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:

Hiking the Valais Wine Trail (Salgesch to Sierre)

You don’t have to be a wine lover to enjoy a hike along the Valais Wine Trail, which links the winemaking villages of Salgesch and Sierre. (Although if you are, all the better!)

Switzerland’s Wine Country in the Valais is filled with terraced grapevines, old church spires, and medieval castles.

This magical footpath winds through vineyards for 6.5 km (about 4 miles) and offers exquisite views of the Valais’ Rhone Valley. (You can return by train to your point of departure.)

Open all year, this relatively easy (and educational!) trek links the wine museums in the village of Salgesch (Salquenen is its French name) and in the town of Sierre.

At times the views along the Wine Trail are quite wild.

Along the route are signs explaining the history of the region and the different kinds of grapes that grow there. (Alas, these signs are in French and German only. Brush up on your linguistic skills before you go!). There are also strategically located picnic spots and benches along the way.

I hiked the trail from Salgesch to Sierre, and here’s a tip for people with limited time: If you can’t do the whole trail, walk at least 10 minutes up the road from the Salgesch wine museum for spectacular views of the town’s church tower with the mountains in the background.

If you get thirsty, you can refill your water bottle at a pump along the trail.

Strolling Among Grapevines

At first, the road and then gravel or dirt trail leads steeply to the vineyards, then it follows the contours of the terrain and crosses the Raspille River, the demarcation line between the German- and French-speaking parts of this region. It then follows some ancient bisses (ancient irrigation canals), all the while opening up new and glorious vistas.

Vineyards in Valais, Switzerland

There’s one spot along the trail with signs labeling the various types of grapes—many of which I had never heard of, but which I later learned make excellent wines, including Cornalin, Petite Arvine and Humagne Blanche.

Signs explaining the characteristics of different grapes grown in the Valais.

Later, you pass through the village of Muraz where there’s a good restaurant if you want a meal or a glass of wine. Then, continue on to the town of Sierre, where the trail ends at another wine museum. Just a block away is the Château de Villa, a restaurant that specializes in raclette, a Swiss melted-cheese specialty.

The Château de Villa also has an extensive wine cellar and tasting room devoted to the vintages of the 400 winemakers in the Valais. You could wander for an hour or more inspecting its many bottles—and hopefully sampling a few.

Marche des Cépages

I want to mention an annual wine event that takes place in early September and centers on the Wine Trail. It’s called the Marche des Cépages (which translates roughly into “walking through different types of grapes”) and it attracts thousands of people who pay a fee to get a tasting wine glass. They then walk along the trail with their glass, stopping at tents along the way to sample wines from the very vineyards they’re wandering through.

In mid-September, the grapes were heavy on the vine in the Salgesch/Sierre wine country.

I was a week too late to do the Marche, but it sounds like a blast—especially after you’ve drunk a glass or two of wine. In fact, on any day, I’d highly recommend you pack along a bottle as you walk the Wine Trail.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

More info: Salgesch and Sierre are located in Switzerland’s Valais canton. For more info, visit MySwitzerland.com, Wines of Valais, Valais Tourism, Sierre/Salgesch Information.

Next: Eating raclette at the Chateau de Villa

Read more about my travels in Switzerland:

Swiss Wine Country: It’s Picturesque—and the Wine Is Superb!

Yes, Switzerland makes fantastic wine, and much of it is grown in the canton of Valais, which is part French speaking and part German speaking. Think steep terraces of grapevines with breathtaking views of the Alps. (A famous ski resort, Crans-Montana, is located just above the vineyards of the Rhone Valley.)

The village of Salgesch sits in the Valais Rhone Valley and is a Swiss winemaking center.

I spent several days in the picturesque winemaking village of Salgesch (its French name is Salquenen). This is my idea of the perfect European spot: though it has an Old World charm, it’s right on the uber-efficient train line.

Salgesch’s Hotel Arkanum

Wine-barrel room at Hotel Arkanum

Salgesch is also so small that you can get everywhere on foot—and it has excellent hotels and restaurants and is within a short distance of fun day trips.

My home base in Salgesch was the wine-themed Hotel Arkanum, right in the heart of the village, which, by the way, has more wine-tasting rooms/ cellars (called caves) than any other tiny town I’ve ever visited.

At Hotel Arkanum, I stayed in a squeaky-clean room with those famous Swiss featherbeds. You can also choose a more expensive wine-themed room: One has a bed built into an old grape press and in another you can sleep inside a huge wine barrel.

The Beauty of Salgesch

Known for its Pinot Noir, Salgesch has loads of charm, including the resonant church bells that ring the hour and sometimes serenade the village with more intricate bell ringing.

And there’s wine, wine everywhere—from the Bacchus statue outside the church to the hillsides terraced with vineyards. Limestone cliffs and jagged peaks surround the valley, which is one of Switzerland’s sunniest spots.

The wine museum in Salgesch displayed a scarecrow outside in honor of harvest season.

The wine museum has displays about the history of the town, and it’s where you start the Wine Trail to Sierre. (See my next post for more about this unforgettable hike.)

A stroll through town yields views of lots of medieval buildings.

An old house in the village

Cycling through Valais wine country is also a pleasant pastime, and on Sunday, the streets were filled with cyclists who no doubt stop at some of the “degustation” (tasting) rooms along the way.

Cycling through Swiss Wine Country is a wonderful way to enjoy the scenery.

And when you’re hungry and thirsty, Salgesch’s hotel restaurants serve impeccable food. Vinum Restaurant was a gourmet paradise. We started with a board of Valais dried meats (including air-dried beef, venison sausage, and local sausages) and a local alpine hard cheese that tasted a bit like parmesan. With this, we sampled a truly delightful Salgesch Petite Arvine wine (AOC Valais), a slightly fruity white wine.

Valais meats and cheeses with a Salgesch Petite Arvine wine at Hotel Vinum

Vinum serves only Salgesch wines, so I enjoyed a delicate but flavorful Pinot Noir with my lamb entrée served with sautéed thyme potatoes and a bateau de courgettes (a “boat” of zucchini and summer squash).

Another Salgesch restaurant of note was in the Hotel Rhone. Its quaint stübli style, decorated with farm tools, was currently showcasing seasonal venison dishes. I chose beef tournados with Pinot Noir sauce and rösti, a traditional Swiss potato dish baked or fried with butter and various other ingredients such as onions, cheese, apples or fresh herbs.

So why haven’t you heard of Switzerland’s wine? Because it’s produced on a small scale and the Swiss tend to drink it all themselves. Believe me, it’s a treat that’s worth the trip.

Info: Salgesch (Salquenen) is located in Switzerland’s Valais canton. For more info, visit MySwitzerland.com, Wines of Valais, Valais TourismSierre/Salgesch Information.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Coming next: The Salgesch-Sierre Wine Trail

Read more about my travels in Switzerland: