A taste of Verbier, from absinthe to raclette
Whether it’s absinthe, gooey raclette or local chanterelles, this lofty Swiss resort serves up some distinct Alpine flavours.
The absinthe maker: Edelweiss Distillery
Ask Matthieu Frécon what’s so great about absinthe and he’ll tell you: it gets you “good drunk”. And he should know — he’s been making the spirit for over 25 years. Originally from France, Matthieu is now based just outside the Alpine village of Sarreyer, in Bagnes Valley in the Valais canton — and as we make the ascent towards his home distillery, I look out across the valley at the verdant, tree-covered slopes and snowy peaks, and can easily understand the area’s appeal.
Unlike Matthieu, absinthe is of Swiss origin, having first been distilled in the canton of Neuchâtel, 100 miles north of here. The powerful, anise-flavoured spirit is made from a distillate flavoured with wormwood and other herbs, and the local environment gives Matthieu plenty to work with. As we walk, he points out the plants he forages, including mint, lemon balm, pansies and sage. “The most important thing is to use what nature gives me,” he explains. “We have lots of aromatic and medicinal plants growing here, which we use to make herb spirits — not just absinthe, but also gin and pastis, as well as medicinal balms.”
Absinthe is, I confess, a drink I’ve never tried. Our plan this morning is for me to not only remedy that but to try my hand at making it too. The word ‘absinthe’ is said to derive from the Greek word ‘apsínthion’, which, rather worryingly, means ‘undrinkable’. Matthieu assures me it’s not the sort of alcohol that gives you a headache, no matter how much you drink — a bold claim, and one I find quite difficult to believe.
After arriving at Edelweiss Distillery, we’re treated to a brief tasting session in Matthieu’s cosy kitchen. First, he puts a white sugar cube on a special slotted spoon and places it above an empty glass. He then pours some absinthe over the sugar cube and, using a lit match, sets the it on fire and allows it to melt. Finally, he drips some water over what’s left of the sugar and into the glass. This, I’m told, will help soften the spirit’s bitterness. He gives it a little stir, then, without a word, slides the glass over and gestures for me to try it. I take the tiniest of sips. To my relief, it’s far more drinkable than the Greeks had led me to believe. It’s light, warm and minty — something I could easily see myself drinking after a hearty meal here in the mountains.
Matthieu’s absinthe recipe uses 35 ingredients, but the beginner-friendly version I’ll be making will have far fewer. We head into a room containing hundreds of paper bags and barrels, as well as shelves displaying ingredients such as wormwood, star anise, liquorice root, fennel and aniseed. After measuring out what we need, we begin grinding everything down with a pestle and mortar before combining it with a litre of base spirit. Soon enough, I have my own bottle to take home — it’s a murky, olive-green colour, and I’m told I’ll need to leave it for five days and then sieve it before I can drink it. Whether mine will turn out to be as light and minty seems debatable.
Having enjoyed our session at his home distillery (Matthieus offers similar tasting sessions at the Café du Mont-Fort in the centre of Sarreyer), I trundle back down into the valley, clutching my bottle, with a better understanding of this strange spirit. It’s no longer something I intend to avoid the next time I see it on a drinks menu. In fact, I think I’d even be prepared to get ‘good drunk’ on it.
The secret restaurant: Le “22”
“Are you ready?” asks Pierre-Jean before slowly pulling at a black bookshelf stacked with crockery and French and English novels. It moves back to reveal two petite dining spaces, each home to a single communal table.
Le “22” is a speakeasy-style hidden restaurant — the first of its kind in Verbier. It’s housed within a former tattoo parlour and so named because it only has 22 covers. You’ll find it at the back of Le Crock No Name, a bar that was once a live music venue but today entertains the apres-ski crowd with DJ sets until 2am.
It’s managed by laid-back Belgian Pierre-Jean Leclercq, while the kitchen is headed up by the Norwich-born Adam Bateman, who’s worked at a number of Michelin-starred restaurants and used to be head chef at Richard Branson’s The Lodge, in Verbier. Adam offers a five-course set menu that showcases some of the best ingredients found across the Bagnes Valley and the canton of Valais. “There’s more to the valley than fondue. But it’s about finding the right way to say that because you don’t want to offend the locals,” he explains. “It’s cool to show people that we can do more, for example, with cheese, than just melting it and dipping bread in it.”
Dressed all in black, Adam carefully prepares our dishes in the open kitchen, behind a counter strewn with baguettes, cheeses and vegetables. And as I take my seat at the table, I reflect that I feel a world away from the rest of Verbier — music from the bar is beating away in the background, while the space feels like a cross between a rich aunt’s living room and a funky members-only club.
Adam serves up several starters, including a velouté with walnut gastrique and chives from the nearby village of Medieres, which he picked while walking his dog earlier that day. My favourite, however, is the beautifully balanced arancini made with saffron, pumpkin and sheep’s curd from the Bagnes Valley.
These are followed by a saddle of lamb served with onion, pistachio and Valais chanterelles, all drowning in a petite arvine jus (a thin sauce of meat juice and white grapes). I place a little bit of everything on my fork — it’s at once crunchy and succulent, and melts in my mouth. Each dish come with its own local wine, including a muscat and a johannisberg from Valais. Meanwhile, the dessert — a parfait made from Verbier honey and poached blackberries and apples with a honeycomb crisp — is deliciously sweet, the blackberries providing just the right amount of tang.
At the end, Pierre-Jean pours me a digestif — pear brandy made from local williams pears — which he tells me to drink neat and chilled, because that’s the “Verbier way”.
“All we want to do is make people happy,” he adds. “We want to use local produce and give you a good time. Good food. Good music. Good vibes.” Santé to that.
The workshop: Mountain Thyme Cookery School
Chop, chop, chop, chop, chop, chop. Tssssssssssss... The room resounds with the sound of onions being chopped and mushrooms being sautéed. This cookery school in the heart of Verbier — run by British duo Cat Sheppard and Amy Corbett — teaches all the tricks of the trade, whether it’s sussing out the secrets of souffle or mastering a Middle-Eastern mezze.
Cat, a chef and cookery teacher, and Amy, a former cookbook editor, founded the Mountain Thyme Cookery School in 2017. It offers culinary workshops. Our task today seems simple enough — making two easy appetisers using local ingredients: a potato and butternut rösti with a chanterelle and white wine topping, and beetroot drop scones with goat’s cheese and hazelnuts.
“We love the varied nature of our work,” Amy tells me as I start frying the mixture for my rösti — a Swiss staple. “In one day, we could be delivering delicious meals to a chalet, broadening the food horizons of a group of kids and then creating a chocolate workshop for a corporate team-building event.”
For the next few hours, Amy works the room, sharing her tips and tricks — on everything from cutting onions to quenelling goat’s cheese. Once the appetisers are out of the oven, we gather around the kitchen island with glasses of fendant (a Valais white wine) and tuck into our creations. My mushroom rösti is a little dishevelled but wonderfully tangy. The drop scones are creamy and moreish.
On my way out, I grab a leaflet and eye up the Middle Eastern mezze class Amy and Cat offer, which involves making a few of my favourite things; za’atar, kefta and baba ghanoush. One for next time, perhaps.
Recipe: Adam Bateman's agnolotti
Takes: 45-60 mins
50g unsalted butter
50g plain white flour
400ml whole milk
600g La Tomme de Verbier cheese (or Reblochon)
pinch of cayenne pepper
8 fresh lasagne sheets (around 25cm x 10cm)
80g sliced cured Valais ham (or Parma ham)
bitter salad leaves (such as frisee or mustard cress), to serve
For the vinaigrette
200ml petite arvine wine (or any unoaked chardonnay)
300ml olive oil
30g chanterelle mushrooms, wiped clean and roughly chopped
20g fresh truffle, finely grated (or 1 tsp truffle oil)
3 tbsp chopped chives
1 tsp white caster sugar
pinch Bex Alpine salt (or other rock salt)
1. Put the butter in a large saucepan and place over a low heat. Once it’s melted, add the flour and cook, stirring, for 1-2 mins to create a smooth roux.
2. Add the milk a bit at a time, stirring constantly using a balloon whisk and making sure the milk is absorbed and the sauce smooth before adding more. Once it’s all added, keep stirring as the sauce comes to a gentle boil.
3. Add the two cheeses and continue to stir as they melt into the sauce. Keep mixing for 2-3 mins, until smooth.
4. Season with salt and cayenne pepper, then remove from the heat and set aside to cool. When the sauce is at room temperature, transfer to a piping bag.
5. Next make the agnolotti. Place a lasagne sheet on a lightly floured work surface. Pipe the cheese sauce in a ¾cm-wide line lengthways along the middle of the sheet. Fold the dough over as you would a sausage roll, and use your thumb to press the edges together. You will have a long tube of filled pasta.
6. Working along the tube, pinch between your finger and thumb every 1.5cm to create little pillows. Using a pasta wheel or a sharp knife, trim along the length of the tube to leave a 1cm edge. Gently holding the pillows in place, cut between each with a quick action.
7. Repeat with all the pasta sheets, then set the agnolotti aside.
8. Place the ham in a dry saucepan over a high heat, until the ham is lightly coloured and the fat has released. Keep the pan on the heat and transfer the ham to kitchen paper to drain.
9. Reduce the heat to low-medium, add the wine to the pan and simmer until it’s reduced by half. Add the remaining vinaigrette ingredients and cook for 2 mins to pickle the mushrooms. Remove from the heat and set aside.
10. Place a large pan of salted water over a medium-high heat and bring to the boil. Lower the agnolotti in the water and cook for 2½ mins. Transfer the agnolotti from the water to the vinaigrette pan with the ham and a splash of the pasta water. Toss gently to combine.
11. Divide between eight bowls, spooning over the vinaigrette. Serve with bitter salad leaves on the side.
Swiss and British Airways fly to Geneva Airport. The train from here to Le Châble takes just under three hours. The six-mile journey from here to Verbier is covered by a resort bus that operates daily.
Where to stay
Hôtel de Verbier has B&B rooms from £149 a night.
Published in Issue 16 (summer 2022) of Food by National Geographic Traveller
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