Travel: A great Valaisan adventure
October 15, 2012
Editor’s note: This is the third installment in a four-part series about Valais, Switzerland. Visit http://www.vaildaily.com to read the first two.
All week I’ve struggled to synthesize a discussion on culinary and natural delights Valais, Switzerland has to offer. It dawned on me last night the best way is to invite you to spend a virtual autumn day with me like the ones when I escaped work and the Hochnebel (low fog) of Zurich for sunny Valais. Let’s go on a picnic hike! With nearly 5,000 miles of sign-posted hiking paths to choose from, and a cornucopia of wines and epicurean treats to enjoy, we’re off for a great Valaisan adventure.
Nicolas Bagnoud’s winery is a great place to start. From his 16 different wines, let’s go with some classics: Fendant and Pinot Noir “Barrique.” Now that we have our libations, we make the short drive Crans-Montana on the Haut Plateau for some goodies to pair with our wines. First stop, Taillens in Montana.
Everyone has their favorite boulangerie-patisserie-confiserie (bread, pastries and chocolates all under one roof – heaven!). They are as prolific throughout Switzerland as convenience stores in America, but no comparison! It’s a bread and pastry lover’s paradise. My favorite the world over is Boulangerie Taillens. Since January 1943, the Taillens family has been baking bread, pastries and making chocolates on the Haut Plateau. I had my first tarte aux framboises (raspeberry tart) at Taillens in 1985. I was hooked. I graduated to other tarts and cakes over time, but their fruit tarts remain my favorites.
But we’re on a mission to get bread and this award-winning boulangerie is the Cartier of bread. Ok, forgive my hyperbole, but when you walk in and see Reto Taillens’ smiling face in front of an array of fresh breads in racks, and pastries, sandwiches and chocolates displayed like jewelry in glass cases, you’ll get my point. Bread of choice today, Paillasse (pronounced “pie-yez”).
Pain Paillasse is a patented bread Swiss baker and one of the founders of the “Slow Baking” movement, Aime Pouly, developed in Geneva in the mid-’70s. The recipe for this hand-formed, long fermentation bread is proprietary, although we know pre-fermentation plays an important role. Paillasse quickly became the rage and is now sold under license in Germany, Austria, Italy, Spain and even France! Nearly every Swiss bakery worth its crispy crumbs sells it. But first, bakers seeking the license must train under Pouly to make this bread that’s crispy on the outside and airy and light inside. With so many choices now – plain, rustique, olive and so on – it’s hard to choose. Let’s stick with traditional and go with plain. Although Taillens’ chocolates are sheer cocoa heaven, let’s save those for another time and just buy some bars of Cailler chocolate – dark Cremant and gianduja – to take along for our dessert. Now the cheese.
A few steps from Taillens on Avenue de la Gare in Montana is Laiterie Au Petit Chalet. Florian Bonvin’s shop containing fresh cheeses, milk products, fresh pasta and local honey, has been my “go-to” place for not only buying cheese, but learning about it, too. Bonvin’s fondue mix – we’re talking shredded on the spot, not in foil bags from a factory – is one of the best. Between Monsieur Bonvin and Pierre Perrenoud, I learned to make a wicked fondue. Today we’re going to buy some raclette made during the summer in a local alpage (high alpine meadows above the trees) and some gruyere mi-sale from canton Fribourg, my favorite that has a little bit of a bite to it. Sidebar – the Swiss Chalet in the Sonnenalp in Vail uses Emmi mild gruyere aged over 150 days in its fondue. Although mass-produced, it’s of excellent quality. But what we’re buying at the laiterie is artisanal in the truest sense of the word. Cheese and bread. What’s next? Dried sausages, of course.
Continuing through Montana in direction Crans, we stroll past the horse butcher – no thanks, I’m a horsewoman – to Boucherie du Rawyl. Being a Sicilian butcher’s granddaughter, I’m in heaven in the shops of these disappearing craftsmen. Oscar Mudry opened the shop in 1980, and today, with the help of seven employees, son Phillipe keeps the family’s tradition of high standards alive. Their house made “Saucisse a l’ail” (garlic dried sausage) and “Saucisse de cerf” (venison dried sausage) are requirements for my picnics. I would buy some merguez – spicy Moroccan lamb sausages made in-house – but we won’t have time to barbecue today. As locals would say “une autre fois.” Another time.
Our backpack is now filled with epicurean treasures, wine, water, obligatory sunscreen, our official 1:50,000 topographical map and, our Swiss Army knife. Now we’re all set.
Centuries-old walking paths
Valais boasts of some of Europe’s highest peaks. Nature’s monuments of rock thrust upward by the collision of the African and Eurasian tectonic plates in the late Cretaceous period, a process continuing today, make for a hiking and mountain biking wonderland.
As early as the 14th century, locals identified glaciers atop many of Valais’ mountains as a source for water in a semi-arid land. Ever the innovators, Valaisans carved channels to carry melting glacial water to meadows and vineyards thousands of feet below. These irrigation channels – “bisses” – are unique to Valais. In late 19th century, over 1,100 miles of bisses existed throughout Valais. Although some are still functional today, underground pipelines have replaced many as primary water conduits. Nowadays, many bisses provide pastoral walking paths, some gently rising through forests, some carved precariously into the mountainsides.
Today we’re hiking along the Bisse du Tsittoret, joining it on the forested ski run of Plumachit, then beyond it to the source of La Tieche high above the timberline. The entire walk is approximately 12 miles return with a gain of over 1,500 feet. Since it’s autumn, there won’t be much water in the bisse, but the melezes – deciduous fir trees – should be golden. For me, melezes are the alpine artistic version of aspens. Both give us weeks of stunning colors as autumn fades to winter.
After 30 minutes of gentle walking, we come to an alpage with a stunning view of the renowned peaks of the Pennine Alps – Matterhorn, Mt. Blanc, Dent Blanche, to name a few. Good place for a sip of water, piece of chocolate and memorable photographs.
Now it’s time to climb a bit. The sporty Swiss love challenges, but making nature accessible is important, too. Here along the bisse we find rustic steps and rope “railings” to help us up the steep path. This is a relatively short climb, but the reward is a view of La Tieche flowing 1,000 feet below and our first glimpse of les Faverges, below which is our destination.
Although the bisse provides us directional guidance, over 3,000 yellow signs on the Haut Plateau give directions and estimated times. So civilized! The sign now shows us the direction for the waterfalls at Tieche, another 400 feet above and a couple of miles ahead. It’s there the steep climbing will begin. For now, enjoy your gentle walk, take lots of photos and we’ll meet again on Bisse du Tsittoret next week to finish our hike, have lunch and celebrate our last day in Valais at a locals’ favorite, Chateau de Villa in Sierre.
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, visit http://www.facebook.com/vailvalleysecrets. Email comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.