A trip to Switzerland at the Swiss Chalet at Sonnenalp | VailDaily.com
Suzanne Hoffman
Behind the Scenes
Vail, CO Colorado

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A trip to Switzerland at the Swiss Chalet at Sonnenalp

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Would you have guessed fondue, that humble, traditional Swiss dish, was once key in settling religious battles? Well, according to swissinfo.ch – my Swiss umbilical cord – that’s what occurred in Switzerland in 1529. During the Reformation, feuding religious factions – Catholics and Confederate Reformists – reportedly resolved disputes while eating “Kappel Milk Soup,” a creamy, milk-based soup that some believe to be in the DNA of today’s silky cheese fondue. Of course, they battled first and some folks had to die before the soup was served. But it seems the disputes were settled.

With that in mind, I can’t help but wonder if Vail might contribute to ending Washington’s gridlock if we assembled feuding members of Congress at Swiss Chalet in Vail’s Sonnenalp Resort to sit and settle disputes over Chef John Beddard’s authentic fondue. Well, one can wonder – and hope. With all the vibrant energy in Sonnenalp’s dining scene since Executive Chef Steve Topple’s arrival in November, it’s the perfect place for a “Fondue Summit.”

After a long dust season – we had no precipitation to call it “mud season” – I returned to experiential research, this time at Swiss Chalet. Like my Louisiana visit, this experience was full of emotions influenced by more than two decades of living in Switzerland. Our home near Crans-Montana in mountainous Canton Valais gave us front-row seats to enjoy Valais’ enticing culinary experiences.

Valais is famous not only for its skiing and spectacular trekking but for vineyards, orchards and high-mountain alpages, where cows graze on tender alpine grass and wildflowers that flavor the treasured milk used to make Valais’ signature Appellation Origine Controlee cheese, raclette. When I stepped into Swiss Chalet and joined Beddard and his sous chef Michael Keller, fond memories of Valais and great meals with dear friends washed over me like a refreshing summer rain.

Although I like working when the “joint is jumping,” I reveled in the relatively slow, early-summer pace that gave the chefs time to prepare some of their classics. Beddard’s repertoire of traditional Swiss dishes is not limited to raclette and variations of fondue. The restaurant’s menu also includes timeless classics: rosti, Zurcher Geschnetzeltes, spaetzle and Wurst Salat new on the summer menu. Never have I eaten so much on the job! All were delicious. Take it from this Swiss food ubersnob, their traditional dishes are as true to their origins as anything you’d find in a restaurant in Zermatt!

Fondue was first on Beddard’s list of dishes he wanted to prepare with me. Fondue has a rich and storied history and a special place in Swiss culture. Although also popular in the French and Italian Alps and taking its name from the French verb “fondre” (to melt), fondue is most often associated with Switzerland. In the 1930s, during a cheese surplus, the Swiss Cheese Union promoted fondue as the “national dish.”

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Beddard showed me the cheese they use for their fondue and raclette. I can solemnly swear their cheese is authentic. When in Switzerland, we opt for artisanal cheeses, usually from local alpages, but handcrafted cheeses are cost-prohibitive for American restaurants. Swiss Chalet uses Emmi, a large producer of high-quality Swiss cheeses made in the traditional manner. When the weather’s cold and Vail is filled with skiers, the chefs use approximately 300 pounds of cheese per week for fondue. Emmi is no doubt fond of Swiss Chalet, as it is the No. 1 importer of cheese in Colorado and fifth in the nation!

As Beddard cut into the 70-pound wheel of Gruyere, its distinctive, pungent aroma filled the air. Suddenly, I was transported to that lush, bucolic Swiss canton from which the cheese takes its name. The creamy texture and fruity taste were just as they should be. I continued my virtual journey back “home,” with tastes of raclette and other fondue cheeses, Vacherin Fribourgoise – a delicious semi-soft cheese with a smell of a teenager’s sport socks – and Appenzeller. All superb.

Swiss fondue is one of those dishes that everyone “autographs” with their own twists. I learned mine from cherished longtime Swiss friend Pierre Perrenoud. Pierre taught me to smash garlic cloves and rub the pot (inside!) before beginning. Of course, garlic cloves remain in the pot and, along with the Religieuse, are gobbled up as a great finale. Religieuse – French for “nun” – is that delicious crispy, golden crust that forms in the bottom of the fondue pot. It is the object of desire when all the melted cheese is gone. Never let your pot be removed without first asking to scrape the Religieuse.

Another trick Perrenoud taught me was to add a pinch of baking soda just before serving. It puffs up the cheese, yielding a light, creamy mixture. Always happy to learn other techniques, I carefully watched Beddard as he transformed simple ingredients into a pot of velvety delight.

Fondue is easy to make but requires high quality-cheese and patience to slowly melt it. Letting fondue bubble is a definite faux pas. Beddard begins with about a cup of white wine, a teaspoon of minced garlic – a must in any respectable Swiss fondue – finely ground white pepper and a pinch of ground nutmeg. Once the wine begins to simmer, it’s time to add two generous handfuls of cheese mixture.

No one cheese is used in fondue. Although Gruyere is most often present, other popular Swiss fondue cheeses are Vacherin Fribourgeois, Appenzeller and Emmentaler. Comte savoyard and Beaufort are popular in France. Fontina is used in Italian fondue (fonduta), served in Valle d’Aosta and Piedmont regions. My favorite is “moitie-moitie” (half-half), a blend of Gruyere and Vacherin. The proportions vary since, like wine, the taste of these cheeses is so highly dependent on the whims of nature, in this case, the quality of summer grass.

With cheese added to the pot, stirring began. Once the cheese began to melt, Beddard added cornstarch to emulsify the cheese and wine. Now the hallmark velvety texture began to appear. But we’re not through. What fondue would be complete without Zuger Kirsch, the cherry brandy from Canton Zug south of Zurich where cherry trees abound? Et voila! It’s now time to serve and dip. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to wait for the formation of the Religieuse!

With so many wonderful dishes on Swiss Chalet’s menu, you’ll have to come back next week to learn about Beddard’s other culinary secrets to making authentic Swiss dishes. En guete, Mitenand! Bis spater.

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. Visit http://www.facebook.com/vailvalleysecrets or email comments about this story to cschnell@vaildaily.com.