Editor's note: This is the fifth part of a five-part series on Valais, Switzerland. Visit www.vaildaily.com to read the first four installments.
We ended last week's episode of our autumn sojourn in Valais, Switzerland, with a simple question that has no simple answer: "Which wine shall we order?" With more than 600 different Valais wines on the Chateau de Villa's wine list, the choices for our viande sechee and raclette are seemingly endless. Dominique Fornage, the restaurant's director, provided excellent suggestions, some squarely in the "safe" zone, some adventurous, but always traditional regional favorites.
The two white choices Fornage recommended are Fendant and Johannisberg. We sipped on Fendant from Nicolas Bagnoud during our picnic high above the valley. Although the Johannisberg (Sylvaner) is a traditional white that pairs well with so many Valais treats, including an enemy of most wines, white asparagus, I'd like to go with his red suggestion, the lighter cousin of Cornalin, Humange Rouge, for the peppery viande sechee.
Humange Rouge, as we found earlier, is a light, red wine that made its way across the Grand St. Bernard Pass long ago and is now found exclusively in Valais. When drunk young, the wine's fruitiness is best expressed. And unlike Barolo that explodes with perfumes of the earth when drunk at room temperature, Humange Rouge takes kindly to a little chill on the bottle. Best of all, its low alcohol means your adventures on the Chateau's extensive wine list are far from over.
By now, all our senses are teeming with sensory inputs - the smell of melting cheese, the sight of Maitre Racleur Alexandre Alder expertly melting and scraping five different half-wheels of raclette, the multilingual chatter of diners and, of course, the taste of the paper-thin slices of viande sechee, sweet Flora butter and traditional Pain de Seigle Valaisan as the Humange Rouge washes over. The combination of smells, sights, sounds and flavors makes for a lovely entree into the evening's epicurean adventure.
Next wine to choose: What pairs with raclette? For the main attraction, Fornage once again guides us to wonderful choices. We had red, but he suggests we try one of the region's whites - Fendant, Johannisberg (I'm seeing a pattern with these two) or perhaps Heida from Savignin Blanc, a grape that grows well in the higher vineyards near Visp.
White after red! Quelle horreur! Why not? I don't abide by the dictates of others when it comes to something so personal as wine. Suggestions are great. Rules, no. They are made to be broken, and here in this emporium of Swiss vinous treasures, throw all caution to the wind. But like the Swiss, I take risks, but I manage them, as well. Fornage suggested Cornalin, so I'll order one bottle of Heida, also known as Paien, and one of Cornalin. Something for everyone.
Note: If you are not a wine drinker, don't opt for cola or water. Hot tea is the option, as cold drinks can lead to a horrible case of indigestion. Melted cheese - whether fondue or raclette - digests better with alcohol or hot tea.
Like wine that pairs so beautifully with it, alpine cheese such as raclette has its origins in antiquity, having been favored by the Romans. Through the millennia, cows have been paraded to alpages in early summer to graze on sweet grass and flowers that carpet earth barren for the other three seasons. The milk these contented, well-fed cows produce is sweet and perfect for producing aromatic, flavorful cheeses. Raclette takes on the distinctive taste of its alpage of origin, given the diverse flora throughout these high summer pastures. And that's what makes the Chateau de Villa so special. The opportunity to taste five different Raclette du Valais (AOC) in a restaurant is a rarity.
Racler. The simple French verb meaning "to scrape." Raclette. Simple alpine cheese named for the favored way of eating it - melting the cut edge of a half or quarter of a raclette wheel and scraping the molten cheese onto a plate. Legend states it all began when a vintner (or shepherd, take your pick) dropped a piece of alpine cheese on a hot stone next to a fire, scraping it off with his knife, thereby discovering a new way to enjoy the ages-old cheese. This union of fire and cheese gave rise to a communal dining event engrained in Valaisan culture. But there is nothing simple about the flavor explosion of melted raclette paired with cornichons and pickled onions and, of course, those creamy steamed small potatoes bearing the cheese's name.
And simple also is not a word easily describing Alder's expertise. Literally translated, "Maitre Racleur" means "master scraper." And Alder certainly is that! Not only must he keep track of the five different raw milk cheeses he heats and scrapes with a single, fast stroke of his raclette knife but also which diner is enjoying which cheese. Alder presents cheeses from five different alpages, usually beginning in Orsieres, close to the Italian border, and proceeding eastward to Simplon Dorf. The Chateau's choices are seasonal, but all my experiences have included these two and, my favorite, "Turtmann."
With the same flare and efficiency he scrapes the cheese, Alder comes to the table bearing several plates, first declaring the cheese type: "OR-sieres" or "TURT-mann." His enduring kindness and passion for his craft have been a constant in my decades-long visits to the Chateau.
This is "all you can eat," something Americans love. Once diners complete each of the five different cheeses they can choose to either repeat the order or again have those they like the most. Some of the cheeses are strong, some mild, so here's where personal preferences are exercised. My personal best is eight plates!
We've consumed copious amounts of cheese preceded by delicious meat and bread. But this is not time to skip a sweet ending. Monsieur Fornage suggests a light choice, apricot sorbet. Valais is famous for sweet apricots the size of small nectarines, perfect for tarts, sorbet and treasured "eau de vie d'abricot." One boule (ball) of apricot sorbet paired with Amigne, a traditional Valais wine that is slightly sweet, bearing subtle orange flavors, provides the perfecting ending. We are truly sated but pleasantly so.
We are at journey's end, and the winter snows will soon arrive. We've barely scratched the surface of what Valais has to offer gastronomes and nature lovers alike. The canton's 2,018 square miles stretch from where the Rhone River spills into Lake Geneva eastward to the river's source near the Furka Pass. Between the lowest point of 1,200 feet at the lake and Monte Rosa's 15,203-foot peak, Valais' diverse landscape creates a myriad of agricultural and recreational possibilities that make this canton a veritable paradise.
Hopefully, I've piqued your curiosity. Whether you visit in spring when nature wakes up from her long slumber or summer when the bisses run full of winter's melting snow or during a golden autumn replete with the growing season's bounty or winter when the alpine landscape is blanketed in snow, you will always find it hard to leave. As I said when we started, there is no good time to bid Valais farewell but always a great time to arrive.
Suzanne Hoffman is a local attorney, wine importer and the Chambellan Provincial of the Southwest Region and Bailli (president) of the Vail chapter of the Chaine des Rotisseurs. She is passionate about all things gastronomique. For more background information on her "Behind the Scenes" series, go to www.facebook.com/vailvalleysecrets. Email comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.