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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Sierre, Switzerland -- Home Of The Best Raclette In The World

Che esperienza! What an experience! If you: 1)Love cheese, 2)Have access to a car, and 3)Want to spend a day in Switzerland, then take notes and put this onto your must-do list. Visit Chateau de Villa, a restaurant in Sierre, Switzerland, that bills itself as "Le Temple de la Raclette." I, who love Raclette, and who has already eaten some pretty darn good Raclette in various places in France, Italy, and Switzerland, have never had a Raclette experience like this one. Imagine a wine tasting... but with five types of cheeses instead of wine. And housed in the charming fifteenth-century building pictured above.         
(   continued ... )

We left Stresa by auto at about 9:30 AM, heading north toward the border. The map above shows the route from Stresa to Sierre. It takes a little more than two hours. In Iselle, Italy, we opted to take the SBB auto train, called also the navetta, into Switzerland instead of driving this segment of the journey. Navetta means shuttle, and that's what this train does, traveling through the mountain, saving about 20 minutes of driving over the mountaintop Simplon Pass, even more if there is traffic. It's the first time I've taken the auto train, and I was very impressed with the efficiency of it. After turning into the train station we were immediately ushered to drive up a ramp and onto the train. It consists of a flat metal platform with a canvas arched covering. Cars simply stop, engage the brake, and wait. Passengers remain in the car; this is not a train you can walk around on. The ride seems slow, and is dark, as it travels through a narrow, unfinished tunnel. Mining comes to mind. A note: If you are claustrophobic, this probably isn't a good idea. The train chugs along for about 20 minutes, then emerges into Brig, Switzerland. One by one cars drive off the train; passports and cars are checked by Swiss border police at this time, and the fee for the journey, 22 euro for our car on this day, is also now paid, before one exits easily into the streets of Brig.

Entering the tunnel...

And emerging from it...

Pay the fee and welcome to Switzerland!

From Brig we headed west, on the main east-west road traversing Switzerland, through the flat valley. I've been on this road many times already; it has always led to lovely adventures in Switzerland: Leukerbad and Martigny among them. From this wide valley floor there are always beautiful views of the surrounding Swiss hills. 

Sierre is a small city of about 14,000, on the French-German border in the Swiss canton of Valais. It is one of only three officially bilingual towns in Switzerland, with French being the primary language. We parked near the beautiful Chateau de Villa, which indeed looks like a miniature castle from a fairy tale, and we first entered the oenotheque,  the enoteca, located a few steps downstairs.

Neat streets of Sierre...

And hills covered with vineyards...

Inside the oenotheque I experienced that feeling that I often have when I'm in Switzerland: intense, overwhelming, visceral jealousy. Say what you will about la bella vita in Italia, for me, in my next life, I want to be Swiss.

I've always been curious about Swiss wines, and to the best of my knowledge this was the first I've tried. We had a Fendant Gran Cru de Vetroz here as an aperitivo, and after, with the Raclette, a couple of bottles of Petite Arvine de Fully. I found both white wines to be very light, very crisp, and served colder than would be in Italy.

An enormous and ancient wooden press fills an entire side of the wine bar, and if you want, there are a couple of barrel tables set up underneath it.

Fendant Gran Cru de Vetroz, 2011.

We left the wine bar and walked around this corner of the building to enter the restaurant proper. What time was it? Maybe 11:30 on the sundial, meridiana.

An impressive entrance...

But inside is cozy and traditional. Upon entering one is assaulted with the sight and aroma of cheeses, the half rounds semi-melted for the Raclette.

We were seated at an old-fashioned wooden table. To get started, before the main event, we ordered a plate of a few different meats as aperitivo with the first sips of the Petit ArvineSaucisse valaisanne, petit lard sec, viande sechee, and jambon cru de valais. Thin strips of lard, some hard pieces of sausage, a type of bresaola, and a type of prosciutto, along with some bread. I know, I know... they sound soooo much better in French.

The basket of potatoes had already arrived. Hot and perfectly soft. Delicious actually just as they are, but why waste them in that way, when five cheeses are arriving soon?

The waiter brought the first cheese, along with a map. It marked the different cheese towns. With each new plate he told us the cheese that we were tasting. To be honest I do not know if there was rhyme or reason to it. They did not follow geographically. I think they went from most mild to stronger tasting cheeses. I could definitely discern differences and I had preferences, but it was a bit like asking which chocolate you like best.  All, of course. Here's the map: 

The five cheeses we had on this day were: Champoussin, Orsieres, Mondraleche', Turtmann, and Les Hauderes. After all were sampled we were given several more plates of our favorites. Needless to say, it is quite filling. Not so much water, wine, but in sips, we were told is the secret to being able to eat a lot of Raclette. Too much water just fills up the belly with all that potatoes and cheese. Little sips of wine during and in between is the proper thing to do.  

I guess Raclette on a plate doesn't look all that special. But trust me on this one, if you haven't experienced it yet. It's comfort food at its best, and especially here at "The Temple of Raclette."

Here are the links for both the restaurant and the auto train. Because there is just the one highway traversing this region of Switzerland it is relatively easy to find places, even without a GPS. Many visitors to Stresa have asked about excursions into Switzerland; if traveling with your own car this is one that I highly recommend. 

Note: Always bring your passport when crossing the border into Switzerland.

chateau website:
SBB navetta website:

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