical shape with flat faces presents with an 8-10 cm side, a 25-30 cm diameter and weighs between 4 and 6 kg.

Its rind is smooth and fairly regular. Its paste tends towards the straw yellow colour, variably brilliant, with holes changing in size but uniformly distributed.

It is obtained from the semi-skimmed milk which is milked in the evening and mixed with the whole morning milk, to which some goat milk may be added (max. 15%).

The cheese technology includes the use of natural milk starter cultures in order to improve the microbial flora within the mass and to protect the typical features of the product.

Traditionally the milk, after being poured into a copper cauldron, is heated over a direct wood fire, then it is coagulated with powdered bovine rennet. Then cheese is processed according to the indications for the months from February to July.

Its taste is strong on the palate with pasture vegetable overtones, sometimes accompanied by a slightly bitter, albeit pleasant, aftertaste.

If aged in the “celâr” for a long time, it may even be used as grating cheese, as “Formadi vecjo di mont”.

Smoked ricotta

Scuete fumade di mont

In addition to the malga cheese, smoked ricotta is also produced in all Alpine dairy farms of our region. It is one of the products most appreciated by Friulians and is often included in traditional dishes.

Slightly conical in shape, it weighs between 0.5 ad 1 kg, with a raw, brown surface. The paste is white, dry and grainy in the grating version, while it is softer and pastier in the table version.

It is obtained from the whey left over in the cauldron from cheese processing, and is sometimes enriched with a modest amount of milk. After being brought to the boil, after adding an acidifier sometimes replaced by the “siç” (whey acidified with sorrel and beech bark), the milk becomes ricotta and floats to the surface.

The ladling into bags, draining, pressing, and smoking steps are illustrated by the images for the months from August to September.

It stands out for its delicate taste and for the apparent overtones that emphasize its slight smoking (2-4 days). If this stage lasts for 10-15 days in a ventilated area, excellent grating ricottas are obtained.


Spongje di mont

This product, in Alpine culture, is obtained from the “brume”, the cream that surfaces from the evening milk, rich in lactic ferments and sufficiently acid to produce a high-quality dairy product.

Churning, i.e. beating the cream, helps break the outer membrane of fat globules and separate off the aqueous phase (the “batude” buttermilk). The fatty substance in the fluid phase encapsulates all other components of the cream and is responsible for the butter’s peculiar structure.

While tasting it, the following ought to be assessed:

the yellow colour caused by the presence of carotene in the fresh pasture grass;

the pasty and melting texture changing according to the animals’ food and to the temperature during the technological stages of butter-making;

the odour, which is either stronger or fainter according to the degree of ripening of the cream;

the slightly acid taste due to the ripening milk cream. A good balance is signalled by the fresh feeling it leaves in the mouth.

Since fat has the property of absorbing external odours, storage methods should be chosen with extreme care.

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Cattle breeds

Cattle breeds

Traditionally, Alpine grazing requires that, during summer, the cattle bred in valley-floor farms be transferred to mountain pastures. As a result, the breeds found at high altitudes mainly mirror the same distribution of the various animal populations we find in livestock farms on the plains.

Next to the “Italian Dapple Red”, “Italian Braunvieh”, and “Alpine Grey” cattle breeds, which fit well into pastures, other breeds may be observed, such as: the “Pinzgau” and the “Pustertaler”, which share marked rusticity and are the result of genetic selection applied to cattle populations that have adapted themselves to the specific local conditions of the Alps.

The pasture represents an ideal condition in terms of animals' well-being, as a consequence on Alpine pastures we can sporadically find other cattle breeds, such as the “Italian Friesian” which are less suitable for mountain grazing. Most often they are replacement heifers from the dairy farms of the lowlands that prefer favouring the harmonic development of their cattle by ensuring that they spend some time on the mountains.

In some Alpine farms cattle breeds are also found which are mostly used for meat production, such as the “Limousine”, whose presence is accidental or linked to the need to ensure that the pasture is fully exploited.

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Geological notes

Geological notes

The Main Carnic Range as well as the massifs of Julian Alps and Pre-Alps have always aroused a great deal of interest among geologists owing to the presence of a number of stratigraphic successions which are extremely rich in fossils. These sedimentary strata of marine origin ranging from the early Palaeozoic to the late Mesozoic are like the pages of an open book recounting the history of life on earth.

These effects are the result of massive thrusts of the Hercynian and Alpine orogenies, of the African Plate towards the Eurasian Plate, which determined the rise of seabeds in multiple waves over millions of years, until the Eastern Alps range was formed.

That is why around Monte Fleons, near Forni Avoltri, evidence of the earliest life forms can be found, such as bryozoans and trilobites from the Ordovician period (450 million years ago). The massifs of Monte Avanza and Monte Coglians are part of the coral reef of the Devonian (350 million years ago) and are rich in brachiopods, gastropods and crinoids.

In the areas of Monte Dimon and Monte Zoufplan are outcrops of volcanic rocks dating from the Carboniferous, which were generated in submarine environments, the so-called pillow lava (300 million years ago). Further south, the mountain groups of Arvenis-Zoncolan, Cucco-Tersadia, Sernio-Grauzaria and of Amariana, which overhangs Amaro, can be seen; they were formed between the Permian and the Mesozoic (250 million years ago) and features fossils of the most advanced life forms: Cephalopods and Ammonoids.

In the Neozoic period the most superficial deposits of glacial, lacustrine, alluvial or watershed origins were formed which, through alternating glaciations, have led to the current orography of our territory. Those who walk along itineraries from one Alpine farm to the next, paying attention not only to the enchanting scenery of the Alpine landscape, but also to the rocky outcrops that they sometimes stumble across, may train their eyes to discover the infinite world of fossils which, silent and petrified, recount our origins.

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Environmental Protection

Environmental Protection

Climbing up to an Alpine farm allows us to plunge into extraordinary environments and dreamy landscapes, furthermore, with some luck, we may have chance encounters. Many are the animals that we may observe by looking carefully through tree branches or along slopes: titmice and woodpeckers, squirrels, roe and deer, on cliffs chamois and Alpine ibexes.

The soundtrack is one of the best: wind through the branches of firs and beeches, twitters and, on the background, the sound of brooks and creeks flowing.

Your eyes may feast upon the delicate beauty of asphodels, ferns, lilies or globeflowers. Furthermore, in the pastures the mountain arnica, carlina, gentian, as well as the rarer orchid and pulsatilla may easily be spotted.

Alpine grazing cause an increase of the overall degree of biodiversity and are a decisive factor in the protection of soils from erosion. The richness in flora and the resulting presence of countless species of insects, small mammals and invertebrates ensure the survival of majestic birds of prey and numerous other animals.

It is crucial to know that some animal species now may be observed only in these settings, suffice it to say that the watering holes where grazing heads drink are one of the last habitats of the mountain frog, of the Alpine salamander and of the newt.

The numbers of Alpine game birds have also shrunk lately and they are considered at risk of extinction. The application of traditional upland bee-hiving techniques guarantee the increase and maintenance of open landscapes, favouring the reproduction of mountain pheasants and of rock partridges.

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Goat cheese in Alpine farms

Goat cheese in Alpine farms

The passion for goats is not new in Friuli, rather, it is the confirmation of an old tradition. The breeding of this hoofed animal has always had solid roots in Carnic Alps and recently has roused some renewed interest, with a growing number of lovers of delicious goat dairy products. A small amount of goat milk is usually added to the cauldron in order to give some typical undertones to the “Formadi di mont”. In some Alpine pastures the processing of pure goat milk has allowed ancient dairy traditions to be revived. Goat milk is particularly suitable for cheese-making. Its clotting is fragile but, if processed carefully, offers great satisfaction. Small caciotta cheeses can be found in their softer version (aged for 10-15 days), with a fresh, slightly sour and sweetly goaty taste, or as “formaggelle” with half-cooked paste, suitable for long-term aging, with stronger organoleptic characteristics, but never overly spicy.

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Pasture vegetation

Pasture vegetation

Upland pastures in our region are found between 800 and 2,100 meters of altitude, limits within which the higher portions of the vegetation zones of beeches and firs also fall. Alpine plants are largely “vivid” and with extremely early blooming, as a result of their short growing season. Since they sprout new leaves as early as in the spring, they can perform their functions more rapidly than the annual plants of the lowlands. Their growth habit is generally low and bunched, with short stems and close leaves forming swards or compact cushions. This characteristic results from the soil being warmer than air and from the need to protect themselves from frost and from intense sunlight, all conditions that limit the stem growth. Most good forage herbs belong to the families of graminaceous, leguminous and composite plants. We also find several aromatic species that uniquely affect the taste, flavour and aroma of the dairy products made with the milk of the cattle that grazes on them.

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The tools of the Alpine farmer

The tools of the Alpine farmer

Climbing up to the Alpine farm means – for those who come from other social and economic milieus – diving into a different dimension of time, where every stage of work is not ticked by the frenzy of everyday life, but by the slow march of time according to the rhythms of nature. We feel free to roam the mountains, in search for new experiences and for something unusual to tell after going back to the valley. Exploring in order familiarize ourselves with our cultural roots and, in unexpected technological environments, to find the presence and the daily use of tools whose existence we did not even suspect. The “glove” (curd knife), the “ghitare” (stirrer), la “cjace forade” (perforated spoon), the “tabio” (pressing table) are only a few examples of traditional dairy equipment still widely used by the Alpine cheesemakers of our region. The “cjalderie dal formadi” (a hanging copper cauldron), the “musse” (a typical rotating frame), the “teles dal çuç” (cloths) and the “sachets da scuete” (the bags for the ricotta cheese) complete the indispensable equipment needed to process milk in Alpine farms. Spending one day on the Alps is not only a physical activity in itself, it is also an opportunity for approaching and understanding this world, a treasure of folk knowledge and wisdom to safeguard with respect and pride over time.

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