From melted cheese to venison, the Swiss region of Valais bursts with mountain flavours

While some of Valais’ cuisine is just what you’d expect: nobody looking for cheese is going to leave disappointed, some is very surprising indeed. A journey across the region reveals the very best in hearty, mountain fare.

Published 24 May 2021, 09:48 BST
Trains are the best way to traverse Valais, and a two-day Adventure Card for the Matterhorn ...

Trains are the best way to traverse Valais, and a two-day Adventure Card for the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn, gets you unlimited travel on various transport routes, plus discounts on mountain railways.

Photograph by Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn

At the eastern end of the Swiss canton of Valais, ancient glaciers like the Rhône send the purest water rushing forth on a long and fruitful trip to the Mediterranean. Before that torrent pours into Lake Geneva and out again towards France, it nourishes the flatlands of the Rhône Valley and helps water the mountain slopes above. It’s no surprise, therefore, that while Valais is famous for its wild, spectacular beauty and giant peaks — of Switzerland's 48 4,000m mountains, 45 can be found in Valais, there’s a whole cuisine, and accompanying wines, to keep the hikers and bikers happy after hours. On a journey through Valais, writer Nina Caplan explores four regional dishes and the best places to experience them.

From Bettmerhorn Panoramic Restaurant one can see the great Aletsch Glacier stretching into the mountains. If this gargantuan mass of ice were melted, it could supply every single person on the Earth with a litre of water, every day, for 3.5 years.

Photograph by Getty Images

1. The dish: Cholera
Try it at: Bettmerhorn Panoramic Restaurant, Aletsch Arena

Thanks to its sloping streets, ideal for skiing to your hotel door, and the cable-car station at its centre, the car-free Alpine village of Bettmeralp looks season-ready even in summer. An early departure from my hotel is scheduled, but I’ve deliberately woken ahead of time to watch the sun peek over the mountains, the spellbinding, pyramid-shaped Matterhorn slowly coming into focus from the hammock on my balcony.

After a quick breakfast, made slower by my fellow diners’ good-natured attempts to help me search for the correct German term for the tasty, salted rolls, a little like pretzels, filling my breadbasket (we settle on laugenbrötchen), I join my guide, Jasmine for a walk through the village. Umber wooden houses slope downhill towards a little 17th-century church, and beyond, views stretch out over glacier-carved terrain to the Bettmerhorn lookout, my next stop.

From up here — 9,000ft above sea level — I can see the UNESCO-listed Aletsch Glacier stretching 12.5 miles into the mountains: a sight extraordinary enough to make me quite forget about lunch. But no sooner have I sat down by one of the glass walls in the panoramic restaurant than chef Michael Keiser appears before me. “Here’s your cholera,” he announces, cheerfully.

Nobody knows exactly how this dish got its name, but most people agree it’s an unlikely outcome of an epidemic of the disease in around 1830. A specialty of Aletsch, the ingredients — apples, potatoes, leeks and cheese (although when I ask around, it appears the leeks are optional, and sometimes controversial) — would probably have been what was available during the time of sickness, when leaving the house to buy, trade or hunt food was discouraged as dangerous.

I tuck into the pie, chunks of potato covered in melted cheese spilling from the beneath the firm crust, and consider just how familiar that advice sounds at the moment.

Today raclette is a full-fat, tangy, unpasteurised cheese with a Valais AOP quality designation.

Photograph by Getty Images

2. The dish: Raclette du Valais AOP
Try it at: Restaurant Vieux Chalet, Saas-Fee

The village of Saas-Fee is encircled by glacier-covered mountains, making what would normally be a short walk to Restaurant Vieux Chalet a slow affair. I have to keep stopping to take photos of the amazing black outcrops, their slopes encased in ice. The meltwater, properly directed, makes for lushly grassed lower slopes, well-fed cattle and, in turn, great cheese.

“Water is like bread: without it, people starve,” I’m told in one Alpine museum, while in another I learn the fascinating history of the suonen, man-made wooden channels that once threaded along the steep mountainsides, sending water where it was needed, and of the sander, men who performed the dangerous work of maintaining them to ensure the water flowed freely.

While these waterways are no longer needed, meltwater remains as crucial as ever, and indirectly I have these ice sheets to thank for the cheesy feast I sit down to that evening. Wood-lined and warmly lit, Vieux Chalet specialises in fondues and raclette. “Everyone has their own herbs for mountain cheese,” says owner Liana Andenmatten-Supersaxo; “plus the temperature and altitude it’s stored at also affect the taste.”

I tuck into the butter-yellow lake of raclette, made by melting the surface of a cheese wedge then scraping it off. While this was originally just a useful way for shepherds to eat while their cattle grazed up in the mountains, today raclette is a full-fat, tangy, unpasteurised cheese with a Valais AOP quality designation, and served here alongside delicious, fluffy potatoes brought out in a canvas bag.

My meal leaves me certain of two things: firstly, that as long as there’s meltwater, nobody in this part of Switzerland is ever likely to suffer from hunger, and secondly, that the crisp white wine known as Fendant, made from the Chasselas grape, is the perfect match for cheese. Valais is Switzerland's biggest wine growing region, and this bottle is local; I just hope those shepherds had some handy, for man cannot, after all, live on water alone.

In Valais, venison is often served with red cabbage, sprouts, apple, walnuts, mushrooms and a bowl of enormous homemade spätzli (noodles).

Photograph by Getty Images

3. The dish: Venison
Try it at: Waldhüs Bodmen, Saas-Fee

During a morning’s mountain biking above Saas-Fee, I stop for a scenic drink in a cafe among the pine trees. Enzio Bregy, my guide, trains the table binoculars on a hillside across the valley, pointing to a lone wooden building barely visible to the naked eye. “That’s our lunch stop,” he says with grin.

An hour and a half of vertiginous cycling later, I’m sweaty, starving and my legs have turned to jelly, but we’ve finally arrived at Waldhüs Bodmen, a restaurant-cum-menagerie complete with rabbits, goats, llamas and even a camel (“Not a Saas-Fee native variety,” Enzio remarks).

The menu proves to be meat-focused, with specials including pepper steak and lamb fillet with gratin. There’s also fried veal sausage with onion sauce and rösti, delicious crispy fried potatoes that resemble hash browns, and Walliser teller, a platter of local cured meat and cheeses. And then I spot the venison.

The autumn hunting season has just begun, and the cut I’m served is rich, succulent and full of flavour, so tender it falls apart on my fork. It’s served with red cabbage, sprouts, apple, walnuts, mushrooms and a bowl of enormous homemade spätzli, usually translated as noodles, although these were closer in size and shape to dumplings. Everything is local, including a fine Pinot Noir which adds a pungent hit of redcurrant to the proceedings.

The 3100 Kulmhotel Gornergrat is the Swiss Alps’ highest hotel, reached via a 30-minute ride on a cogwheel train from Zermatt.

Photograph by Getty Images

4. The dish: Älplermagronen
Try it at: 3100 Kulmhotel Gornergrat, Gornergrat

The Swiss Alps’ highest hotel, the Kulmhotel, is reached via a 30-minute ride on a cogwheel train from Zermatt. The train trundles slowly past forests and glaciers, with the Matterhorn and its mighty neighbours watching your ascent. Once there, you have two options: start hiking or have lunch.

Älplermagronen — large macaroni with cheese sauce, potatoes and caramelised onions, accompanied by apple sauce — is a stomach-lining oddity from this border region, its contents an intriguing mix of the local and exotic. “We Swiss would smuggle cheap cigarettes into Italy and bring back pasta,” my guide, Amadé Perrig, tells me. Since pasta was considered a luxury item, it was bulked out with local produce: apples, cheese and, of course, potatoes.

“Every meal, I still have potatoes,” Amadé tells me proudly, his Swiss-German accent leaping from one ‘t’ to the next like a deer from crag to crag. Given that he’s in his 70s, he must be about 80% potato by now, I think, smiling as he bursts into an authentic, tuneful yodel.

Back in Zermatt, Amadé walks me past the glossy shops full of watches and ski gear and down a side street and suddenly, we’re in old Zermatt, surrounded by 17th-century timber houses or stadel, on stilts. Animals were only butchered every November when Amadé was a child, and after being rubbed with salt and herbs, the meat would hang in these houses for months air drying. “Everyone had their own recipe and way of doing things,” he says.

He fondly describes gsottus (boiled, peeled potatoes with butter) and käseschnitt (fried bread with a mild cheese, steamed in white wine), and recalls his mother’s cooking: “She churned butter, but her cheese was awful — it tasted like rubber.”

It’s a thrill to bypass the modern shine of a touristy town and encounter the memory of an ancient tradition that’s been preserved, much like the Valais dried meat itself, and then passed on to me to savour.

Plan your trip

SWISS flies from Heathrow to Zurich and Geneva Airport from £82 return. Once there, trains are the best way to traverse the region. A two-day Adventure Card for the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn, gets you unlimited travel on various transport routes, plus discounts on mountain railways and other tourist activities, from CHF 109 (£92.50). Alternatively, consider a Swiss Travel Pass, costing from CHF 232 (£200) for three days (CHF 198 [£170] if under 26). Zermatt to Gornergrat on the Gornergrat Bahn costs around CHF 80 (£70) return, or why not upgrade to a gourmet ticket and make the most of the delicious food on offer. The Aletsch Explorer Pass gets you access to cable cars throughout Aletsch Arena, connecting hikers to some of the best treks in the area and costs £50 a day. Stay at Hotel Waldhaus, Bettmeralp, where doubles cost from CHF228 (£195). Between July and August, diners at the Drehrestaurant in Saas-Fee can enjoy a sunrise breakfast.

When to go

Switzerland is beautiful year-round. In spring, the mountains are carpeted in wildflowers and temperatures are mild, while the winter ski season runs from November until April. Summer skiing is possible in Saas-Fee and Zermatt from mid-July, however.

To find out more, visit myswitzerland.com  and to book your next trip to Valais, go to visitvalais.ch/shop

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