A slice of the apple, cheese, pear and potato pie called cholera
Restaurant Cheminots is the talk of the town. Diners leave sated, and promise to return. The menu is always a looking glass into traditional Swiss food.
When available freshwater fish from Switzerland’s numerous lakes are transformed into mouth-watering dishes. La pôchouse, the Burgundian freshwater fish stew in a white wine vegetable stock, takes on a Swiss twist.
Veal has been an alpine ingredient for centuries, largely because it has featured in sausage-making. By putting the St. Gallen olmabrätwurst on his menu owner Stefan Welchen is acknowledging the autumn farm fair in St. Gallen when half a million veal-milk sausages are consumed every year, thus paying tribute to a sausage some argue is the best in Europe.
By serving lamb’s lettuce salad with sautéed bacon, boiled egg and garlic croûtons, he is telling his guests, don’t leave the canton without trying the delicious nutty leaves that can be found grown across the slopes of the valley and sold in the market stalls every Saturday.
Always available are local wines, especially the large white wine called fendant, pressed exclusively from chasselas grapes, that goes down well with fondue and other cheese dishes.
Of his signature dishes several are typical Wallis, particularly the famous vegetable pie with apples, cheese, leeks, onions and potatoes known as cholera from the Goms valley, east of Brig.
The 1830s were difficult for the people of the hidden Swiss valleys. Cholera swept across the land, confining people to their homes, where they relied on the stable foods of the land. Out of adversity this unique traditional dish emerged and survives today.
Imagine this! Here is a truly traditional dish made from indigenous ingredients – gala apple, raclette cheese, bosc pear, local leeks and potatoes with a pastry casing made with local wheat.
Raclette cheese has a special place in the heart of the indigenous people who have inhabitated the Gommer valley since the days of foragers, horticulturalists and hunters – a way of life that has not been swept entirely into the mechanisms of utility Switzerland.
A winemaker called Leon is held responsible for its use as a melting cheese when he accidentally let a half-wheel melt by the fire. It is a good story and that is all. The origins of cheese-making in the hidden valleys of the Rhône river valley go back to before the Romans occupied the region. For centuries, cheese was used as currency among the people and with visiting traders. The people of the alpine valleys have always known what to do with their cheese. The number of recipes that have been passed down is testament to that, across the mountains from the Matterhorn to the Säntis.
So it is not a surprise that the people of the Rhône valley regard their raclette as the true melting cheese despite its wider production in other parts of Switzerland and especially on the other side of the Alps in Savoy, where their Raclette de Savoie, recognised by the European Union with a geographical indicator symbol, is made with the milk of the Abondance, Montbéliarde and Tarentaise cows.
Geographically and historically linked to the area that now defines the canton, specifically the valleys of Bagnes and Goms, Raclette du Valais is a semi-hard cheese associated with the lively Hérens cows. As much a part of Swiss alpine scenery as the chalet and cable car, these cows graze the fragrant flora of sloping meadows along with the black-dotted cows of picture postcard Switzerland.
For hoteliers like Stefan Welschen, raclette is the speciality of the canton, because of its character, variety of its flavours and debate about its quality. The herders of the Goms Valley insist their milk is superior to that of the Val de Bagnes, and vice versa. Once described as ‘delicious, fatty, sweet and soft’, the raclette wheels are consumed by the Valaisans themselves, melted, scraped and served in numerous ways or grilled until its edges are crisped.
Stefan Welchen’s delicious cholera pie is not the only reason I am here in Brig. I am here to take a journey into the past.
Parts 3 to 7 are imminent. After that Cooked Cured Curdled will be an occasional series for a total of 120 parts.
About the Author
Robert Allen is a founder member of the Fricot Project, an editorial advisor with Editions Fricot and a baker with Fricot Experimental Kitchen and School. A journalist since the late 1970s, he has specialised in the history and reality of traditional food in Europe since 1991 as an advocate of sustaintable food security. He has been a specialist baker since the 1980s, and is co-author, with Fricot researcher Anne Addicott, of Brötchen, the hand-made breads pocket book.