"Transhumance is one of those words you only find in dictionaries," cheese advocate and educator Daphne Zepos told a rapt audience of two dozen cheese lovers at this weekend's Seattle Cheese Festival. "You never come across it unless you herd sheep."
Yet it's a word that should matter to eaters who care about cheese and tradition, since it refers to the seasonal migration of people with their livestock. The cattle drives that stretched from Texas to Wyoming count as transhumance, as do the yearly moves Tibetan families make with their yaks. But the transhumance that most interests cheese lovers is the annual relocation of European dairy farmers from valleys to high mountain pastures.
"It's an insane idea," Zepos admits. "Which mad farmer would think of doing it?"
A farmer with foresight, it seems. As Zepos explained, removing animals from lower fields allowed farmers to harvest hay for the winter, while also giving their cows, sheep, or goats a varied diet.
Transhumance was common throughout mountainous regions of modern Switzerland, France, Spain, and Greece in the centuries before industrialization.
"As the snow slowly receded, as the village woke up in the spring, the barn doors were opened and out came these fabulous animals," Zepos said. "They've lived in a dark, warm cocoon, close to their sisters, totally peaceful."
The animals were then herded up hills in a zig-zag pattern, often encountering nasty weather along the way.
The payoff came when the animals reached ripe, blooming pastures.
"Ruminants will not graze like a Hoover," Zepos said. "It's all picking and pecking. So in that kind of pasture, they choose from a tremendous variety. Summer milk will have subtleties you'll never find in winter."
High Alpine pastures have 1000 plants and herbs that don't exist anywhere else, giving the strongly flavored cheeses created through transhumance an exquisitely unique character.
The practice of transhumance is fading, even though it's been simplified by motor vehicles. But it's provoking increased interest among consumers.
"When I first started doing research, it was the most obscure topic ever," Zepos says. "Now when I Google "transhumance," I get 70 videos."
The term "transhumance" is rarely used at the cheese counter, but Zepos urged her listeners to seek out "summer cheeses."
"The higher the elevation, the more you're eating a piece of history," Zepos says. "Because I'm Greek, I feel it's like eating marble out of the Acropolis."