In Switzerland’s Mountain Meadows…with Views of the Imperial Crown Fourteeners

The Crans-Montana area of the Valais is home to the world-famous ski resort that overlooks a breathtaking ring of mountains. There’s also the hamlet of Colombire, whose restaurant and Eco-Museum showcase traditional foods and lifestyle from the days of cattle drives in the mountain pastures.

A mountain hut used by long-ago cowherds near Colombire.

(In summer, it’s hard to picture ski lifts, but you can ski to the restaurant and then continue down the slopes.)

My group lunched in the most stunning overlook possible, enjoying our hearty “Macaroni de Hameau” (a baked dish of alp cheese, cream, bacon and potatoes) with a fresh green salad and a crisp Valais wine.

Dining with a view of the Valais alps.

(The indoor restaurant is impressive too, with great views through the windows and a cozy roaring fire during winter.)

Alpine baked macaroni served at the Colombire restaurant

A Bit of Swiss Agricultural History

Fortified by lunch, our group learned about the Swiss life in the alpine meadows over hundreds—even thousands—of years. Guide Carolyne Renaud-A. Zufferey regaled us with family stories, local legends and history of the area.

First she took us on a tour of the Colombire mountain-pasture eco-museum. We learned how the cowherding families made spring-through-fall migrations with their livestock between valley villages, meadows and high-alp pastures.

There are several restored mayens, or meadow chalets, where the families lived in summer on display.

Hike along the "bisse," irrigation canals through cow and goat pastures in Crans-Montana

Next, we hiked a portion of the Bisse du Tsittoret trail along an irrigation canal (called a bisse) built centuries ago.

What a sensory-stimulating hike on a sunny day! The smell of the firs, the trickle of water in the bisse, cow bells at a distance.

We wandered through forests, meadows, cow pastures, and ultimately to the Tieche Valley waterfall.

And, on the horizon was an unforgettable view of the Imperial Crown mountain range.

The Imperial Crown is formed by spectacular peaks: the Weisshorn (14,780 feet), the Zinalrothorn (13,848 ft.), the Obergabelhorn (13,330 ft.), the Cervin (14,688 ft.) and the Dent Blanche (14,297 ft.).

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

For more information, visit Switzerland Tourism.

P.S. Share with the group the most scenic restaurant you’ve ever eaten in by leaving a comment (click on “Comments” below).

A view of the Imperial Crown mountains from the "bisse" trail.

Swiss Farmer Grows Organic Herbs for Ricola

Another beautiful day in the Valais canton (like a state) of Switzerland—another glorious farm. This time it’s the herb farm of Maurice and Marie-Christine Masserey in the Venthône area.

Rows of sage growing at the Masserey farm in the Valais, Switzerland

Operated organically, without pesticides or herbicides) the alpine herb farm is located amid spectacular views. (Can it be possible that all Swiss farms are so picturesque?)

Friendly farm animals!

There, farmer Maurice, who’s fluent in English, will walk you through fields of sage, orange mint, peppermint, elderberry, lavender, thyme, verbena, rosemary and more.

He’ll explain their use in several Swiss products, especially Ricola, the famous maker of cough drops, candies and pastilles that are sold globally.

Ricola’s original formula is a blend of 13 medicinal herbs grown in Switzerland. The Massereys are among 100 independent farmers throughout Switzerland who are under contract to Ricola.

Another company that buys Masserey’s herbs is Bio Alp Tea, a mixture of herbs in a sweetened iced-tea base.

Eco-Friendly Operations

Maurice will also show visitors his solar-powered herb dryer, which uses renewable energy to quickly dry the aromatic herbs in a way that preserves as much of their essential oils as possible.

In addition, the farmwork is done mostly by hand, which greatly reduces fuel use and creates a cleaner product.

To reach the Massereys’ herb farm, which is certified-organic by Bio-Suisse (“organic” is called “bio” in Europe), you don’t need a car: Just take the train to Sierre, follow the red line painted on the sidewalk from the train station to the funicular, and ride the funicular to the Darnona stop. A short walk, and you’re there!

Maurice Masserey shows how the harvested sage is finished in the solar-powered herb dryer on his organic farm.

After you’ve learned about the herbs, you’re invited to the Masserey farmhouse, where you can sit looking over the Sierre valley with the high, jagged peaks of peaks such as the Weisshorn around you. And you can taste Bio Alp Tea, Ricola products, and even some of Masserey’s family wine—all the while pondering how people all over the world enjoy the herbal products grown on this, and other, Swiss farms.

You can book an herb farm tour online (the website is in French or German only) or contact Maurice, who speaks fluent English). Valais Agritourism also offers helpful info.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

The Masserey farmhouse

Swiss Farms: The Source of the Cheese

Ask a Swiss about the flavor of a cheese—especially the local specialty—and he or she will invariably say it depends on what the cow (or goat) is eating and where she’s eating it. Grass? Flowers? Hay? In the high-mountain pasture? Down in the valley?

The aging room at Champasse farm in the Valais. The large wheels are raclette cheese, and they're labeled "Euseigne" (on the edge) because the farm is located nearest the town of Euseigne.

To truly appreciate the cheese on your plate, you need to go to the source: the farm. I visited two in the Val d’Hérens, (the Hérens valley, famous for its black fighting cows) for a glimpse at the farm life.

Champasse Dairy

Swiss dairy farmer, Francois Morend-Gaillard

Claudia and Francois Morend-Gaillard raise diary cows about 12 miles south of Sion at Champasse Farm, near the village of Euseigne.  Their 20 red-and-white Montbèliard cows supply the milk for 14-inch wheels of handmade raclette cheeses, a regional specialty. (Read about how raclette is served and eaten.)

Claudia and Francois are among a new generation of farmers who are boosting their farm income with “agritourism.”

They’re also committed to sustaining themselves through farming and to caring for the land in the way of their ancestors.

Claudia Morend-Gaillard serves Champasse Farm's cheese.

They invite visitors (reservation required) to see how and where they make the cheese by hand, sample the farm’s products (including raclette, goat cheese and tommes, a smaller cow cheese), enjoy views of the lush valley, and possibly meet their three formidable Hérens cows. In 2011, they hope to build a tasting room and small restaurant at the farm.

Visitors can buy cheese from the farm for a special price of 18 CHF per kilo. The raclette is also available at shops in Sion.)

The couple make great hosts. Claudia speaks fluent English; Francois, who speaks some English, is a chain-smoking jokester who exchanged the life of a policeman for working in the mountains, tending cows, baling hay and perfecting age-old cheese-making skills. Francois looks out of his cluttered dairy shed at the sun-drenched peaks at the other end of the valley. “Holy smoke!” he quips. “Mountains!”

Ossona Farm and Gîtes

A few miles outside of the village of St. Martin is another working farm—one with historic cabins/cottages for overnight stays and a restaurant that specializes in farm cuisine made primarily from its own produce.

A cow at Ossona Farm, overlooking the Val d'Hérens

Ossona is a private/public cooperative project between St.-Martin and farm managers Daniel Beuret and Maria Pires. Originally a farming village, Ossona became a ghost town in the 1960s as young people left this isolated area. Recently, the village of St.-Martin bought the land from and held a contest in 2003 to turn Ossona, including its 200-year-old buildings, into an agricultural project.

Ossona farmer Daniel Beuret

Daniel and Maria won the chance to fulfill their dream of creating a working farm and dairy while receiving financial support to operate the gîtes tourism.

Guests stay in rustic but beautifully situated historic houses for the week or weekend. There’s hiking throughout the alpine valley, and overnight guests can also help out with farm chores such as milking goats, making jam, helping make hay or harvesting fruit from the orchards.

“This is an ideal way to preserve farm life for future generations,” Daniel says over an espresso. (He speaks a little bit of English, but is much more comfortable with French.)

Ossona’s gîtes (country apartments) sleep four and include a kitchen, bathroom, and free WiFi. There are also nightly dorm accommodations for backpackers.

Gites with a view: Overnight guests can stay in Ossona's historic houses.

To reach Ossona, you drive the gravel road from St.-Martin and hike downhill for about 30 minutes to the farm. (Daniel will pick up your luggage for you if necessary.) Or, you can take a bus to St.-Martin and then hike all the way to the farm.

Meals are separately priced, and I can vouch for the wonderful home cooking. (In fact, the restaurants is so popular that the day I visited a hiking club of about 30 people was having a leisurely lunch there.)

I enjoyed a garden-fresh salad and a cassoulet (baked ham, potatoes, and cheese) eaten outdoors on the sunny patio.

There’s nothing like mountain air and a farm setting to stimulate the appetite.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Next up: Where Ricola cough drops come from (hint: from Switzerland!)

Ossona's homegrown bounty was featured in this fresh salad.

A Tale of Five Swiss Cheeses: Eating Raclette in a Castle in Sierre

The “national” dish of the Swiss canton of Valais is raclette (AKA: pools of melted alp cheese), and the best place to eat it is the Château de Villa in the winemaking town of Sierre (not far from the cantonal capital of Sion).

Raclette is a traditional Swiss melted-cheese dish. Here, Alex Aldel scrapes the bubbly raclette onto a plate at the Château de Villa. Behind him, you can see another half-cheese heating under the raclette-oven burner.

By the way, in Switzerland I heard the dish pronounced with the emphasis on the first syllable: RAH-clet. And the name is from the French word, racler: “to scrape.” (Keep reading! You’ll see why soon.)

The Château de Villa is a restored 16th-century castle, so you’re dining in ancient ambiance. The Château’s restaurant was established in the early 1950s to promote local, traditional foods: specifically Valaisian wineair-dried beef and raclette made using raw milk from alpine meadows.

The 16th-century Château de Villa in Sierre serves raclette; it also specializes in Valais wine, which it sells in its extensive wine cellar.

The Château’s literature proclaims itself as “Le Temple de la Raclette,” and it’s earned the designation: Both Swiss gourmands and visitors (like me!) flock here to worship its gooey cheese. In fact, the Château de Villa is so popular that you should book a reservation a month in advance. They serve 15 tons of cheese a year!

How the Cheese Bubbles

Château de Villa offers a special tasting of five mountain-alp cheeses for 31 CHF (Swiss francs) per person. You can see on a map the tiny villages where each cheese is made.

Tonight, Alex Aldel is our racleur (the scraper of the raclette), and he can keep multiple plates going at once. He’s like a master of ceremonies; he keeps the cheese rolling. I have privately dubbed him The Cheese Meister.

The melted raclette on my plate with boiled potatoes, cornichons, pickled onion, and a small bit of the cheese's crust. This heat-crisp crust is called “la religieuse” (the nun).

Here’s how the raclette process happens:

1. The racleur selects a half-cheese (Cheese #1) and places it under the raclette-oven burner. He also sets out a row of plates to warm.

2. He checks the cheese from time to time, watching until the surface starts to bubble. Meanwhile, he’s usually watching other varieties of cheese in process.

3. When the cheese is bubbling, the racleur uses a small knife and deftly scrapes a portion onto a plate, usually with one swoop.

4. The racleur whisks the warm plates to the table, and we diners scramble to add boiled potatoes, cornichons (teensy pickles), sourdough rye bread (another Valais specialty), and pickled onions to eat with our cheese while it’s still hot.

5. When you’ve finished your plate, the whole process starts over with Cheese #2.

Half-wheels of raclette cheese from all over the Valais region await melting. Each tastes slightly different.

Tonight, I sample nutty, buttery, toasty raclette cheeses from the Bagnes Valley, Les Haudères in the Hérens Valley, Les Marais in the Anniviers Valley, Turtmann, and the Goms Valley.

They’re all delicious. Some are mild, some more strong. I can detect differences in flavor, but honestly my palette isn’t as tuned to the distinctions as a local would be.

Martin Hannart with Sierre-Anniviers Tourism says: “We people of Valais learn how to make raclette before we learn to walk!”

And that, in a nutshell, sums up how the Swiss feel about their cheese.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Coming Next: Meet a raclette cheesemaker