BOOK | Blue Window | Culinary Adventures in the Alps — Switzerland III

RESTAURANTS CHEMINOTS

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 olma-brätwurst on his menu he 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.

Menu


THE HOTELIER OF BRIG

Stefan Welschen didn’t plan to come to Brig. His paternal grandparents Olfred and Anna Welschen had converted the late 19th century house in Saflischstrasse into a hotel in 1944. They made the old apartments into rooms, added a restaurant and tried to meet the demands of travellers and customers. It was ideally located. Five minutes from the railway station, five minutes from the main road, five minutes from the old town of Brig. Giving their customers what they wanted, the Welschen hotel gained a reputation and for three decades it flourished.

Then there was a ’generation problem,’ as Stefan puts it. ’My Dad went off to school in Lausanne when he was 18, so did his brother and they didn’t come back, they left. They went out in the world, they went to work in London, in a five-star hotel. ‘Since my grandparents retired in 1974, the hotel was rented out.’

Stefan’s family settled in Zürich, where he was born in 1975. Once he was of age, Stefan followed his father’s footsteps and went out into the world. Armed with chef skills, a hotel management degree and three languages – his native Swiss-German, French and English – he sought work in the hotel trade. ’After I finished hotel management school I was lucky that I had influential parents in the hotel industry,’ he says. ’I could go where I wanted, to which hotel I wanted to work.’

He decided to go to America. ’I wanted to go somewhere that was a little bit familiar to Switzerland so I choose Colorado and the Grand Palace in Denver, probably the most expensive hotel from Chicago to Los Angeles.’

It was a hotel with a big history. Stefan revelled in it. ’A guy who got so much money in the gold rush built the Grand Palace,’ he says. ’If you remember the movie Titanic? Molly Brown? The old lady who showed the Di Caprio character how to eat correctly at the table, she owned the Grand Palace, so I worked for the Brown house, for two years.’

Stefan cut his managerial teeth at the Grand Palace, where he learned to deal with every culture under the sun and every manner of person. ’You have to get on with every culture,’ is the way he puts it. Returning to Switzerland in 1996 he found it hard to settle. He changed jobs five times in one year, then found himself in a rut after three years in a job that made him question his life. ’I was the kind of guy who couldn’t work under another guy,’ he says.

At a crossroads in his life, Brig beckoned. In his grandparents’ day, the restaurant was a big attraction. When Stefan decided to take his family’s hotel back from the last people who rented it, giving them a year’s notice in 2000, he had a concept in his mind.

The new restaurant would be a crucial element in that concept. His chef would be top class. His menu wouldn’t be out of place in a five-star hotel. The decor would reflect the railway theme of his restaurant – Cheminots Brig.

In Stefan’s mind the Ambassador would be a little big hotel. In 2001 he employed a Zürich friend for a couple of weeks to help out, doing the cooking himself. Gradually he built up a clientele, but it was more important to establish standards and that meant finding the right people and paying good money. ’If you haven’t got a good salary you cannot expect good people,’ he says, ’so I hired really professional people.’

Among the first to join him was Maria Grazia Vincenzi. She came to work the front desk. ’She’s Italian and she can do everything,’ he says of the woman who is now a fixture, like himself, in the hotel. Maria-Grazia and Stefan are contrasts.

Always laid back, she operates the front desk like a lake boat pilot, ready to respond to any eventuality. Most of the time she is sat in front of the computer in the narrow room behind the counter of the front desk. When she is needed elsewhere in the hotel she quietly goes about her business. Always on the go, he never sits still. His wiry frame floats like a ghost through the small hotel, always attentive, eager to please, with an answer to every enquiry, he is constantly available – to his employees, to his regular customers and to his guests. The mountains dominate Brig. They go straight up. At their peaks and on their slopes skiing is prevalent. Rosswald, immediately above the town, is the closest ski centre.

Belalp, Riederalp, Bettmeralp and Fiescheralp are a skip and a jump away, while Zermatt, Saas-Fee, Leukerbad and Crans Montana require a little more effort to get to. Yet there is more to Brig, to the long and high valley canton than snow sports. For a hotelier like Stefan Welschen, it is the whole tourist package. ‘I personally cannot financially keep up with the big chains,’ he says. ’My only chance to be able to work in the market and make happy customers is to offer them a good service. A personal service. A personal touch. Small hotels, family hotels depend on the personal touch,’ he insists. ’Working with the guest, help with advice whatever, do this extra effort, it gonna help you become competitive in the market. Otherwise you go under.

‘It’s my belief that in the future it’s gonna be even more important, this personal touch. The guest searches more and more especially in the time of technology and computers and everything. Through the personal touch you can find out if the guest needs help, needs advice, and this is much more appreciated by the guests. They want to see something you know, especially in a hotel, and so that’s my success here. I have the best occupancy in Brig because I try to get in touch with everybody.’

The Simplon Orient Express offered Brig a chance of global recognition. In turn it attracted travellers and tourists into the canton. They glanced up at its mountain peaks and marvelled at their majesty. They weren’t the first and they won’t be the last. Brig grasped that chance, and smart hoteliers like Stefan Welschen have learned how to embrace the opportunities.

Ambassador Hotel

Brig to Fiesch (train) 39 / 41 minutes


FIESCH
Imwinkelried Bakery

The three wise men holding their forefingers to their lips know a secret about Appenzeller cheese. They are not the only ones in the mountains and valleys with secrets. The recipe for roggenbrot is also closely guarded. We asked around. The woman in Brig Tourism said, ‘Why don’t you ask a bakery for their recipe?’

‘We have,’ we said.

‘Yes,’ she then said. ‘My own recipe is a secret.’

She told us to go up to Eggerberg.

‘Any bakery in particular?’ we said with a touch of irony.

‘It is a small place, you will find it.’

Eggerberg village occupied both sides of the road that meandered up the mountain, about 1000 metres above Visp, west of Brig. We travelled seven minutes on the Lötschberger train from Brig. Backhaus Eggerberg was sat back from the road, a few hundred metres from the railway halt. It was closed or shut, we could not be sure because there were no signs of life. Back in Brig, Maria-Grazia, the manager at Hotel Ambassador on Saflischstrasse, directed us to Fiesch, the seventh stop along the line that carries the Glazier Express into the east of Switzerland.

‘There is a bakery on Hejistrasse. It has a cafe,’ she said.

‘Open all day.’

We surveyed a map of the town and realised we could navigate a narrow path out of the railway station down to the road that ran parallel to both the rail-line and the Rhône river.

In the shop a mature woman greeted us with a blank look when we asked whether there might be someone who could talk about roggenbrot.

Crestfallen we wandered out and immediately wondered where the cafe was. Then we saw the set of steps at the side of the shop. A young woman appeared. We ordered coffee and cake, and asked again about roggenbrot, whether it would be possible to get the recipe. She smiled, made the coffee and said, ‘I will ask for you, please sit.’

Minutes later a tall man appeared holding a piece of headed notepaper.

Then he began to explain.

Imwinkelried bakery and cafe is one of 60 establishments in the canton that makes the traditional rye bread of the region, (roggenbrot in German, pains de seigle in French). Rye bread, once a stable of the canton’s traditional food, is back in the ascendancy. Imwinkelried bake it plain, and with hazelnuts and with the fruit of the canton.

They also make the local pastries made with carnival dough, known as chräpfli, of which later. If you decide to visit this wonderful bakery to sample their traditional breads and pastries, walk back along the town-side platform. In front of you, past a house, a narrow path winds down onto Hejistrasse. The bakery is immediately across the road, the cafe above.

Pliny the Elder championed Alpine rye bread two thousand years ago. A thousand years later rye bread was the main source of daily food in Swiss valley villages. A native of central Asia, rye moved westwards into Europe as a weed growing among cultivated barley and wheat where it was noted for its hardiness, making it a staple grain crop during Pliny’s era. From the evidence at Imwinkelried and small bakeries like it, rye is here to stay. [snip]

Imwinkelried Bakery

Fiesch to Göschenen (train) 106 minutes


GÖSCHENEN
Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn

Our next train, the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn (the one you see at the bottom of each page), is also a slow, stopping train. We are going all the way from Fiesch to the terminus at Göschenen, a journey of ascents and descents in just over 100 minutes. If you are alert, when the train leaves Andermatt – the penultimate stop 14 minutes from Göschenen – you will see the sign of the devil on the wall of the rock face above the ravine below. [snip]


GÖSCHENEN & ANDERMATT
Teufelsbrücke

We are walking up from Göschenen back to Andermatt. It is a very tough walk, as anyone who has done it will tell you, hard on the calf muscles, so we are taking it very slow. Our penultimate stop before Andermatt is the high ravine where the river Reuss has been forded for millennia. Our attention is the location of an old bridge, now gone, known as teufelsbrücke (devil’s bridge). It is celebrated for many reasons, not least an event recorded by Tadhg Ó Cianáin, who kept a diary of the journey undertaken by Irish Earls and their followers through Europe 400 years ago.

’The country of the Swiss is well fortified, uneven, mountainous, extensive, having bad roads, and no supremacy, rule or claim to submission by any king or prince in the world over the inhabitants. In themselves they form a strange, remarkable, peculiar state. It is said of the people of this country that they are the most just, honest, and untreacherous in the world, and the most faithful to their promises. They allow no robbery or murder to be done in their country without punishing it at once. Because of their perfect honour they alone are guards to the kings and princes of Christendom.’

When they reached the devil’s bridge, tired and weary from the hard walk from Göschenen in the valley below, calamity struck. The story is told from the perspective of the man who was blamed. [snip]


ANDERMATT
Schöllenschlucht

[snip]

Göschenen to Andermatt (walk)


ANDERMATT
Irish Ghosts

Beyond Andermatt on the ancient trail is a little stone chapel. Blessed by Archbishop Galdinus of Milan in the 12th century it is a timeless artefact. Finding faith in the heavenly heights of the mountains kept walkers going, especially when there was a place nearby to rest the head and ease weary limbs. It is also a reminder that for tens of thousands of years the only way to travel was by foot. We would take you there, even take you south, following Irish ghosts wondering about lost gold, but we need to go east and we are going to rest our weary limbs in the comfort of the Glacier Express.

Andermatt

Andermatt to Thusis (train) 214 minutes


RHONETAL URSENTAL VORDERRHEINEAL
White Winterland

Poet Johann Wolfgang Goethe of Frankfurt took his first trip to Switzerland in June 1775, and like the Irish Earls before him he found himself on the Gotthard Pass in the Urserental – the middle section of a longitudinal furrow through the Swiss Alps, forged by glacial ice millions of years ago.

In his Swiss Travelogue he wrote: ‘The moderately foaming river meandered gently through a flat valley, which was enclosed by mountains but was nevertheless sufficiently wide and inviting to the dwelling. Above the clean village of Ursern [Andermatt] and its church, which faced us on level ground, rose a spruce grove, sacredly respected, because it protected those from higher-rolling snow avalanches. The famous Ursern cheese was found [in the village], and the exalted young people had a good wine tasting excellently to increase their pleasure even more.’

Four years later on his third and last visit, this time at the onslaught of white winter, Goethe described the Urserntal as ‘the most desolate region of the world – a monstrous monotonous snow-capped mountainous desert’.

Despite appearances the Ursern valley was not as deserted as it looked, and had not been for almost a thousand years. Mountain passes had allowed farmers from the Vorderrhein valley to spend summer months with their herds in the valley. Gradually they settled and when families from the Goms valley did the same, the Furka and Oberalp passes became part of a trading axis linked to the Gotthard Pass, the emerging hamlets of Ursern the beneficiary. The creation of the Schöllenen path in the 1100s put the Ursern valley on the map. It became a small alpine republic and did not become a part of the canton of Uri until 1803 when the area began to attract tourists as well as traders.

Now a local municipality, Ursern had responsibility for the roads through the mountain passes. The new roads attracted thousands of tourists who came to witness the unique alpine panorama. In 1914, 19,102 people travelled by horse-drawn post-coaches over the Furka Pass. The same year the Brig-Furka-Disentis (BFD) railway company ran a service to Gletsch, below the Furka Pass. When the Furka-Oberalp (FO) cog railway between Oberwald and Realp was opened in 1926 it became possible to board a Swiss Railways train at Martigny in the Rhone valley, change at Brig for the Furka line and connect with a Rhaetian Railway train at Disentis for the journey to Chur in the Vorderrhein valley.

For 56 years road and rail provided a panoramic vista for summer tourists in the heartland of the high peaks. The Furka line could not carry trains in winter. In 1982 it was closed when the Furka base tunnel was opened. The winter wonderland of the Ursern Valley became a reality for those who wanted to witness Goethe’s ‘snow-capped mountainous desert’. The opportunity for a ‘glacier express’ along the Rhone, Ursern and Vorderrhein valleys would not be missed.

In August 2010 the Oberwald and Realp line was re-opened for the use of summer steam train traffic. Operated by the Dampfbahn Furka-Bergstrecke company, it is now possible to travel the 20th century mountain route from June until October, with stops at Gletsch and Furka.

That original line had followed road and river, meeting the Reuss river below the Furka Pass, and continued alongside the Reuss valley to Andermatt. This is where the climatic influence is greatest. Open to easterlies and westerlies, heavy precipitation (with snow 184 days a year) and bitterly cold winds, winters in the Ursern valley are harsh and long. Summers are generally warm but wet.

Those first settlers in the Ursern contributed to the monotonous landscape. They cleared forested slopes to gain new pastureland. Their animals denuded the slopes. Constantly threatened by devastating avalanches, the valley was almost bare when houses began to dot the landscape. In 1397 a notice was issued that forbid the removal of the trees by their inhabitants and their descendants. Experience showed that a forested slope provided protection against avalanches, rockfalls and whitewater.

In 1874, the federal government approved the first project for avalanche barriers and reforestation. By 1950 three new forests had been created, the forested land around Andermatt was doubled and forest wildernesses were created to promote biodiversity. Now there are almost 170 hectares of high forest in the Ursern Valley. The hunting of deer, chamois, marmots, foxes and badgers is allowed for two weeks each September. Small game hunting season runs from 15 October to 30 November. Wild berry collecting has no limit but wild mushroom collecting has a daily limit, – no more than 500 g morels, 2 kg chanterelles and 3 kg porcini and other mushrooms.

DFB
Furka Pass
Oberalp Pass
Walking Routes


ANDERMATT
Glacier Express

For us the Glacier Express will always be a train for winter and since the Furka Tunnel (featured on the back cover of this book) opened in 1982 it has run from Zermatt to St Moritz unimpeded, revealing the enchanting white wonderland of the Swiss Alps. The story of this train is not revealed in the impressive tourist figures (’oh you must do the Glacier Express’). It is something much deeper, and alluded to by Iso Camartin in the wonderful 2005 large format production (with fantastic photos by Robert Bösch), The World of the Glacier Express, published by AS Verlag of Zürich.

’To this day, the technical structures designed for this line by the early pioneers of railway engineering still amaze admirers from near and far,’ writes Camartin, a native of canton Grabünden. ’The Glacier Express connects three Swiss cantons, different linguistic and cultural landscapes, each with their own building styles and forms of habitation. The journey provides views spectacular as well as unpretentious, wild and dangerous as well as idyllic. Throughout the year, the Glacier Express offers new glimpses of the daring solutions devised by the engineers and constructors to overcome the hindrances and secure the connections between landscapes and people.’

This is the true story behind this train, the cultural connections that link the people and places of the Valais with their counterparts in Uri and Grabünden. From the Matterhorn, above the ski resort of Zermatt, to the Galenstock, above the Furka Pass, and Piz Bernina and Piz Palü at the border with Italy, the people live with these imposing peaks, forever in their debt.

Camartin, a Rhateo-Romansh scholar, knew the implicit reasoning behind these cultural connections, but it was German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who understood what it meant. ’This is a metaphysical landscape,’ he said, a place that is never the same. The railway presented challenges to the people of the Alps, and now that several generations only know the railway age it is important that tourists and travellers experience that culture, especially their food culture (the whole purpose of this little tome). Those who want the full Glacier Express experience should devote two or three weeks to the trip, and get off at each stop where accommodation is offered, and walk alongside the lakes and rivers.

We recommend Brig, Fiesch, Oberwald or Realp, Andermatt, Disentis / Mustér, Thusis, Filisur, Bergün / Bravuogn and Samedan. It is all very well to travel on this train but it is still a very good idea to get off, find a suitable vantage point and marvel at the exquisite bridges, spiral tunnels and towering viaducts on the route. You are spoilt for choice. The train crosses 291 bridges and viaducts, and enters 91 tunnels. And of course the train also gives majestic views of the landscape that cannot be seen from footpaths. To appreciate them you need to be in the panoramic carriage.

The GEX leaves Zermatt at 8:52 in winter, and at 7:52, 8:52 and 9:52 in summer. It can be met at Visp, Brig, Andermatt (as we have done on this journey – coming up from Göschenen), at Chur and Filisur (with a change for Davos). We are getting off at Thusis.

Glacier Express
Chur
Disentis Sedrun

Thusis to Andeer to Thusis (walk)


RECIPE — Älpler Fondue Appenzeller Extra, Emmental, Sbrinz + kirsch, white wine

RECIPE — Bündner Cordon Bleu Graubünden breaded escalopes

RECIPE — Bündner Bohne und Gerstensuppe Graubünden bean and barley soup

RECIPE — Bündner Nusstorte Graubünden nut cake

RECIPE — Bündnerteller Graubünden plate with air-dried beef and accompaniements

RECIPE — Capuns chard and sausage parcels

RECIPE — Maluns toasted potato pieces

RECIPE — Pizokels peak shapes

RECIPE — Schoppa da Jotta barley soup with smoked meat, vegetables and cream


THUSIS
Viamala

The Schöllenen is one of the four ancient trade routes through the Swiss Alps. The others are the Saint Bernard, the Simplon and the Splügen! If the Schöllenen has the abysmal path, the Splügen has the bad path – viamala in Graubünden Romansh, the Roman dialect that continues to thrive in this scenic region of Switzerland, sharing an expansive culture with the Swiss-German speaking and Italic peoples at both ends of the Splügen Pass.

This ancient route, a mule trial for countless centuries, links Thusis with Chiavenna in Italy. Legend dictates that the viamalaschlucht was worse than the schöllenenschlucht, so we are going to find out for ourselves. It is a testament to the Swiss sense of place that the path in this steep-sided rocky gorge has remained accessible, but there is one major reason for that. The viamala is a magnet. It attracts hikers because it is challenging. It attracts tourists because it is dramatic, one of the great scenic trails in Europe.

We are following the sight and sound of the hinterrhein (the upper Rhine) as far as Andeer – a four hour walk at a leisurely pace. As the sun is shining we are stopping for a picnic – alpkäse with weggli, chocolate, with apple juice and pear nectar.

The viamalaschlucht, like all gorges, comes alive when the melt water crashes down from the heights, the light dancing like fairies on cool, clear crystal waters.

Viamala
Thusis

Thusis to Li Curt (train and bus) 160 minutes


THUSIS
Bernina Express

It was our intention to take a panoramic day trip to Poschiavo through the heart of the Swiss Alps on Rhaetian Railways’ Bernina Express and treat ourselves to lunch on the train. The route from Chur to Tirano over the border in Italy is spectacular and the Bernina Express would have given us a chance to experience it from those wonderful wide windows that leave nothing to the imagination.

Because we are required to be in Li Curt – our intended destination a little further up the line from Poschiavo – in early mid-morning we now find we have to take the seven thirty train from Thusis through the Albula valley under the pyramid-shaped Üertsch peak to Samedan and change to the bus service, which will get us to Li Curt just after ten. [snip]

Rhaetian Railways
Swiss Railways


ALBULA VALLEY
Wild Garlic

[snip]


LI CURT
Graubünden Traditional Foods

[snip]


BERNINA PASS
Mountain Cheese

[snip]

Li Curt to Chur (train) 211-224 minutes


CHUR
Grabünden Plate

[snip]


CHUR
Pear Bread Tradition

Birnenbrot comes from an old, established tradition that even today is interpreted differently in each of the Swiss cantons. One version is made with bread (yeast) dough, another with pastry (oil) dough, yet another with puff (butter) pastry – the latter being preferred by many bakeries because of its lightness.

There are three distinct shapes – thick with filling, like a boat, thin with filling like a wedge (birnenweggen) or like an oblong bread with bits of fruit and nut scattered throughout the crumb.

It has taken us many years to determine the actual difference between birnenbrot and birnenweggen, and to decide on a recipe that has a fidelity to the old tradition.

In the end we decided to adapt a recipe from a 1938 cookbook. The dough is a variation on the recipe for the spiced bread rolls called gewürzzopf. We also added a splash of fruit brandy. [snip]

Chur to Unterwasser (train and bus) 101-120 minutes


SÄNTIS
Appenzellerland

[snip]

Unterwasser to Frümsen (bus) 76-106 minutes


FRÜMSEN
Grandmother Recipes with Karin Lehner

[snip]

Old Recipes

Frümsen to Buchs (bus) 34 minutes


BUCHS

[snip]

Buchs to Schaan (bus) 9 minutes


These are edited draft versions of some the sections that will appear in the finished book.


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