Searching for the perfect Pinte

August 15, 2010 § Leave a comment

No, not another piece enthusing about English beer but a story of trying to find something simple to eat in Vevey, a market town on the shores of Lac Léman (Lake Geneva) in the Swiss canton of Vaud.

During our summer tour of Switzerland I decided it was time to revisit some of my old haunts. Back in the late 80’s and early 90’s, I spent 4 winters in Vevey working in the offices of a certain international food company. There was a whole team of us out there (referred to unimaginatively as the Equipe) and we must have dined at pretty much every half-decent restaurant within a 15 mile radius of the town.

Back then, the gastronomical heights were occupied by the legendary Frédy Girardet in his restaurant in Crissier above Lausanne. Just about everywhere else was readily accessible and welcoming, serving up generous portions of Suisse Romande cuisine. It was here that I first encountered the Swiss custom of the deuxième service: finish one plate of steak, potatoes, vegetables or whatever and it is whisked away and replaced with an identical one! A blessing or a curse, depending on your point of view.

Something has happened in Vevey in the last 25 years. It’s come out in a rash of Michelin stars and Gault Millau points. For example, I remember Brent as a sleepy little village just above Vevey’s brash neighbour Montreux. It’s now home to Le Pont de Brent, celebrity chef Gérard Rabaey’s 3 Michelin star 19 Gault Millau points restaurant.

Vevey itself is home to Switzerland’s answer to Heston Blumenthal, Denis Martin, whose 2 Michelin star 18 Gault Millau point restaurant is in the Rue du Château, close to the swanky lakeside Trois Couronnes hotel.

With 2 boys in tow (one teenage and one nearly so), we weren’t really in the market for a lengthy candlelit molecular gastronomy session. We were looking for something simpler, a pinte Vaudoise in fact.

What’s a pinte Vaudoise I hear you ask. This is what the official website of the Office of Vaudois Wines www.vins-vaudois.com has to say:

“A recommended pinte vaudoise is a public establishment, all or part of which constitutes a welcoming village inn where you can have wine and a meal. Its primary purpose is to feature Vaudois terroirs, food specialties and A.O.C. wines. Their managers pay great attention to welcoming guests and training their staff to be Vaudois terroir experts. Recommended pintes vaudoises are friendly, so that guests feel like coming back and recommending them to friends.”

Talking of local wines and vineyards, even these have moved upmarket with the intricately terraced Lavaux vineyards becoming a UNESCO world heritage site in 2007. The Lavaux is the 30 km long lakeside strip of land running from the picturesque Château de Chillon in the East to the outskirts of Lausanne in the West.

Scanning the list of pintes available both from the tourist office and the Office of Vaudois wines website, we discovered that we were in luck. Included was the restaurant of our hotel, the Hôtellerie de Châtonneyre, right in the middle of the wine village of Corseaux. The Chât, as we English had christened the hotel, hadn’t changed a bit in 25 odd years. As far as décor and plumbing went, this was not necessarily a good thing, but it was good to see the menu just as I remember it. For a first night in Vevey, there was only one thing to order: Filets de perche, frais du lac:

These small lake fish are found on most of the local restaurant menus. There was only one option to drink with them, a bottle of crisp white Chardonne from grapes grown on the hillside beneath which we were sitting on our sunny terrace.

The boys both ordered duck breast with potato galettes, equally delicious. Pudding was a rather wonderful gratin of raspberries (sabayon poured over fresh raspberries then the dish flashed under the grill to brown and caramelise just a little) served with a melon sorbet.

The next even we decided to visit another old haunt, the Auberge de l’Onde in the neighbouring wine village of St Saphorin. The lakeside village with traditional buildings and narrow winding streets is impossibly picturesque but not designed for the modern motor car as we discovered in an a frank exchange of views with a German registered SUV. You can sit outside on warm evenings:

We opted for the cosy dark wood panelled pinte dining room. It had about as much in common with a true traditional pinte as Heston Blumenthal’s pub does to a traditional British boozer. Why so? With the arrival of ambitious chef Patrick Zimmerman, the Auberge has been taken relentlessly upmarket and has gained a Michelin star and 15 Gault Millau points along the way. This means you won’t find many horny-handed locals supping here. On the night we dined, pretty much all the clientele were, like ourselves, tourists, from the UK, US and Italy.

Although the place felt rather precious, food and service were top class. I opted for the good value Menu du Jour featuring more lake fish, this time the féra (as far as I know unknown in the UK, Latin name Coregonus fera). This is a larger fish than the perch with firm white delicate tasting fillets, just right with the braised leeks, steamed potatoes and beurre blank type sauce with which it was served.

All well and good, but not truly authentic. It was not until we went back to the village of Chardonne where I rented apartment within the village house of Clos Jean-Louis that I spotted what I’d been looking for all along, the unassuming Café au Bon Vin. The menu features typical Vaudois dishes including the mysterious Malakoff. Apparently you can have two of these as a main course and if you like, a third in place of pudding. What were these things?

Thanks to the rather wonderful Swiss-authored food blog www.fxcuisine.com I discovered both that a malakoff is a deep-fried cheese stick and also found detailed instructions, photos and a recipe for whipping some up back home. I commend the blog to you.

Sadly, our discovery of the Café au Bon Vin was too late. We didn’t have time to try it out as we were en route to our mountaintop Mongolian yurt experience…

Edible municipal gardening in Switzerland

August 14, 2010 § Leave a comment

An idea from Switzerland that could work well back home. Municipal planting in the North of England where I come from tends to take the form of highly coloured highly regimented and highly maintained beds of marigolds, begonias, lobelia and the like. I saw recently in both Champéry and Vevey, two towns in la Suisse Romande (French speaking Switzerland), examples of edible flower beds.

In Vevey these were straightforward ornamental vegetables, rainbow chard, sweetcorn and tomatoes.

In Champéry, a more imaginative approach was taken. Herbs and edible plants were displayed in planters which formed a trail through the village with a recipe for the relevant edible plant displayed next to it. The recipes were compiled into a handy little brochure available from the tourist office.

Here are 3 of the recipes from the leaflet which appealed to me, including one featuring comfrey. Normally all my recipes are tried and tested but these are new to me. I shall be giving them a go as soon as I’m back in my own kitchen and can forage for the ingredients.

A photo of the planter containing comfrey (Symphytum officinale or consoude in French) appears at the bottom of the post.

Recipe for comfrey tzatziki

For 4 people. This recipe makes sense as tzatiki is usually made with cucumber and both comfrey and it’s cousin borage are said to have a cucumber-like taste. Rather worryingly, the original recipe states that comfrey should be consumed in moderation because of the potentially liver damaging compounds it contains. You have been warned!

Ingredients

300g natural yoghurt, ideally Greek style
6-7 young comfrey leaves
1 clove of garlic
1 tbsp olive oil
5 mint leaves, ideally wild mint
salt and pepper

Chop the comfrey and mint finely and mix with the yoghurt and olive oil. Season to taste. Leave for 1 hour in the fridge and mix again before serving.

Recipe for little elderberry cakes

Makes about 25 little cakes. These sound as if they’ll turn out like madeleines – I hope so as madeleines are just about my favourite small cakes.

Ingredients

150g flour
150g caster sugar
40g ground almonds (ideally bitter almonds)
2 teaspoons baking powder
The grated rind and juice of half a lemon
150-200g ripe elderberries removed from the stalk
3 eggs lightly beaten with a fork
150g melted butter
125g natural yoghurt
2 tbsp orange flower water

In a large bowl mix the flour, sugar, ground almonds, baking powder, grated lemon rind and elderberries. Take care not to crush the berries. In a second smaller bowl, mix the eggs, melted butter, yoghurt, lemon juice and orange flower water. Add the wet ingredients to the dry, mix and allow to rest in the fridge for 1 hour. Drop teaspoons of the mixture into prepared silicone moulds (I plan to use my silicone madeleine moulds, otherwise use patty tins). Bake for 12 to 15 minutes in an oven preheated to 220 degrees C. Leave for a few minutes before unmoulding.

Recipe for Charentais melon and wild mint salsa with melon and muscat sorbet and raw ham from the Val d’Illiez

Serves 4 I would guess. This is one of the sketchier recipes in the leaflet so please alter it as you see fit. No ingredients or method are given for the sorbet syrup so please consult your usual cookbook to see how to make this.

Ingredients

2 Charentais melons
1/2 cucumber
1 dessertspoon icing sugar
125 ml sugar syrup
Small glass Pineau de Charentes or other sweet muscat wine
4 handfuls salad leaves
4 to 8 slices Val d’Illiez or other raw thinly ham

Peel and deseed the melon and cucumber, cut into small cubes and marinate overnight in the fridge with the chopped mint and the spoonful of icing sugar. Liquidise and set aside.

To make the sorbet, peel and deseed the second melon, cube and liquids then mix with the 125 ml chilled sugar syrup and the small glass of muscat wine. Churn in an ice cream maker or freeze in a shallow plastic container stirring the mix from time to time.

Serve the smoothy and the sorbet with a few dressed salad leaves (use a vinaigrette flavoured with chopped wild mint) and scatter over the strips of raw ham.

Champéry and the Tour des Dents du Midi

August 13, 2010 § Leave a comment

The range of seven peaks known as the Dents du Midi (Teeth of the South) sits high above the Rhône valley in Western Switzerland and is tantalisingly visible from the shores of Lac Léman (lake Geneva).

After staring at these dreamy mountains for years since I first visited the area back in the 1980s I was finally going to approach them on foot via the long distance footpath called the Tour des Dents du Midi. If you were really up for it you could complete the walk in 2 long days: we decided to opt for the 4 day option making our base the picturesque alpine village of Champéry in the canton of Valais.

Wending our way up the Val d’Illiez towards Champéry we kept seeing roadside stalls selling Valais apricots. The Valais is named after the mighty Rhône valley which dominates the region. It is the warmest and sunniest part of Switzerland and is famed for its red wines and its fruit trees. I’d previously experienced Valais fruit in the winter in the form of hideously strong schnapps, pomme (apple), williamine (pear) and the like. At the third roadside stall we just had to break our journey to experience the fruit in its much more pleasant undistilled form:

Delicious, ripe and juicy, much more appealing than the bullet-hard pellets that pass for apricots in supermarkets back home.

Our base in Champéry was the comfortable and good value Beau Séjour hotel at one end of the village main street. It’s pretty as a picture, all dark wood and pink geraniums and the annexe rooms where we slept were spacious and well-equipped. The hotel doesn’t serve meals other than breakfast but this was not a problem as we strolled down to the excellent Café du Nord for dinner.

The Beau Séjour does do a fine breakfast, the highlight of which for us was cooking our own pancakes on a dinky electrically heated tabletop device. Sadly, looking out of the window from our cost breakfast table, the weather outside was, exactly as forecast, grim. Undaunted, we merely donned our waterproofs and set off from the Grand Paradis chairlift carpark. We had 6 hours walking ahead of us including 900m of ascent.

The showers stopped intermittently and we were rewarded with views of precipitous slopes and alpine meadows. We took a lunch break at the Cabane d’Antème, pretty basic with building work audibly in progress. Soup was reconstituted Maggi or similar and coffee was instant but the chocolate cake was the real deal.

After another 3 hours’ trudging in the rain, the Alpage de Chindonne was a welcome sight bas we rounded our final corner. This was amazingly comfortable for a mountain hut, more like a small hotel, with prices too match! We were too late for the cheaper basic pasta meal, the répas du randonneur, so it was the à la carte option of viand sechée du Valais followed by the national Swiss potato dish, rösti.

Here is the board of viande sechée du Valais:

After a breakfast of bread and jam we set out on day 2 of our walk. Mercifully the rain had stopped and the sun broke through clouds and it became a beautiful day. A good thing too as we had 7 hours walking ahead of us. We spent the morning rounding the corner into the main Rhône valley arriving at the cliff top village of Mex in time for lunch. We then had a gruelling 1,000m climb up to the col du Jorat from where we could see down to our destination, the Auberge de Salanfe. By common consent this was the best hut of the tour. It has a spectacular lakeside setting, comfortable rooms, good food and efficient and friendly service. Dinner, a homemade vegetable soup and emincé de boeuf (beef casserole) with rice and vegetables, was wolfed down by all.

Day 3 turned out to be a relatively short 3 hour walk over the col to the Cabane de Susanfe as our planned peak, the Haut Cîme, 3,257m, turned out to be unobtainable because of the quantity of fresh snow down to 2,400m. We arrived at the Cabane at around lunchtime and spent a lazy afternoon in the sunshine rehydrating first on sirop de mélisse (homemade lemon balm cordial) and later on a microbrewery beer from Sion. Dinner was packet cream of asparagus soup followed by chilling con carne, then apple sauce for pudding. Sounds a little odd but it all tastes good after a day’s hiking. The Cabane de Susanfe is a genuine Swiss Alpine Club hut with just a coomunal dormitory and hut bunk sleeping arrangements. This proved the most difficult part of the walk: sharing a mattress with a pot-bellied snoring stranger is not my idea of fun….

After a slightly Spartan breakfast of homemade bread (good but not enough of it), jam and instant hot chocolate, we set off on the final leg of the journey back to Champéry and civilisation. After a tricky first hour we were through the steepest section of the walk, the Pas d’Encel, effectively the jaws of the valley. The buvette de Bonavau made a welcome break with tempting homemade fruit tarts on display:

Too soon it was back to civilization in Champéry. It was a sunny Sunday lunchtime and we were pleasantly surprised to find both the bakery open and a little market in full swing in the village centre. We stocked up on bread – both Valais rye bread with walnuts plus white bread for the softies in our party. The cheeses were a wonderfully ripe and stinky Tomme de Bruson from the neighbouring valley and a local artisan-made rinded goat cheese. The salami was chewy, flavoursome and flavoured with génepi. I think this variety of peach is called doughnut – they were small, fragantly white-fleshed and juicy.

A perfect picnic to conclude a successful walk, even if the Haut Cîme remained out of reach this time.

Zermatt mountain restaurants: style meets substance

February 21, 2010 § Leave a comment

Zermatt’s mountain restaurants are legendary and looking at the view from the balcony of Chez Vrony in the hamlet of Findeln you can see why. We were in Zermatt for the busy February half term holiday week so making some key lunchtime bookings well in advance was an important part of my holiday planning.

Our first lunch was at Chez Vrony is a Zermatt institution run by Vrony Julen, daughter of one of one of Zermatt’s long established families. The food is delicious, the service is both charming and almost fearsomely efficient. Our New Zealand nephew Simon’s jaw dropped visibly as we were shown to our stunning balcony table and seated on cosy benches strewn with sheepskins. He later admitted it was a far cry from his usual eating experience in the ski fields of New Zealand where lunch means a snatched pot noodle in a utilitarian shed.

Chez Vrony caters for both hearty and more ladylike appetites. I chose the Salad Vrony, an elegant supercharged version of a chicken Caesar salad:

The salad followed by a double espresso was more than enough to set me up for the afternoon’s skiing but nephew Simon and son George were both still hungry after rösti and risotto respectively and chose the apple fritters for pudding. Needless to say, these disappeared in a flash:

Later in the week we made the obligatory hop-over the Theodul Pass into the Italian village of Cervinia. When in Italy, it has to be polenta, in this case Polenta Valdostana smothered with butter and molten cheese. As my Milanese friend Matteo said recently “no self-respecting Italian would ever eat pasta in the mountains: it has to be polenta”. Polenta is incredibly filling and has amazing heat-retentive properties. Lunch kept us going for the rest of the afternoon without any need for coffee and cake.

In general, Cervinia’s mountain restaurants don’t quite live up to the standards set by its Swiss cousin Zermatt. We ate our polenta at a decent enough self-service place at the foot of the Colle inferiore delle Cime Bianche chairlift on the Valtournenche side of the resort. Though the polenta was good, the place itself was nothing to write home about.

Ski Club Rep Paul Ubysz, a walking encyclopaedia when it comes to local knowledge of Zermatt and Cervinia had recommended to us the Resto-Grill Les Clochards accessible from Piste 5 on the Plan Maison side of the resort. I see that there are rave reviews for a Swedish run place called L’Etoile though I wonder if reviewers are star-struck by the lovely team of blonde waitresses. Take your pick…

We are keen skiers so some days lunch was a picnic in the snow with supplementary coffee and cake later in the day. The spectacularly situated Gandegg Hut accessible from the high Theodul glacier ski runs is a perfect place to warm up and refuel. They serve generous portions of home-made apple cake:

The restaurant at Stafel accessible from the red run down to the village from the Schwarzsee area is a similarly good place to linger. They serve excellent warming soups and their home made tarts look extremely inviting:

Finally, I couldn’t leave German-speaking Switzerland without at least one plate of rösti. My favourite is the classic combination of rösti with ham and fried eggs. They serve up a storming version at the Restaurant Blatten on the lower slopes of the Schwarzsee ski area:

Blatten is another restaurant in the Chez Vrony mould: family run (by Leander and Simone Taugwalder); combines rustic charm with super-efficient service and attention to detail; delicious food for a range of appetites. The interior is cosy and wood-panelled and there is a sunny terrace outside:

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Here are they key details to tap into your mobile phone before you go:

Contact details

Chez Vrony

Tel +41 27 967 25 52

http://www.chezvrony.ch/

Gandegg Hütte

Tel +41 79 607 8868 (hut keeper’s mobile)

Restaurant Stafel

Tel +41 27 967 30 62

Restaurant Blatten

Tel +41 27 967 20 96

If you’v eaten in Zermatt or Cervinia recently, I’d love to hear your experiences. Please send me a comment.

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