A visitor to the Swiss Alps discovers that the food is as marvelous as the hiking.
The sky was a little too blue, the mountains were too high. On our left, farmers were smoking clay pipes; on our right, fat brown cows followed a barefoot boy. "I can't take a picture," my husband grumbled. "It's too picturesque. Too Heidi."
What can you do? Switzerland has a way of arranging itself in perfect photo ops. Mist-cloaked mountains. Tiny, star-shaped wildflowers. Chalets with geranium-stuffed window boxes and lakeside restaurants where women with jeweled fingers feed their lunches to small dogs. Beauty was as much a part of our recent walking tour of Switzerland as was the certainty that when we reached the top of a mountain we would find a café that was already filled with other hikers drinking wine and eating veal with morels.
My husband and I are serious walkers. But although we will happily trek up to 15 miles a day, we don't camp. No heavy backpacks, dehydrated grub or embarrassing hygiene arrangements for us. What we like is the balance of energy out and energy in that comes from working hard on the trail all day and then going home to a shower, a delicious meal and a good bed.
That's why, when we planned a walking trip last year, we decided to go to Switzerland. No other country is as understanding of hikers who care as much about the quality of their dinner as they do about the quality of the scenery. It is, we had been told, the world capital of civilized hiking.
This proved to be the case. We hiked on scree-strewn mountain paths, across immaculately groomed vineyards and along a lakeside promenade shaded by tropical foliage. Our meals were always very good, and occasionally superb. And all of this took place in one corner of southwest Switzerland, the French-speaking canton of Vaud at the east end of Lake Geneva, a region so varied yet so compact that we were able to take all three of these hikes in one long weekend.
A Mountain Hike
After checking into the cozy, balconied Alpe Fleurie Hotel in the busy skiing resort of Villars-sur-Ollon, we drove to the start of the trail that leads steadily uphill from Solalex, a village made up of a scattering of houses on a grassy slope, to the windswept hamlet of Anzeindaz. The path, covered with loose stones, was rough going, and the air, at more than a mile above sea level, was so thin it set our hearts pounding. But the views were awe inspiring: waterfalls descending in ribbons beside the trail, tiny scarlet and gold blossoms scattered under-foot and a ring of snow-topped peaks standing around us. By the time we began the downhill trek to our lunch destination, we knew for certain that we were in Switzerland.
Restaurant Le Miroir d'Argentine in Solalex is a happy combination of The Sound of Music and Chez Panisse, an unkitschy chalet where chef André Jaggi cooks with fresh local ingredients. This is no easy task given the short growing season of the Alps and is one reason the restaurant is open from only May to October.
André's charming brother, Lucien, who runs the front of the house, drew pictures to describe the specialties: a summer salad of tiny haricots, local smoked cheese, fresh herbs and cherry tomatoes; a chewy tripe gratin in fresh tomato sauce; a yellow risotto with mixed mushrooms; game hen surrounded by green peas and tiny cauliflower florets. And, for those who have burned enough calories during the day's hike, there are cornets à la crème, homemade pastry wafers piled high with sweetened whipped cream--my idea of dessert heaven.
A Vineyard Ramble
Because the Lake Geneva area is the second-largest winegrowing region in Switzerland, we wanted to take one of the seven hiking trails laid down through the vineyards of Villette, Chardonne, Cully, Epesses, Lutry and Riex. The tourist office told us about the bright-yellow wine train that climbs to the head of one of these trails. As we rode, we talked about how expensive land is in Switzerland, especially on this nurturing hillside where the air is tempered by the water in the lake and the sunny southern exposure. Cultivating the intricate system of terraces cut into the sides of these steep slopes is strenuous work, much of which must be done by hand, yet surely no other vineyards in the world are kept so impeccably.
We left the cheerful little train and set out on foot, following a broad path that zigzags downhill between rows of Chasselas vines. Observing trail etiquette, we greeted the walkers we met with a smile and a bonjour. Many wore business clothes and city shoes, as though they had taken the afternoon off from the office for a vineyard outing.
In fact, the walk--with its well-swept paths, benches set under shade trees and blue plaques describing each step of the winemaking process in French, German and English--was a little too tame and regimented for our taste. But the morning was bright, the vines buzzed with bees drawn by the sweet grapes and before too long we fell into a good rhythm.
Lunch was to be in the cobblestone-paved medieval village of St.-Saphorin at l'Auberge de l'Onde, a restaurant renowned for the chickens that roast in its massive fireplace. We started with a salad of soft, buttery lettuces and moved on to a plate of Swiss-made charcuterie, including the famous local air-dried beef, pink Grison ham and a few slices of ripe melon. Golden fried omble from the lake was served with the perfectly crisp frites that were the most consistent culinary pleasure of our trip. Accompanying this was a trois-deci, or three-deciliter carafe, of St.-Saphorin, a wine so local that if we had been in New York City, it would have been called Greenwich Village.
A Lakeside Stroll
The owner of Le Mirador hotel above Vevey on Lake Geneva greeted us as though we were old friends, a pleasant reminder that nobody does hospitality as well as the Swiss. He gave us directions to the lakeside promenade known as the Chemin Fleuri, which would take us to Clarens, four miles away, where we would have lunch.
The Chemin Fleuri, or flowered path, is named for the opulent gardens planted at the water's edge. Caressed by the same temperate climate as the nearby vineyards, more than 200,000 plant species grow here, from roses and tulips to subtropical varieties such as fig and palm trees. Just as interesting, we thought, was the sight of the Swiss enjoying the summer day: bikini-clad sunbathers of every shape, lying on the rocky shore, white-clad yachtsmen coming ashore to walk their dogs and drink a trois-deci, and, since this was Switzerland, workmen tidying paths and pruning bushes.
In Clarens, we had reserved a table in the restaurant of l'Ermitage, an elegant small hotel owned by chef Etienne Krebs and his wife, Isabelle. The clientele was posh, with good jewelry and better plastic surgery; as always, I was amazed at the slenderness of the Europeans and by the number of courses they ate.
Krebs is a wonderful cook; anyone who thinks Swiss food is stodgy should taste his refined seasonal menu. A soup of pureed artichokes with sautéed mushrooms was served cool, but not so cool as to mask its buttery taste. Sautéed omble from Lake Geneva came with a tomato coulis and wild rice from Thailand, one of the few imported ingredients I had from this country's chauvinist kitchens. Veal kidneys in mustard sauce arrived with tiny stuffed vegetables. And although at home we would have gone without dessert, here we ended with a warm raspberry clafoutis topped with coconut. By the end of the meal, we were not as eager to take on the Chemin Fleuri as we had been when we set out. Madame Krebs called us a cab to take us back to our hotel to pack for the trip home.
As I stowed hiking boots next to high-heeled sandals and a fanny pack next to a silk purse, I reflected on the weekend. There was, I thought, something uniquely appealing about a place that offers such rugged terrain and such serious luxury, a place where, in a single day, I could be lightheaded first from the altitude and, later, from the wine.
Text by Irene Sax, who is a freelance food writer and a restaurant reviewer for the Daily News in New York City.