Swiss family farm traditions still thrive in Zermatt

Swiss family farm traditions are alive and well in Zermatt, showing there is an alternative to the mega modern purpose built ski resorts so common elsewhere. Development doesn’t have to mean destruction. You can have the latest and greatest lift systems alongside, or over, alpine terrain that reverts to it’s centuries old role of pasture in summer.

A similar story can be found in many of Switzerland’s historic village based resorts.

Wolli lives! Zermatt’s logo character celebrates the Black Nose Sheep © Pascal-Gertschen / Zermatt Tourism

The Julen family are a classic example, branching out from farming to opening a guesthouse 110 years and 5 generations ago.

From those humble beginnings early last century when Andreas and Pauline Julen started, through difficult times, to the rise of skiing and with it Zermatt’s status as one of the World’s best ski resorts, the now famous Tradition Julen group has grown to include 3 hotels (Hotel Alpenhof Superior, Romantik Hotel Julen Superior & Hotel Daniela) and 4 restaurants and pubs (Restaurant Schäferstube, Restaurant Julen, Restaurant Alpenhof & the Papperla Pub).

Papperla Pub is one of Zermatt's best aprés ski venues
The Papperla Pub is one of Zermatt’s best aprés venues © Carmen Price

Finding Wolli and friends

But the Julen family are equally, if not more, passionate about their farm and the traditions that go with that, than the hospitality side of the business.

That includes a big commitment to keeping local breeds like the gorgeously shaggy Black Nose sheep, aka Wollis, and the red Evolener dairy cattle thriving.

Three generations of the Julen family tending their Black Nose Sheep flock in Zermatt
Three generations of Julens tending their flock in summer © Tradition Julen

We met Paul-Marc Julen, great-grandson of Andreas and Pauline, and got to understand his enthusiasm while doing a tour of their barns to meet the sheep and cattle and sample some of the traditional produce like air dried meat and cheeses.

If you are in Zermatt with kids the regular Wednesday evening tours (from December through to mid-April) are a must-do, and very interesting for adults too. The black face lambs are drop dead gorgeously cute, the short big headed cattle almost equally so.

Black Nose lambs at the Julen Family Farm in Zermatt
These little woolly wollis are the cutest lambs we have even seen © Carmen Price

Paul-Marc explains the origins of the breeds – the sheep came from cross breeding with wild mountain sheep to produce a breed that could be allowed to roam the alpine meadows in summer then live the barn life through the snowy winters.

There are limits to numbers for both habitats – over grazing would wreck the meadows, while there is not much space left for barns in Zermatt these days. So he keeps the herd around 300, breeding always for the best combination of classic markings, black knees and feet to go with the black faces. The lucky ewes that most match that get to live long lives, while splotchier lambs get despatched to the tables.

The most popular farm tour option is the one followed by a traditional lamb dinner at Restaurant Julen after the farm visit. Or you can just do the tour with a sample of the produce at the barn. The tour is free for guests at any of the Tradition Julen hotels or just CHF 20 for others, book and be there by 5pm at the Romantik Hotel Julen. With dinner it’s CHF 40 for guests or 72 CHF non guests, 10 CHF kids menu.

When one of Zermatt’s biggest dairy farmers announced he would be giving up his herd of the local Evolener cattle in 2014 Paul-Marc’s father Paul stepped in and bought the cows.

“Loss of the herd would would have been a serious blow for the local dairy, which relies on local milk to make the famous Zermatter cheese. The local dairy just couldn’t be shut down” he says. “The idea of producing our own Tradition Julen cheese for raclettes in the restaurant Schäferstube began to take shape – this was the ideal opportunity.“

You won’t argue when you taste it, and checking out the cheese making process if fascinating.

Zermatter cheeses getting the brush up © Tradition Julen

Zermatt’s biogas plant

Not content with preserving the local animal breeds and their produce, the Julens have taking things another big step forward by building a Biogas plant that processes farm manure and restaurant and other organic waste from around Zermatt to produce some 700,000kw hours of electricity a year. That’s enough to make the village close to self-sufficient in energy and cleanly disposing lots of waste. The residue left from the methane production process is used as clean feed for the animals.

Given challenges including the rugged location, the climate, the big seasonal variation in the amount of waste and the need to keep it out of sight and smell of tourists, the Biogas plant is quite an engineering feat. It is mostly underground beneath the barn.

Flat stones kept rodents out of the upper level of traditional Zermatt farmhouses © Carmen Price

Tradition versus Big Box on snow?

Tourism has changed the face of Swiss alpine valley life forever of course, but it’s great to see that traditions can survive, adapt and thrive.

Life was pretty tough in the “good old days” for farmers, as a tour round Zermatt’s old quarter attests. The old wooden houses were built with the barn beneath the living quarters above, the animals supplying heat.

Big flat round stones were placed on the wooden support posts between the levels to deter rodents from stealing the food carefully stored for winter.

Air dried meat and home made cheese were essential items for winter survival then. Now they are perfect energy foods for enjoying the vast ski arena. Seeing how they are made and where they come from makes that extra special.

Some old houses have been re-born as pubs, shops and restaurants too, adding another character layer to the Zermatt experience.

Sure, an anonymous big box hotel or apartment block ski area may offer on-snow convenience, but for our money traditional village resorts generally offer far more.

Useful links

Zermatt resort info

For hotel info and bookings Tradition Julen

For Swiss travel info and ideas My Switzerland

Hotel Julen Zermatt
Hotel Julen Zermatt © Tradition Julen