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A culinary guide to Vaud, Switzerland's innovative canton

Set between the shores of Lake Geneva and the peaks of the Alps, the Swiss canton melds its culinary traditions with innovation while maintaining a deep appreciation for both produce and place.

By Sara Sherwood
Published 5 Oct 2021, 06:00 BST, Updated 12 Oct 2021, 12:35 BST
The view across vineyards to the town of Vevey, on Lake Geneva.

The view across vineyards to the town of Vevey, on Lake Geneva.

Photograph by 4Corners Images

It’s 7am on a Sunday, and I’ve not had the gentlest of wake-up calls from Swiss farmer Colin Rayroud. Some hours ago, at dawn, I’d woken and climbed down from my berth in the hayloft to milk the cow. Now, having emptied the buckets into a steaming vat in a dimly-lit, wood-panelled kitchen, it feels like I’ve stumbled into a medieval sauna — albeit one that reeks of milk. 

Through the swirl of steam in the dimly lit, wood-lined kitchen, I admire the bright, shiny sides of a 640-litre copper pot hanging over the open wood fire. “This is at least 40 years old,” Colin says of the cauldron sloshing with milk. “My father and grandfather both used it; I learnt everything I know about l’étivaz cheese from them.” 

Since 2005, my host has been making this hard cheese here in the Rougemont area of Vaud during the short cheesemaking season, when the cows graze in the summer Alpine pastures. He started his working life as a carpenter, travelling the world and spending time in the likes of Quebec, New York and Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, home to the oldest and largest Amish community in the US. “The Amish have some pretty interesting farms,” Colin recalls wryly.

Inspired by the traditional agriculture he saw on his travels, he returned to Vaud and turned his hand to cheesemaking. He’s one of only 70 or so makers of l’etivaz, a cheese with strict production regulations. To warrant its appellation d’origine protégée (AOP) designation, the cheese — which has a nutty taste similar to that of gruyère — must be produced between May and October using unpasteurised milk, heated over a log fire. Once made, it’s stored and sold by the local cooperative, which was founded in 1935.

Read more: How to spend a winter weekend in Jungfrau, Switzerland

Colin and his assistant, Alessandra Lapadula, work the intensive production period, alternating between his two chalets so the cows have fresh pasture to graze, and following a strict daily schedule: milking, making cheese, setting the cows out to pasture and herding them in for the night. 

As the milk cools, we add rennet and whey left over from the previous day’s operation are added and the potion slowly begins to separate, grains of couscous-sized curd coalescing. Colin gives me a handful of the rubbery morsels to taste. They squelch against my teeth; there’s no hint yet of the savoury explosion of the year-aged final product. 

As the day winds down, we tuck into raclette heated on a stone by the fire, alongside pickled chanterelles that Colin has foraged. After the meal, he picks up an accordion and starts playing it while tapping his neon-yellow Crocs on the concrete floor. I wonder how he passes the time up here on the mountain. “When I wake, I don’t need to turn on the TV,” he quips. “I just open the window and look at the view.” 

Cows graze in Villars-sur-Ollon, in the foothills of the Alps.
 

Photograph by Alamy

And indeed, stunning vistas abound in Vaud, a mountainous canton to the north and east of Lake Geneva. While it’s easy to be distracted by the Alpine scenery, the culinary culture makes a worthy contender for my attention. Vaud is steeped in epicurean traditions, many of which date to a time before the Romans wandered these parts. Given a sophisticated modern twist, these traditions live on in the district’s fine dining establishments. 

Vaud has more restaurants in the Michelin and Gault Millau guides for Switzerland than any other canton. Among the very best are three-starred Restaurant de l’Hôtel de Ville, in Crissier, and two-starred Anne-Sophie Pic, at the Beau-Rivage Palace hotel in Lausanne. It’s also home to the Lavaux vineyards, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that also turns out some of the country’s best wines. 

To taste them, I head to the Abbaye de Salaz, a third-generation wine estate located between Ollon and Bex in the foothills of the Alps. Here, Bernard Huber leads me through rows of hillside vines, from which he makes a dizzying range of wines. “The excellent exposure allows us to experiment with different grape varieties — it’s sunnier here than in Valais [a canton to the south],” he explains, noting that the Abbaye produces 20,000 bottles a year, including Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Merlot and the region’s most popular grape, Chasselas. The most unusual grape in Huber’s repertoire, however, is Divico, an insect-resistant hybrid of the Gamaret and Bronner grapes, developed in Switzerland in 1996, which allows the producer to work organically. “We’re not certified biodynamic, but we follow most of the rules,” he says.

Read more: How to spend a long weekend in Ticino, Switzerland

Although viticulture in the region has sometimes taken a more modern approach, Vaud and its vines have a long, intertwined history. The story of the region’s wines really starts around 50 million years ago, when the tectonic plates of Europe and Africa collided, forming the Alps and leaving a variety of sandy, stone-filled soils in the valleys. The Romans were the first to cultivate the native Chasselas vines along the lake, a practice later taken up by fifth-century bishops and monks. Today, 320sq miles of terraced vineyards cover the northern bank of Lake Geneva. Protected by their UNESCO designation, they dominate the landscape of this palm-shaded riviera, a playground for expats — from Charlie Chaplin to Coco Chanel — since the late 19th century, when British visitors came here in pursuit of fresh mountain air. 

Merlot grape harvest at Abbaye de Salaz.

Photograph by Visualps.ch

From the genteel shores of the lake, I make the 20-minute drive north west of Lavaux to the Auberge de l’Abbaye de Montheron, tucked away in a forest near a ruined, 15th-century abbey. This year, the restaurant was given a Green Star by the Michelin Guide, in recognition of its sustainable practices: everything emerging from the kitchen of chef Rafael Rodriguez will have been sourced from within just 16 miles. 

Sitting at one of the mismatched wooden tables in the casual, wood-panelled dining room, the Spanish-born, Paris-trained chef presents me with a tender cut of milk-fed lamb. Topping it is a single mushroom and an inky sauce made with fermented fish from Lake Geneva. A blob of minty yoghurt sits beside the lamb and a branch of pine protrudes from the dish — a flourish of ikebana-like minimalism. “I chose that lamb myself,” Rafael says proudly. “The farmer lives just over there, so he lets me come and choose exactly the right animal.”

The Auberge’s owner, Romano Hasenauer, is similarly enthusiastic about the local produce. “We don’t even think of having foreign foie gras or langoustine on the menu,” he says. “If I’m cooking with Swiss products, I feel I must stay within the lines. But that’s why I hired a Spanish chef — he can be creative.”

My time at the Auberge reminds me of what Alessandra had said as we milked the cows that morning. She works seasonally to make l’etivaz, taking a break from her career in human resources, because she wants to do “something meaningful”. This sense of purpose and place, and people’s respect for ingredients, is a thread that runs deep in Vaud — whether that’s here at Rafael’s table, or in the steamy kitchen of a milking chalet. 

Trout, sorrel, and beetroot dish at Auberge de l’Abbaye de Montheron. 

Photograph by LIONEL HENRIOD

Where to eat in Vaud


Auberge de l’Abbaye de Montheron
Spanish-born chef Rafael Rodriguez heads up the kitchen of this restaurant. A gastropub-like interior sets the stage for food of the molecular gastronomy sort: fennel and absinthe foam on a spoon is a textural play of crunchy nuts and light cream; successive lamb courses feature milk-fed lamb followed by a confit of neck, cooked in a mild mole sauce and served with celeriac puree. Menus from 98 or 135 CHF (£77 or £106). 

Le Jardin des Alpes
Taking a seasonal approach to ingredients, Italian chef Davide Esercito showcases the best regional fare in nightly tasting menus that can include pairings with wines from Vaud and Valais. The elegant dining room overlooks beautiful gardens, but get a seat at the chef’s table to admire the work in the kitchen. From an amuse-bouche of beef tartare with salty hints of dried olive to a perfectly cooked John Dory with spinach, each dish packs a flavourful punch. Seven-course tasting menu from 135 CHF (£106). 

Abbaye de Salaz
Just south of Montreux in the foothills of the Alps, this third-generation, 173-acre wine estate grows 12 varietals, including the ubiquitous Chasselas, a beautifully balanced 2018 Pinot Noir and an interesting 2019 Divico. Besides being ecologically sound, this latter grape lends an air of innovation to the centuries-old techniques at play. Contact to arrange a tasting; bottles from 8.50 CHF (£6.70).

Five foods to try


1. Saucisson vaudois: You’ll find this classic, local smoked pork sausage served dried, en croûte, or as part of an apéro platter.

2. L’etivaz: This unpasteurised hard cheese takes on the nutty flavour of the wildflower meadows from which its milk derives. 

3. Chasselas: 70% of grapes grown in Vaud are white; three-quarters of these are Chasselas — try a glass alongside a raclette or fondue.

4. Perch: Breaded perch fillets from the lake with salad and frites — think of it as lighter, lakeside fish and chips.

5. Raclette: Cow herders traditionally carried a wheel of this cheese as they migrated up the pastures, melting it over a fire before scraping onto bread or potatoes. 

How to do it

Take the train to Geneva from St Pancras International, London, with a change in Paris. eurostar.co.uk  sbb.ch

Swiss, British Airways and EasyJet fly to Geneva from several UK airports.  

Chalet RoyAlp Hôtel & Spa offers double rooms from 310 CHF (£243) per night, including breakfast and spa access. Cheese-making experiences from 51 CHF (£41), B&B. 

Published in the October 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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