Where to stay
3100 Kulmhotel Gornergrat The highest hotel in the Swiss Alps – the name refers to the number of metres above sea level. Enjoy striking views of the 29 surrounding peaks, an on-site observatory and cosy chaletstyle rooms – some overlooking the Matterhorn. Two panoramic dining rooms and a glorious sun terrace (also part of the Gornergrat Gourmet Ticket – see Don’t Miss). Doubles from £378, including fourcourse dinner. Gornergrat, 3920 Zermatt, 00 41 27 966 64 00, gornergrat-kulm.ch
Hotel Ambassador Family-run hotel in an art nouveau building dating back to 1905, with bright, modern rooms and an apartment-like attic suite. The old-world-style brasserie offers traditional cuisine and Valais wines. Doubles from £120. Saflischstrasse 3, 3900 Brig, 00 41 27 922 9900, ambassador-brig.ch
Schweizerhof Well-located Saas-Fee spa hotel with superb views of the Saas valley and good breakfasts. Perfect jumping off point for the region’s hiking routes. Doubles from £163. Haltenstrasse 10, 3906 Saas-Fee, 00 41 27 958 7575, schweizerhof-saasfee.ch
Hotel Stockalperhof Modern hotel ideally located in Brig’s buzzing main square. Don’t miss dinner in La Terrazza, a courtyard restaurant serving generously portioned Italian food including stellar truffle ravioli. Doubles from £116. Alte Simplonstrasse 6, 3900 Brig, 00 41 27 922 2600, stockalperhof.ch
Hôtel des Vignes Set within picturesque vineyards, this four-star hotel is a short walk from St-Léonard train station and an ideal base for sight-seeing. Doubles from £140. Rue du Pont 9, Sion, 00 41 27 203 5030, hoteldesvignes.ch
Walliserhof Grand-Hotel & Spa Saas-Fee Five star hotel with luxuriously modern, chalet-style rooms and superb swimming pool and spa. Doubles from £175. Dorfweg 1, 3906 Saas-Fee, 00 41 27 958 1900, walliserhof-saasfee.ch
The canton of Valais is located in the south-west of Switzerland, and sits within the Rhône Valley close to neighbouring Italy and France. The area is well-known for its iconic Matterhorn peak and resorts such as Saas-Fee/Saastal, Leukerbad, the Aletsch Arena, Nendaz/Veysonnaz and the Région Dents du Midi, plus charming towns and villages like Brig, Sion and Mund. Both German and French are widely spoken in Valais. Currency is the Swiss franc (CHF) and time is one hour ahead of GMT. Flights from the UK to either Zurich or Geneva Airports take around 1 hour and 45 minutes. From the airports, the train to Brig takes around 2 hours and 20 minutes.
Swiss offers daily flights from London to both Geneva and Zurich Airports. Return flights from £82pp. swiss.com
Some resorts in Valais are car free, but an interconnected and punctual public transport system across the region ensures hassle-free travel for visitors. A Swiss Travel Pass can be purchased for three, four, eight or 15 days (from £170pp) and provides unlimited travel by rail, bus and boat across 90 towns and cities, plus entrance to over 500 museums. sbb.ch
Valais Matterhorn Region provides information and itineraries to help plan your trip. Book a range of Valais experiences via visitvalais.ch/shop
Where to eat
Prices are for a three-course meal for two people with a bottle of wine, unless otherwise stated
La Terrazza Italian restaurant set within its own ‘piazza’ in the Stockalper hotel in central Brig. Among the speciality pastas on offer are many varieties of fresh, plump and excellent ravioli. From £122. Alte Simplonstrasse 6, 3900 Brig, 00 41 27 922 2600, stockalperhof.ch
Restaurant Rosswald Popular family-run mountainside restaurant (with an outdoor terrace) serving hearty classics from the area, including the famous chässchnitte and seasonal ice cream coupes. From £53. Rosswald 63, 3913 Rosswald, 00 41 27 923 2159, rosswald-wallis.ch
Restaurant Schäferstube Modern European restaurant run by young couple Daniel Kornhuber and Simone Zurbriggen. Expect traditional flavours with a unique twist, and don’t miss their cordon bleu, a cheesefilled schnitzel updated with a tangy fruity sauce. From £138. Obere Gasse 32, 3906 Saas-Fee, 00 41 27 957 2537, schaeferstube.ch
Restaurant Vieux-Chalet Cosy cabin-style restaurant specialising in traditional dishes including fondue. Order the fondue selection to try several flavours with options including traditional, tomato and even pesto. From £88. Untere Dorfstrasse 3, 3906 Saas-Fee, 00 41 27 957 2892, vieux-chalet-saas-fee.ch
- A colourless brandy flavoured with pitted and fermented Luizet apricots – the canton’s star fruit, thanks to the year-round sun, which have been cultivated here since 1838
- Assiette Valaisanne
- A platter of Valais dried beef IGP, cured ham IGP and sausage, with AOP Raclette du Valais and Valais rye bread
- Alpine herbs
- Around 35 aromatic plants are cultivated here, including lemon balm, camphor, chamomile, edelweiss and verbena – all well used in the region’s cuisine
- AOP Valais rye bread
- Round, cracked loaf with a distinctive browncrust made from rye flour – the only grain that can adapt to extreme climates and altitude, it has been grown here since 1209. A sharp flavour and deep aroma make it ideal as part of an assiette Valaisanne
- A dish of bread, Raclette du Valais, ham and a fried egg. Wine is heated to steam the bread and melt the cheese
- A baked flaky pastry filled with onions, leeks with apples, potatoes and Raclette du Valais cheese
- The most significant red wine of the region known for its full-bodied juicy fruit flavours
- A classic made with melted cheese and potatoes for dipping
- Galette Valaisanne
- A pizza-like dish made with the canton’s produce, including a rye-flour base, Raclette du Valais cheese, cured regional ham and herbs from Grand St Bernard
- This slightly bitter herbal liqueur which is made with the Alpine plant génépi blanc makes a good digestif
- Grape seed
- Surplus seeds from wine production are used to make flour for a vitamin-rich, rustic bread that’s ideal for breakfast. It is also cold-pressed to produce a nutty oil
- Le cordon bleu
- A traditional dish from Brig typically prepared using pork or veal (though chicken is also common), which is stuffed with ham and cheese, crumbed and then deep fried
- Raclette du Valais AOP
- The most famous cheese of Valais, produced here since ancient Roman times and today melted at the table and served with small potatoes and pickles. AOP status guarantees its provenance, with the milk being sourced from, produced and matured within the region
- Originally a breakfast food, this fried, thick ‘pancake’ of grated potato is now served any time of day, often as an accompaniment to sausages and gravy
- Petite Arvine
- One of Valais’ most important white grape varieties, prized for its notes of grapefruit and high acidity
- Walliser trockenfleisch IGP
- Literally translated as ‘Valais driedmeat’: this preserved beef is flavoured with mountain herbs and served in thin slices, often on an assiette Valaisanne
Food and Travel Review
Much of south-west Switzerland’s Valais canton feels otherworldly, like stepping inside a timeless chocolate-box scene. Firs bristle against a jagged mountain relief carved from ice and stone; powder-blue glacial rivers surge towards sea level; and flowers whisker the lush Alpine meadows, bending their heads against a crystal-cut breeze. Chattering birdsong and the gentle melody of cowbells is carried on the Föhn, a warm wind formed on northerly Alpine slopes.
Valais stretches from the Rhône Glacier in the east to Lake Geneva – or Lac Léman, as it’s called locally – in the west and contains 45 of Switzerland’s 48 tallest mountains, each rising above 4,000m. Among them, the famous and distinctive Matterhorn, a 4,478m pyramidal peak that straddles the Swiss-Italian border. In summertime, the panoramic mountainsides are a hiker’s and biker’s paradise, with over 8,000km of walking trails and some 1,500km of mountain-bike routes traversing fragrant larchwood forests, lush meadows, glaciers and undulating vineyards.
At ground level, Valais’ resort towns provide the perfect base for exploration. It’s said that the people here think of travelling vertically, not horizontally, and most movement is achieved via cable car or winding mountain road. The historic town of Brig in Upper Valais is the largest, situated at the foot of the Simplon Pass (beyond the city gates), which connects the region to Italy. The pass was considered too perilous to traverse by anyone bar mercenaries and smugglers until the 17th century, when merchant prince Kaspar Stockalper used it to transport silk, salt and anything else he considered lucrative. Becoming a rich man wasn’t his only success; he helped put the town on the map.
His legacy is evident in buildings like the Stockalper Palace (now the town hall), the finest example of Brig’s surviving baroque architecture, its distinctive granite towers topped with three gilded onion domes. It’s the perfect metaphor for the region’s food scene, one that champions the quality of the most humble of produce. The lively old quarter is where locals gather to enjoy one of Valais’ most famous dishes: le cordon bleu. Invented in Brig during the 1940s, it’s a fortifying plateful of cheese-filled veal, pork or chicken schnitzel; a hearty taste of the traditional cuisine the region is known for.
A short cable car ride away in Rosswald, some 1,819m above sea level, Roger Marx Bieri is cooking a rib-sticking dish of chässchnitte in the same way he has made it for 51 years.
Joined by his wife Doris in the kitchen of Restaurant Rosswald, he gently fries onions and crisps locally cured ham on a plancha. He heats oil in a frying pan before adding a slice of bread and AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée status ensuring regional provenance) Raclette du Valais cheese from the nearby municipality of Bitsch. Finally, a splash of ‘cooking wine’, which steams the bread and melts the cheese. He tops this with the slivers of ham, softened onions and a fried egg laid by one of the family’s hens. ‘This is the traditional way of making the dish,’ explains Doris. ‘The recipe is from my husband’s mother.’ Roger plates the now considerably sized meal alongside pickled onions, cornichons and tomato – an essential antidote to its richness.
Afterwards, there are seasonal coupes – ice cream topped with local fruits such as the small, sweet blueberries that speckle the mountains, nurtured by nearly 300 days of sunshine a year. The surrounding shrubs, herbs and leaves define Valaisan cuisine: grass provides food for goats and cows to produce milk, which is made into cheese; Alpine herbs are used as seasonings; fruits are baked into cakes, preserved as jams, made into syrups or steeped in alcohol to make pear or apricot brandy.
Most visitors to the region will already be familiar with Raclette, the round, semi-hard unpasteurised cheese that is typically melted. The name comes from the French ‘racler’, which means ‘to scrape’, referring to the way the cheese is melted by wood fire – or a tableside Raclette grill, at home – until golden and the top layer swept dramatically onto the plate. Only cheese produced in the region can claim the name, explains cheese expert Beat Lehner, who runs Cabane du Fromage, a 20-year-old cheese shop that nestles in Saas Fee, a popular car-free resort located within the horseshoe shaped Mischabel mountain range.
The flavour of Raclette is creamy, aromatic and varies by producer. ‘It depends on where exactly the cows are grazing, the method of production and the storage of the cheese,’ says Beat, ‘but mostly on the grass and herbs.’ The quality of this diet is itself dependent on three factors: soil, climate and altitude. Cows grazing at 500-700m will benefit from eating the best herbs for milk production: clover, graminées (a type of powdery mildew that grows on grass), broadleaf plantain, dandelion and alchemilla, a perennial plant known commonly as lady’s mantle, in addition to the lush mountain grass. Grass that grows above 1,500 metres has more calories than the varieties found at ground level, and this is manifested in the creaminess of the cheese.
Beat warms a four-month-old Raclette until bubbling, then – whoosh! – scrapes its melted layer onto a plate of boiled potatoes, onions and gherkins (Valaisan vegetables are carefully monitored for ‘bio’, or organic, status, guaranteeing excellent flavour to complement the cheese). Seasoned with pepper and paprika, it is one of life’s great and simple pleasures: rich, nutty and the perfect match for a glass of sweet local Heida wine.
While the majority of Raclette is made from cows’ milk, some producers are experimenting with goats’ milk versions. Halfway up the 2,000m high Hannigalp overlooking Saas-Fee, cheesemakers Johannes Pobitzer and Catarina Strassl have set up residence in a small, homely wooden hut for the duration of the summer. They arrive at the beginning of June to prepare for the arrival of the 110-strong herd a week later. They will be alone on the mountainside except for the goats and their hens, which strut in and out of a roost built into the side of the hut. ‘We have 15 chickens to lay eggs to sell,’ says Catarina. ‘It’s our finance plan!’
Johannes gently stirs raw milk in a large copper pot set over a crackling wood fire. The temperature of this milk is crucial: too hot and the good bacteria will die, too cold and the bad ones will survive. While the cheesemaking process is tightly controlled, other factors are left to chance: ‘there are always some surprises,’ explains Catarina, ‘it really depends on what the goats have been up to.’
They eat blackcurrants, thistles and juniper berries and ‘would die sooner than eat too much of the same’.
At the end of the season the couples will lead them to the village for a festival procession down the mountain before their owners collect them for the winter. ‘They are brushed and we put flowers in their hair – it’s a big party,’ says Catarina. As it has been for years.
While summer in the valley brings unique seasonal pleasures, a trip to higher ground is unmissable. Gornergrat Bahn was the world’s first fully electrified cog railway, running from the town of Zermatt to Gornergrat’s summit, and it’s here that visitors gather to view the iconic Matterhorn, one of the 29 peaks over 4,000m visible from the viewing platform. Many make their way back down via pit stops at bars, mountain-hut restaurants and cafés in the form of rösti, sausages and snacking plates: soft cured sausage with beetroot, cheeses like the mild yet tangy bleu du Valais, mutschli (a type of herbed Raclette) and soft petals of dried meat (Walliser trockenfleisch IGP) rolled in herbs. It is the tradition to linger over an assiette Valaisanne – a local platter featuring AOP products including Raclette and canton’s artisanal rye bread, IGP dried meat – ham, sausage, dry cured pork – and a bottle or two.
With some 5,000ha of vineyards, Valais is Switzerland’s most significant wine-growing region – with most wine produced around Sion, the canton’s sun-drenched capital. At Les Celliers de Sion, the dramatic landscape tells the story of the area’s winemaking history, which began with the Roman Empire. Surviving dry-stone walls, now protected by law, organise the vineyards into 500m-tall terraces, allowing vines to grow on otherwise unsuitably steep terrain.
A series of irrigation channels called bisses, built in the Middle Ages to irrigate cereal crops, run throughout. Everything must be done by hand and the harvested grapes are collected by helicopter. At Bisse de Clavau, the vineyard’s peak, Le Cube Varone restaurant is laid under a vine-covered canopy. Here, Houda Bressoud, a Moroccan cook who has made her life in Valais, serves food that combines local products with her own culinary twists. Her three-course menu is designed around the wines, of course, and dishes such as Raclette espuma (‘Raclette as you’ve never seen it before’) come with Fendant – one of the region’s most popular whites: light and citrusy, it is a great match for the creamy cheese.
Guests can enjoy six wines with Houda’s inventive cooking, which she produces from a metre-squared space. ‘I make a miracle in my small kitchen,’ she says (and absolutely no one would argue with her). Her spicy tartare, a dish of chopped beef mixed with pickles, herbs and chilli, is matched well with a glass of Johannisberg, the wine’s dry minerality offsetting the meat’s sweetness. Mountain lake trout tartare is flavoured with curry powder, and Houda spikes much of her food with spice. ‘It is something different for locals to try,’ she smiles.
Incidentally, on the sunny plateaux of Mund, near Brig, there grows a spice more often associated with her motherland: saffron, which can even be found in some iterations of Raclette.
Two grapes considered stars of the region are the DOP-protected Petite Arvine (white), and Cornalin (red). The delicate, sun-loving former has been grown in Valais since at least 1602. Characterised by tropical fruit on the nose, it has high acidity and a saline finish. The vines love heat, thriving in the most exposed parts of the vineyard, where temperatures reach 40C during summer, and are amplified by heat stored in the dry-stone walls. Cornalin, by contrast, is rich, cherry red and rustic; its juicy fruit benefiting from improved tannic structure with age. It is tricky to grow but an alluring complexity makes producers persevere. It’s the extremes of weather that make wine-making challenging in Valais: sometimes grapes are frozen on the vines in March, and the canton is simultaneously one of the driest regions at ground level and the wettest at its peaks.
If Houda’s approach feels somewhat radical, given food here remains staunchly traditional, others are starting to make their mark. In Saas-Fee, young chef Daniel Kornhuber and his girlfriend Simone run Restaurant Schäferstube, serving modern European cuisine in a town otherwise occupied with melted cheese. Their vitello tonnato is made with fresh tuna and black sesame; trout ceviche comes with beetroot, cauliflower purée and trout roe, and the classic cordon bleu is given a modern makeover with a sharp cranberry sauce. It’s an idyllic location for restaurateurs. ‘We pick the herbs we use on our way to work,’ says Simone. ‘Curry kraut, which tastes like curry powder, for soups and sour camphor for vitello tonnato as it’s rich and needs freshness.’
Valais’ summer season feels like it should be a secret; so tranquil it’s said you will ‘sleep like a marmot’ – the burrowing beaver-like creatures that make their homes on the mountainside. While determined skiers find a few slopes open, walkers pick their way through hills, enjoying sunshine tempered by a fresh breeze; they stop just to breathe deeply, the air so pure it feels like therapy. It is during these months that the full spectrum of Alpine life is revealed: the only constant a steady flow of world-class wine and cheese.
Words by Helen Graves. Photography by Mark Parren Taylor.
This feature was taken from the July 2021 issue of Food and Travel.
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