From the attic window in the alpine chalet, a fine mist can be seen hovering over the valley in the pubescent dawn, the sun still to rise over the mountain peaks. Gradually, as the morning lengthens its shadows, the mist will dissipate, the valley light will shimmer in the promise of a clear day and the high mountains will be framed by a blue window.
This momentary vista is a mere glimpse of the absolute magic of the Rhône Valley, in high summer a sumptuous land full of growth, at summer’s end a mystical land like this morning. All the way from the expanse of the lake known as Léman where cormorants gaze into the water from the rocks at Château de Chillon to the magnificence of the Aletsch Glacier where chamois look askance at solitary hikers high above the longitudinal plain, this Swiss valley canton offers something unique in the world.
It is the first week of October. The grapes have been harvested, the chestnuts have been collected and apples, apricots and pears have been dried and pulped and fermented and left whole. Tweaks have been made to apple pie recipes. New wines have been selected. Rounds of mountain cheese have been declared ready. Legs of beef have been salt-spice cured, air-dried and delicately sliced, also ready. Batches of rye bread have been baked. Finally the apples pies have been prepared … and baked. Everyone is ready!
Hand-picking sweet chestnuts from the woods alongside the Rhône under the high peaks is an old tradition of the people. Traditionally the chestnuts were roasted over an open fire, taken inside and served with chunks of mature mountain cheese accompanied by fresh grapes, pieces of apple and pear, grape (must) juice or young wine to wash everything down. Nothing unusual there, just the typical country fare of the canton.
Except this is brisolée, the autumn harvest plate of the people who tend the land where the Rhône is joined by the Dranse at the acute turn eastwards into the valley below the Bernese Alps at Martigny.
Here chestnuts abound between the river, the town of Martigny and the adjacent village of Fully, where the annual chestnut fair is more than a celebration, it is an event characterised by brisolée and fondue and the traditional produce and products of the valley.
The roast chestnut, cheese and wine tradition morphed into a café culture in the Martigny-Fully region in the 1960s when café and restaurant owners realised they could replicate the domestic culture, and offer buffet-style versions of the original plate in a celebration of the change of the seasons.
Brisolée became a traditional dish with an appeal beyond the Martigny-Fully region. Now it is an aspect of the food culture in the Swiss-French speaking areas of the Valais and neighbouring Vaud along the Lac Léman shore. Chestnuts, cheese and wine remain the common denominators of the dish, except among those (including the organisers of the chestnut fair at Fully) who include other Valais products, such as the air-dried beef produced in the canton and various charcuterie. Deep red in colour, these thin slices of beef give off an aroma that is unique to their producers. They compliment brisolée.
In the home the older tradition prevails, with apple tart an integral component. The rye bread of the region is now an essential component of the café and fair culture, and sometimes a brisolée plate will contain roast chestnuts, cheese, rye bread and air-dried beef.
A good place to sample brisolée is the Restaurant de Plan-Cerisier above Martigny Croix on the switch-back road into France.
2 bottles new wine
1 kg apples, cored, quartered
1 kg chestnuts, washed, notched
1 litre must (white grape juice)
1 kg pears, cored, quartered
1 rye bread, cut into thin slices
500 g mountain cheese, cut into chunks
500 g white grapes
180 g dried beef slices
Roast chestnuts for 35 minutes in oven at 200°C. Wrap chestnuts in a cloth. Serve chestnuts with buttered rye bread, cheese, dried beef, white grapes, apples, pears and must.