Chef Jean Lou Margelisch does not know the journalist visiting his restaurant Namaste in Savoleyres, in the Valais region of Switzerland, was once a 23-year-old ski bum (seasonal) who cooked fondue in his kitchen for one season.
When I ski, the chef sunbathes on the terrace overlooking internationally renowned Verbier. It’s been 20 years since I last saw him, but he’s as I remember, content and young for his age. It may be bad French with an Australian accent, but he does a double take and recognizes me. “I’m here to talk about crust,” I say. Perplexed, he replies, “What do you need to know?” I return to the area almost every year, but the dish hasn’t had any fashionable twists on tradition. For the inhabitants of this region, the cheese crust is as daily as a cup of coffee.
Essentially, the local classic consists of slices of bread arranged in a ceramic dish, topped with cheese and heated in a hot oven. Simple, right? But before making one, ask yourself: is the bread sourdough or plain, toasted or not? Is it splashed with wine or soaked in milk, or not at all? Is it a single cheese or a mixture? Goat’s or cow’s milk? In a country where the cuisine is dairy-based, your location in Switzerland inevitably dictates what kind of cheese is on your crust. Here in Valais, a canton nestled near the Swiss border with Italy and France, that means 100 percent raclette, the product of raw milk, veal rennet and salt, lightly aged for 3 months – this which, in my opinion, makes for the very best crust.
You’d think a dish like this could be exploited endlessly, but local restaurants agree: don’t mess with grandeur. All Valais menus are read the same way: it is served plain (cheese and bread) or with the addition of egg, ham or egg and ham. The most ambitious riffs can include bacon bits, mushrooms and/or tomatoes. Even with this proven reputation, the crust remains Switzerland’s least known cheese dish. It’s humble and less suited to social gatherings than, say, the theatrics of scraping a raclette by the fire. As Margelisch tells me, “If a table can’t all agree to share a fondue, someone will often order a crust.”
Perched at an elevation of just over 5,500 feet on Bruson, a mountain face across the valley from Verbier, Eddy and Marie Paul Murisier run the popular Restaurant de Moay. Eddy sheds light on the humble beginnings of the crust: “It’s a peasant dish, a way of using old bread. If it is stale, it can be dipped in milk or sprinkled with wine to sweeten it. The crust has also become a mainstay because of the climate, he tells me. “In the past, in the middle of winter, maintaining the heat while scraping the raclette or melting the fondue was difficult. These clay dishes can stay hot for a long time, so they have replaced raclette and fondue on the coldest days.
The afternoon of my visit, the sky is tinged with bluebird just after a snowfall and condensation is building up on the windows from the heat of all the customers getting ready for lunch. Everyone is abuzz about Eddy and Marie’s son, Justin Murisier, a professional slalom skier and local hero who is going for gold at the Beijing Winter Olympics. It’s on the wall, in conversation, and even on my sugar packet. The history of the Murisiers in creating De Moay with a strong sense of community speaks to the enduring simplicity of terroir-based Swiss cuisine; the couple inherited the family restaurant and Eddy, with no formal training, went on to cook the Valais menu with great success.
Take a left onto the Verbier ski slope and you will find Hameau At Danny’s, a restaurant in the woods where customers are transported by snowmobile in the dark for dinner. I’m here on the previous side, when an après-ski crowd enjoys the sun before it dips over the mountain ridge on the horizon. The menu is diversified: the classics of the region with elegant accents are there, but also dishes such as a salad of superfoods to accommodate the international clientele. Franco-Finnish restaurateur Laurent Royer tells me that they experimented with some things, like swapping kirsch for whiskey, but he concluded, “when the [dairy] the products are so good that they don’t need anything. This is where I try the most daring crust of my visit, which also happens to be one of the most satisfying. The dish of the day is topped with cheese and topped with pan-fried mushrooms, bacon bits and a good amount of pickle (essential to aid digestion).
In the valley below Verbier is the raclette control center, Raclett House (aka Chez Eddy), owned and managed by Eddy Baillifard. Growing up as a shepherd, Baillifard spent nearly a year in hospital following a serious motorcycle accident, changing his destiny from making cheese to serving it. Today, he travels the world as a raclette ambassador (and is the culinary consultant behind the robotics).
When Baillifard enters the room, wheel of cheese under his arm, his presence is immediately felt. Seated, he tells me a little more about the history of the crust as “a way of using the washed crust from the raclette wheels; it can be grated and melted. He’s excited about Justin Murisier competing in Beijing (Baillifard served raclette and crust all night at his house on Justin’s race days), but when I mention that Eddy up the hill is using 170g of cheese on its crust, Baillifard doesn’t care about the quantity—”a minimum of 200g!” We tackle more sensitive topics – how American-made cheese is now allowed to be called Gruyère, and whether pepper should be allowed on the rind, among other things – and the answer is kind of a do not go between some French terms beyond my knowledge.
Returning to the reason why I am here, Baillifard specifies that the importance of a good crust lies in the quality of the bread (a crispy sourdough) and above all, of course, the cheese. “You want to taste grass and wildflowers, nothing fancy,” he says. I came looking for the evolution of Valais cuisine and found people tinkering with the classic – I even got to see the roboclette in action. But truth be told, the novelty I thought I’d discover never materialized – and that’s exactly why I’ll be back.
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