Chef Jean Lou Margelisch does not know the journalists who visit his restaurant Le Namaste in Savoleyres in Valais, Switzerland, there was once a 23-year-old ski bum (seasonaire) who spent a season cooking fondue in his kitchen.
When I’m skiing, the chef is enjoying the sun on the terrace overlooking internationally renowned Verbier. It’s been 20 years since I last saw him, but he’s just as I remember him, happy and looking young for his age. Maybe it’s the bad French guy with the Australian accent, but he looks twice and recognizes me. “I’m here to talk about Croûte,” I say. Confused, he replies, “What do you need to know?” I return to the area almost annually, but the dish hasn’t taken on trendy twists on tradition. For the people of this region, croûte au fromage is as commonplace as a cup of joe.
Essentially, the local classic consists of slices of bread arranged in a ceramic bowl, topped with cheese and heated in a hot oven. Easy right? But before you whip one up, ask yourself: is the bread sourdough or plain, toasted or not? Is it sprinkled with wine or soaked in milk or not at all? Is it just one cheese or a mix? Goat milk or cow? In a country where the cuisine is dairy-based, your location in Switzerland will inevitably dictate what type of cheese sits on your croûte. Here in Valais, a canton near the Swiss border with Italy and France, that means 100 percent raclette, the product made from raw milk, veal rennet and salt, slightly aged for 3 months – which in my opinion is the best croute.
You’d think a dish like this could be used endlessly, but local restaurants agree: don’t mess with size. All Valais menus read the same: it is served au nature (cheese and bread) or with egg, ham or egg and ham. The most ambitious riffs might include bacon, mushrooms and/or tomatoes. Despite this well-established reputation, croûte is still Switzerland’s lesser-known cheese dish. It’s unassuming and less geared towards social gatherings than, say, the theatrics of scraping a raclette chimney. As Margelisch tells me, “Often when a table can’t agree on a shared fondue, someone will order a croute.”
At just over 5,500 feet atop Bruson, a mountain face opposite Verbier, Eddy and Marie Paul Murisier run the popular Restaurant de Moay. Eddy sheds light on the humble beginnings of the croûte: “It’s a peasant dish, a way of using old bread. When it’s stale, you can soak it in milk or sprinkle it with wine to soften it.” The croûte has also become a staple because of the climate, he tells me. “It used to be difficult to keep up the heat in the middle of winter while scraping raclette or melting fondue. These clay dishes can stay warm for a long time and replace raclette and fondue on colder days.”
On the afternoon I visit, the sky is tinted blue just after a snowfall, and condensation is collecting on the windows from the heat of all the guests packing for lunch. Everyone is smitten with Eddy and Marie’s son Justin Murisier, a professional slalom skier and local hero chasing gold at the Beijing Winter Olympics. He’s on the wall, in conversation, and even on my sugar bag. The Murisiers’ history of founding De Moay with a strong sense of community is testament to the enduring simplicity of Swiss terroir-based cuisine; The couple inherited the restaurant from the family – and Eddy, without any formal training, cooks the Valais menu with great success.
Turn left off the Verbier ski slope and you will find Hameau Chez Dany, a restaurant in the woods where guests are brought up for dinner on snowmobiles after dark. I’m here on the earlier page as an after-ski crowd takes in the sun before it peeks over the ridge on the horizon. The menu is varied – the region’s classics with elegant embellishments are there, but also dishes like a superfood salad to cater to the international crowd. Franco-Finnish restaurateur Laurent Royer told me they experimented with some things, like swapping kirsch for whiskey, but he concluded “when that [dairy] Products are so good they don’t need anything.” Here I try the boldest croute of my visit, which also happens to be one of the most satisfying. The dish of the day is loaded with cheese and topped with fried mushrooms, bacon and a good amount of pickle (essential for digestion).
In the valley below Verbier is the raclette control point, Raclette’s House (aka Chez Eddy), owned and managed by Eddy Baillifard. Raised as a herder, Baillifard spent almost a year in hospital after a serious motorcycle accident and changed his fortunes from making cheese to serving. Now he travels the world as an ambassador for raclette (and is the culinary advisor behind it the roboclette).
When Baillifard enters the room, wheel of cheese tucked under his arm, his presence is immediately felt. As he sits down, he tells me a little more about the history of the croûte as “a way of using up the washed rind of raclette wheels; it can be grated and melted.” He’s excited at the prospect of Justin Murisier competing in Beijing (Baillifard served raclette and croûte at his flat all night on Justin’s race days), but when I mention that Eddy up the Hill 170g Using cheese for his croûte, Baillifard scoffs at the quantity – “at least 200g!” We touch on more sensitive issues – including how American-made cheese can be called Gruyère and whether pepper should be allowed on croûte – and the answer is kinda a don’t go there in between some French terms that I don’t know.
Getting back to the reason for my presence, Baillifard clarifies that the importance of a good croûte lies in the quality of the bread (a crunchy sourdough) and above all, of course, the cheese. “You want to taste the grass and wildflowers, nothing fancy,” he says. I was looking for developments in Valais cuisine and found people who were tinkering with the classic – I was even allowed to see the Roboclette in action. But to be honest, the novelty I thought I might discover never materialized – and that’s exactly why I’ll keep coming back.
Croûte au Fromage
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