Swiss soul

Head for the great outdoors to find slow food and fresh air in Verbier


As Switzerland’s largest ski resort, Verbier is known for its winter charms, but this chalet town in the Swiss Alps is increasingly tempting travellers during its quieter months. And the outdoor activities and smaller events designed to entice visitors throughout the summer also make for an appealing post-pandemic escape.

This summer alone, the Val de Bagnes region has been home to an E-bike festival, with E-biking packages available until mid-October. We set off to test out one of these, the Rando Gourmande — a six stage trail stretching almost 17 miles around the valley, each ending with a different culinary delicacy in a separate picturesque spot.

Starting in Le Châble, we tried melted Raclette next to the chapel of the tiny mountainside village of Les Vernays and freshly-baked bread from the historic communal Banal oven in Le Cotterg: two definite highlights of this multi-sensory experience of Alpine life.

Being outdoors and with limited contact, the sport is hardly impacted by the pandemic either. In fact, a holiday here felt far less like a corona-era vacation and more like a normal getaway.

Masks were required only on public transport, an amenity now provided by our accommodation (the Hotel Bristol), and our flights included complementary bottles of water to keep passengers hydrated.

Another, slightly less strenuous, outdoor activity saw us take the cable car to La Tzoumaz — the quieter counterpart to Verbier’s party atmosphere on the other side of the mountain — to forage for our lunch.

While some of the plants we gathered were familiar — nettles, as well as wild rhubarb and spinach — we also stopped to pick hogweed (think Alpine ginseng) and yarrow leaves, which are known for their ability to stem bleeding.

Foraging, our mountain leader Cherries told us, was very popular, but required a time commitment (anything from three hours to six days) that many didn’t have.

While she was able to run winter walks during the ski period, this seasonal work meant that local businesses can struggle during the summer. Foraging hikes were her way of filling the quieter months.

After stopping off for crystal-clear glacier water out of a fountain, we were on our way to a local cheesemaker for some Sérac, a low-fat soft cheese made from the whey left behind from the Raclette-making process.

Like many things in the area, the cheesemaker was open only in the summer months when the cows are traditionally brought up the mountains to graze. When they go back down into the valley, so do the cheesemakers.

The local festival celebrating the movement of the cows at different times of year (May-June and September-October) has also become a tourist attraction.

Then it was time to use our foraged goodies and the cheese to make lunch at the Maison de la Forêt, whipping up pesto, couscous and a rhubarb berry dessert. While I have never had an edible daisy en croute before, it was fascinating to taste plants that I would otherwise simply stroll past.

The centre of the Swiss Slow Food Movement is only around 30 minutes’ drive from Verbier, in the sleepy village of Sarrayer.

There the local community has restored a 19th century mill which they use for apple pressing and flour making, and helped create a network of food and drink producers promoting the sustainable use of local ingredients and fairer prices — something which shows added prescience, given how the pandemic has affected international supply chains.

After a demonstration of the mill’s functions, we were treated to a platter of cheeses, not least an exquisite brie, from the local Ferme des Glariers.

And from the Edelweiss Distillery, various liquors brewed using local plants, including a bitter absinthe made according to the original 1900s recipe. Incredibly moreish, although those of us who had more than one taste were treated to some fairly vivid dreams later that night.

The products are also available in the village restaurant, Café du Mont-Fort, another institution re-opened by the community, for the community. Here, we indulged in a vegetarian menu using only local ingredients, including a nettle tagliatelle, and a selection of cakes from local master chocolatier Raphaël Thoos.

The meal was supplemented by a sublime Sang de Reine (Blood of the Queen) red wine, so named after the Valais tradition of annually crowning the cow which has dominated the others on the mountain pastures that season.

While the area has all the hallmarks of a great summer getaway in the daytime, outside its winter peak the nightlife gave no sign of Verbier’s usual reputation as a party town.

After dinner every night the streets were practically empty, and the few open bars contained only a handful of stragglers. All the nightclubs have remained shut due to the pandemic.

It’s unlikely to put off families wishing to travel abroad to somewhere relatively safe, but would disappoint those seeking to replicate the “work hard, play hard” atmosphere of Verbier’s ski season.

This winter is already set to be different though. Verbier Tourism director Simon Wiget explained they would focus on more, smaller events as opposed to a few large ones — as well as encouraging people to spread across the valleys, rather than staying in a single location (a one-night stay in Verbier currently earns you a free VIP pass, allowing travel across the cable car network, and discounts on local activities, such as 50 per cent off foraging).

“I think this will be the normal experience for the next few years,” he said.

The region’s annual Palp music and culture festival, which usually takes place in early summer, has been moved by the unstoppable force of Covid-19 to run until November, also with a greater number of small outdoor events; their largest will accommodate 600 people, split into two separate groups with separate facilities to limit contact.

As we ate a Slow Food brunch on top of the world’s eighth-highest dam in Mauvoisin, festival organiser Michel May told us that it would also be the first year that the festival — which aims “to set up events in unusual locations” — would have only local produce.

The area obviously has a Jewish appeal already. While there, we saw many Chasidic families who had travelled from Geneva and Belgium, enjoying a holiday in apartments in La Tzoumaz.

And with Switzerland laying claim to the title of safest destination in Europe over the summer, as long as the UK’s quarantine restrictions don’t prevent us, a slice of normality in the mountains has rarely been more tempting.


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