The fine-food restaurant at the end of the Swiss universe
"At the end of the world and at the same time at its origin, at its beginning and at its centre." That was Carl Zuckmayer on the Upper Valais. But as that environmentalist and writer Douglas Adams told us, at the end of every universe there's a restaurant.
How come you live in the middle of nowhere? This is what people often ask me, learning that six years ago I moved to the tiny village of Erschmatt, 1200m up in the Valais.
Location, location, location — that hoary old estate agent's mantra — is my usual reply.
Since 23 April 2017, I've had another answer as well: Erschmatt's only restaurant.
Slow food, rare Swiss vegetables, local produce from the Botanic Reserve and a whiz of a chef -- the spanking new restaurant in my village, 10 minutes from Leuk, has established itself in the past four months as a stand-out eatery in the region.
Opened after two years and CHF2.5 million of renovation work paid for by the Leuk-Erschmatt commune, the former Erschmatt schoolhouse has been transformed into an activities centre, tourist information hall — and a first-class restaurant at village prices.
The Roggen Stube (rye diner) easily has room for 40 customers inside, another 25 on the balcony, and an entrance hall to add another 60 if need be. It has already hosted a local authorities' banquet for 63 people as well as casual visitors.
The new restaurant proved an immediate success. When I tried to reserve a table for Mothers' Day, not one seat was free.
The bright idea behind the restaurant, actually owned by the Roggen Stiftung/Rye Foundation (don't worry, it serves much more than rye soup, rye bread and rye cake), is that traditional Erschmatt (pop. 300) can support a superior restaurant if it provides a menu that is different and adventurous as well as the conventional fare (sorry, no pizzas).
So the menu has two sides: one traditional (rye soup and steaks) and the other adventurous (usually in the spices) for about CHF10 more. In addition, the weekday menu offers a starter and main course for CHF18.
The adventure of Erschmatt
Unfortunately, this gives no idea of the high quality of the meals prepared by Marek Wildenhain, the inventive young chef who left a major hotel in Leukerbad for adventure in Erschmatt.
The restaurant supports the slow food movement. It's associated with Pro Specie Rara, the Swiss organization that seeks to reintroduce rare Swiss domestic animals and plants to the mainstream food market. It also works with the Erschmatt Botanic Reserve two minutes' walk away to turn diners into localvores.
Rare potatoes, Botanic Reserve vegetables, certified chicken
The CHF24 Saturday menu on 17 June, for example, started with home-made blue potato chips (potatoes courtesy Pro Specie Rara) on top of an ultra-fresh salad of local greens, tomatoes and egg. The main dish was a French-government certified breast of chicken (so tasty), vegetables from the Botanic Reserve (i.e. purely local varieties), and succulent polenta (I didn't ask about its origins, but I am sure it was cooked slow).
Superb local wine list
We couldn't resist Marek's recommendations from a superb local wine list, or his three-chocolate-varieties of desert and home-made ice cream. So the total came to CHF50 a head. In Switzerland these days it counts as a cheap meal, as I saw in L'Hebdo's guide to "cheap restaurants" a couple of weeks before (too early to include Erschmatt I suppose). Our visiting friend from London described the chocaholic course as the best dessert he had ever tasted.
If we had wanted to splash out we could have ordered up to five courses for CHF69, and that's not counting the sorbets offered to clean the palate between servings.
The best roesti in 30 years
As a fanatic roestifarian, I check out the Swiss version of hash brown potatoes at every opportunity. Marek's roesti with veal in cream sauce (Zurigeschnetzeltes) scored a 10 out of 10 with me, the best I have had for 30 years: brown on top and juicy underneath with the right amount of soft onion to give it pizzaz. As he explained, he believes a good roesti should be browned, a stage that many chefs these days skip for speed.
On another occasion he produced a whole-grain pasta for a couple of under-sevens who wolfed it down thanks to his special ingredients and touch, while their gourmet father exclaimed over the quality of the white wine (from Chamoson) and the fish that was our main dish.
Taking care of allergies
Marek also sat down with us one time to discuss in detail the food allergies of the daughter of some friends, then whipped up a five-course meal she could eat, including the roesti I insisted on him serving. I am sure he would have done it for anyone.
Slow food, maybe. But definitely worth taking your time over.
Prepare for the Rye Experience
If you are ready for the Experience, as Erschmatters describe it, you can buy hard rye bread (designed to last six months), produced by a shiny new bakery on the ground floor that supplies the village and the rest of Switzerland with Ershmatt Roggenbrot. Don't worry, though, the restaurant will slice the loaves for you and it is then delicious — almost a meal in itself. My tip: ask for the rye-bread croissant.
Close to Zurich, Geneva, Berne and Italy
By the way, Carl Zuckmayer was right about the location, though in fact he was describing Saas-Fee, an hour away from us. In Erschmatt, we are only 2.5 hours from Geneva or Zurich Airport, and a couple of hours from Berne, Basle or Italy. Leukerbad's hot springs are only 20 minutes away, as are Sierre and Visp.
But the appeal of Erschmatt — supposedly the village in Switzerland with the most sunny days — must also be its nature walks (roads and trails if you are a cyclist). They can take you up above the tree line or down along the Rhone as far as Martigny.
A place for all seasons – at once
And then there's the rest of the magnificent Valais to explore, visible from the restaurant. The peripatetic German Czech poet Rainer Maria Rilke (buried in Raron, the next valley along) said the region reminded him of Provence. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Bad Boy of Geneva, declared: "It unites all the seasons at once, all climates in the same region, contrary landscapes in one place..."
Location, location, location.
Note: The Roggen Stube is closed Sunday evenings and Mondays.
T: +41/0 27 932 51 81