This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.
The margari are a traditional cattle-herding people who live in the Alps in Piedmont, a region in northwestern Italy famous for its ski resorts.
These mountain communities have been around for centuries, making cheese from their cows’ milk and generally living a lived steeped in tradition. But new generations seem uninterested in continuing the margari customs; the job is demanding, and many gravitate toward the tourism industry instead. As a result, the margari and their ways are slowly disappearing.
But not everyone is charmed by modern comforts. Roberta Colombero, 32, is one of the few young people to have chosen this traditional lifestyle. “I don’t feel like I’m missing anything,” Colombero said. “When I feel antsy, I immerse myself in nature, with the animals, and there I find my answers.”
Before settling into her Alpine life, Colombero took a few trips around the world, including one to a ranch in the US, which only reminded her of where she grew up. Eventually, she realised she wanted to go back to her native land and keep the family business alive.
Colombero lives near Cuneo, 80km south-west of Turin, at the Valanghe Marmora mountain pasture in the heart of the Maira Valley. Here, generations of her family have followed their livestock in their seasonal migration from the lowland pastures at the foothills of the Alps in the winter, to meadows high up in the mountains in the summer.
Colombero wakes up between 5AM and 6AM every day. “Depending on my mood or on what my body needs, I have a sweet or savoury breakfast,” she said. “All our products are homemade – jams, cakes, butter, eggs and so on.”
Before she eats, Colombero takes a few seconds to silently say thanks for her food, then she heads for the stables to check in on “her girls”, as she likes to call her cows. She milks them manually twice a day, always outdoors. Her routine tasks also include cleaning and caring for the calves, but it all changes from season to season.
The summer months, for instance, are all about making cheese and other dairy products. Colombero sells them to a loyal clientele of restaurants and other farmhouses, plus a few tourists. Her shop is near the summer pastures, about 2000 metres above sea level, right next to where the cows graze and where she makes her cheese.
The family makes butter, yoghurt, blue cheese, robiola and other cheeses, but their flagship product is Nostrale d’Alpe, a cheese made with raw whole milk from Piedmontese cows. Generally speaking, cheese can either be made with raw or with pasteurised milk, meaning milk heated to kill bacteria before the cheese-making process. Raw milk, or unpasteurised cheese, is generally more flavourful because it preserves all the aromas of the Alpine herbs the cows graze on.
“I like to experiment during the summer,” Colombero said of the family’s cheese production. “But I never try to make more than five or six types. I want to preserve our quality and know-how.” A few years ago, Colombero set up an Instagram account to share pictures of her idyllic daily life on the land with her animals, in the hopes of convincing new generations to keep these traditions alive.
But Colombero said she’s sceptical that other young people from the area will want to follow in their families’ footsteps. “People get tired of their hectic lives and jobs, then they turn to nature almost as if it’s a cure,” she said. “But then, we have to see if they keep up with the pace of this life.”
Roberta doesn’t beat around the bush: cattle herding is hard work. “It demands commitment every day of the year,” Colombero said. “You need the right kind of spirit and temperament to do it.”
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