Eating Raclette in a Swiss Castle

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. ©Laurel Kallenbach

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. ©Laurel Kallenbach

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). ©Laurel Kallenbach

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. ©Laurel Kallenbach

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

Originally posted in October 2010

Read more about my travels in Switzerland:

Swiss Farms: The Source of World-Famous Cheese

Ask a Swiss person 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 French-speaking Valais region of Switzerland. The large wheels are raclette cheese, and they’re labeled “Euseigne” (on the edge) because the farm is located near the town of Euseigne. ©Laurel Kallenbach

To truly appreciate the cheese on your plate, you need to go to the source: the farm. I visited two in the French-speaking 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 ©Laurel Kallenbach

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 my post 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 with fresh baguette. ©Laurel Kallenbach

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. ©Laurel Kallenbach

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 ©Laurel Kallenbach

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. ©Laurel Kallenbach

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 restaurant is so popular that the day I visited a hiking club of about 30 people were 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

Originally published in October 2010.

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

Read more about my travels in Switzerland:

Ossona’s homegrown bounty was featured in this fresh salad. ©Laurel Kallenbach

A Welsh Castle Ghost Story

In 2007, Ken and I spent two nights at the haunted Gwydir Castle in the foothills of Snowdonia, North Wales. Even though the place is called a castle, the Tudor-era structure feels more like a manor house or mansion than the towering medieval fortress ruins that dot the region.

Gwydir Castle in north Wales is a lovely bed and breakfast—and home to several ghosts. ©Laurel Kallenbach

(If you’re a castle lover, northern Wales is your dream destination.) Gwydir is a private home, a museum, and a bed-and-breakfast (with two rooms)—all historically decorated in antiques.

Yet, this charming Tudor “castle” has a ruined past. Built around 1500, it was the ancestral home of the powerful Wynn family, descended from the Kings and Princes of Gwynedd. It was rat-infested, crumbling and damp—and being used as a night club when Judy Corbett and her husband-to-be Peter Welford bought it in 1994.

There are 10 acres of gardens at the historic Gwydir Castle. Peacocks roam the grounds. At night, their haunting cries seem to call “help, help!” ©Laurel Kallenbach

(For a vividly written account of Judy and Peter’s process of bringing Gwydir Castle back to life, read Judy’s memoir, Castles in the Air, available on Amazon.)

The couple had little money but a passion for history, so they spent years living in a construction zone doing much of the painstaking historical restoration themselves. In the process, they encountered a number of ghosts with hundreds of years worth of sitings.

Meet the Ghosts

There’s a female spirit who is reportedly a victim of her lover, one of the Wynn baronets, who stuffed her body behind the wall in a passageway—or possibly in a secret enclosure within the wall called a Priest’s Hole. (A Priest’s Hole was a hiding place for Roman Catholic priests during the turbulent Tudor years when Britain’s “official” religion vascillated between Protestantism and Catholicism, depending on the monarch.)

This behind-the-wall Priest’s Hole was possibly the hiding place of a murdered mistress in the 1600s. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Many people report a foul smell in one of the house passageways—the centuries-old stench of the woman’s corpse. Ken and I smelled nothing, but the passageway certainly feels colder than the rest of the house.

There’s also a ghost of Sir John Wynn—possibly the murderer—who is often seen on the spiral staircase. Gwydir even has a ghost dog, a large one. Judy and Peter actually dug up the skeleton of a large dog years ago in the basement.

Ken and I didn’t do any actual “ghost hunting” at night. Instead, we slept cozily in our four-poster canopy bed in the Duke of Beaufort’s Chamber, a lovely large room furnished with antiques and a private bath in the hall.

Our castle room: The Duke of Beaufort’s Chamber. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Except for the bedrooms, the castle does not use electricity (to keep it authentic). And, at night, the alarm system is activated, so one doesn’t want to creep about and wake the whole house. Besides, why would ghosts appear only at night?

The closest I came to an apparition was when the castle’s two large lurchers (a British breed of dog I’d never heard of before) bounded through the breakfast room. A moment later, a third dog nosed through the breakfast room door and streaked across the room. But, there were only two dogs that I knew of! Could the third have been the ghost dog wanting to join the living pair in play?

Malevolent Lady Margaret

The wisteria-surrounded doorway into the B&B section of Gwydir Castle. ©Laurel Kallenbach

There is (or at least was) one sinister spirit at Gwydir Castle, a woman who haunted Judy for months early during the renovation. Lady Margaret followed Judy everywhere and triggered a series of “accidents” apparently intended to harm Peter.

Fortunately, Lady Margaret Cave—whose good nature darkened radically after the birth of her son in the early 1600s—has not appeared since. She was married to the philanderer Sir John Wynn, so perhaps being married to him sent her into an eternal rage against the man of the house.

Dream Come True: Sleeping in a Castle

There’s nothing nightmarish about staying at Gwydir. In fact, spending two days among its archways, mullioned and wisteria-covered windows, and Tudor-style beams was a dream come true. It’s a little like sleeping in a museum—a fantasy of mine since I was 10 and read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

The dining room is lavishly restored with its original wood panels, which were spirited off to America by William Randolph Hearst in the 1920s. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The castle dining room has a story so long and fascinating I can’t even go into it here. Suffice it to say that its glorious Tudor panels were bought by William Randolph Hearst in the 1920s and stored at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for decades. Now they’re magnificently back in the castle.

Gwydir Castle is three miles from the resort town of Betws-y-Coed and 12 miles from the medieval walled town of Conwy, so it’s a great B&B to stay at while exploring the North Wales castles. It’s also within walking distance of the market town of Llanrwst, which has train and bus connections plus several good restaurants and pubs.

Gwydir Castle is open to the public (admission fee) April through October. Check for times.

P.S. I highly recommend Judy Corbett’s book, Castles in the Air: The Restoration Adventures of Two Young Optimists and a Crumbling Old Mansion (Random House, UK, 2004). I bought a copy while staying at the castle, and I read it on train rides across Wales and on the plane home.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Spooky Postscript

In gathering photos for this blog entry, I noticed that a number of them have round, ghostly patches of light. At first I thought they were shiny flash spots or reflections, yet most of them are against backgrounds with no reflective surfaces. Then I thought they might be dust motes or raindrops on the camera lens.

But they appear in indoor photos and those taken on sunny days. Could they be blobs of ectoplasm? Were Gwydir’s spirits dancing around us?

You decide. Let me know what you think by leaving a comment below.

Here I am in the lovely breakfast room. Note the halo around the unlit candlestick behind me. For comparison, the candle on the table is lit—and has a simple glow. Methinks there’s a spirit lurking. ©Ken Aikin

Gwydir Gate, with some white, round lights. Are they ghost entities or merely raindrops on the camera lens? ©Ken Aikin

New Uses for England’s Old Phone Booths

During my walking vacation in England’s Cotswold Hills, I was glad to see that the iconic red British phone booths were still located in the villages. But now that everyone carries a smart phone, people have had to be creative—and they’ve given the old phone booths new lives and new purpose.

The phone booth in Upper Slaughter now houses a defibrillator. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The phone booth in Upper Slaughter now has medical applications. ©Laurel Kallenbach

One booth in Upper Slaughter, Gloucestershire, now housed a defibrillator. You can use your phone to dial 999 for an ambulance, but you can’t jumpstart your heart with your mobile device.

Stanton now sports a bright-red Information booth. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Stanton now sports a bright-red Information booth. ©Laurel Kallenbach

In Stanton, another beautiful village in Gloucestershire, the red phone booth—located right outside the Old Post House—was now acting as a miniature Tourist Information Center. Step inside and you can pick up brochures on local attractions and find contact information for area restaurants and hotels.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Read more about my Cotswold hiking trip:

More about my travels in England: