Switzerland: Fond of Fondue

Switzerland: Fond of Fondue
In increasingly international Verbier, a local treasure closes its doors.
By Jay Cowen

The skiing is big and busy in Verbier, Switzerland, where 7,000 vertical feet are fed by 100 lifts, so it’s no wonder that the town is naturally raucous. Its streets teem with a young, très international crowd that rocks hard all day on legendary back country and off -piste routes such as Gentianes and Stairway to Heaven, then rolls all night in clubs that are open until dawn.

Like the mountain, the dining is also big and busy, with only occasional quiet oases and gourmet outposts. Le Millenium can be cranking for lunch and après (the daily specials are always outstanding), but I like it around 11:30 or 1:30, when things are calmer. The exclusive L’Olympique restaurant is an elegant mid-mountain aerie with an uptown menu and a brilliant polenta special made with local Bagnes cheeses and speck. La Table d’Adrien, at the five-star Le Chalet d’Adrien, offers outrageous delicacies such as stuffed pigeons and roasted prawns with coconut.

But the real restaurant finds in Verbier are tucked into the edges of the village, in the few original lodges and farmhouses that remain from Verbier’s early days and are becoming seriously endangered.  A sad case in point is the Hotel au Vieux-Valais, which recently closed its doors. With its passing went another small piece of the old Valais culture of the region.

Perched on a steep hillside on Verbier’s quiet downhill edge, the legendary hotel/restaurant didn’t just provide a glimpse of historic local traditions or jaw-dropping views of the Val des Bagnes and the Grand Combin massif, it also served some of the best cuisine in town. The three-star family-run establishment was the kind of insider’s place that everyone knew.  As Verbier’s most famous skier, adventure guide John Falkiner, told me when I asked him to lunch,“They have great food.”

Then he added prophetically, “It’s the kindof old-style place that’s disappearing quickly from Verbier.”

fondue_brocThat was the last time I ate there, enjoying a savory magret decanard des landes as delectable as any non-Peking-based-duck can aspire to. Local foods and traditional Valais methods made the Vieux-Valais famous for “mumy” Rosine’s homemade jams and cheeses, as well as the house specialties, fondue and raclette.

The Swiss still take great pride in these dishes. The secret toboth is in the cheeses, and those in Verbier are as good and fresh as you’ll find. In the best restaurants, “keeping it local” also results in the customary beef fondue being joined on menus by wild game versions that elevate the ancient fondue craft to new heights.

The food will always be as great as the skiing in Verbier, but I will still miss the old Valais, and the restaurant that bore its name.