Malga: A Symbol Of Shepherd Life in the Alps
Crystalline peaks and green pastures is what comes to mind when dreaming of the Alps.
Today, traditional wood and stone structures best known as malghe host Alps-lovers who wish to spend their time surrounded by amazing landscapes in full respect of the place’s traditional culture.
By definition, a malga is a small structure which was conceived as a shelter for shepherds during summer months in the Alps. Malghe also generally comprise a barn for the flock and a laboratory for processing milk and producing yoghurt, cheese, and other milk derivatives.
Their original function is deeply connected to a whole set of activities known as alpeggio. During alpeggio, happening over summer, shepherds lead their flocks up to a height of 2,700 m a.s.l., according to a series of well-defined phases. Starting with climbing up the valley to first stop at 700-1,000 m a.s.l., shepherds and their flocks then rest between 900-1,300 m a.s.l. at the so-called low-altitude malghe, and finally, spend the end of Summer with the younger individuals of the flock between 1,400-2,000 m a.s.l. at the high-altitude malghe.
This process results into partitioning the flock across low-altitude and high-altitude malghe. The reasons why alpeggio is so important is that it has been proved extremely useful under many different aspects: it strengthens the animals through intense physical activity and as a consequence it has a positive impact on the products that derive from the animals themselves.
Today, more than ever, malghe represent both a symbolic and operative landmark for all actions aimed at preserving traditional landscapes in the Alps. Over the last few years, an average of 300 malghe a year have hosted around 8,500 animals with milk production and processing still happening in about 80 malghe out of a total of almost a hundred on the Alps area.
Clearly, if on the one hand some have kept their original functions, many others are now abandoned. In the second case, socio-economical isolation and impoverishment, poor-quality infrastructures and no generational change with young people leaving for life in the cities have played a decisive role in their decay.
Recently, local governments released a series of funding programs with the goal to revitalize traditional landscapes in the Alps, which also included interventions on malghe. According to the official county website, Provincia Autonoma di Trento, the abandonment of those structures must be addressed as they embody “a unique cultural and gastronomic heritage, a fortress of the local cultural identity.” Malghe have always been at the heart of high-quality cheese production, preservation of unique local breeding, and valorization of mountain areas.
Today, malghe offer both tourists and locals a unique opportunity for experiencing the Alps. Many of them have turned into traditional restaurants, hotels and shops selling local products, yet in full respect of their original architectural structures and integration with the natural landscape. Malghe are an exemplary case of sustainable landscape promotion which demonstrate once again that contemporary and traditional values can successfully coexist.
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