by Gilly Smith –
The slopes at Verbier may not be the most obvious choice for a summer break, but with Climate Change melting its glaciers and threatening its ski seasons, it’s also forcing the Tourist Board to rethink what it can offer visitors all year round.
I joined a group of foodies looking for less thrill and more chill; as we explored the Alps on a summer gourmet gathering, we were to forage for our feast on a two-hour trek to La Maison de la Forêt, a tiny little Swiss chalet perched high above the valley, at La Tzoumaz, where we would have our picnic.
Cherries was our mountain guide, a qualified Swiss-American botanist who had a story about pretty much every plant we picked. “So, this is called Fireweed’, she told us, picking up a pretty purple flower from the Evening Primrose family. “It grows after forest fires; it’s the first plant that will colonise an area. It’s also found in Northern Canada and Alaska, and after a fire it this turns really bright. It’s as if the field were on fire.” And of course, each flower has its culinary role too; “In Alaska”, Cherries added, “women pick the flower to make it into jellies.”
An Infinite Playground is its big idea, with zip wires, alpine walks and mountain biking or e-biking if you need a little extra power in your pedal. Yoga and detox retreats are just some of the fun you can have on the slopes all year round, but I was there to forage for a feast in the famously healthy fresh air.
With baskets brimming with alpine herbs and flowers freshly picked plantain leaves, nettles, we set up the table at La Maison de la Foret and chopped, plucked and pounded our booty from Nature’s Larder. With sérac, an alpine curd, and olive oil from just over the border in Italy, we assembled our alpine salads on freshly baked bread, or as Cherries called it, a Jardin sur pain.
Cherries explained what she loves most about the job of a mountain forager. “I think what’s interesting being a mountain leader is that we are taught to develop the sense of communicating. A lot of people might know this stuff, but either they’ve forgotten it or they want to save it just for themselves and their family.”
It wasn’t just the food that was super-healthy; simply breathing in the mountain air was part of the unique experience. Cherries explained that it had been the Norwegian Spruce which attracted health tourists from Britain fleeing the carbon-filled air of the Industrial Revolution as far back as 1860. “The Brits in particular were coming to Switzerland with really bad lung diseases such as tuberculosis,” Cherries told me. “It was a long trip to get into the Alps, so you would arrive by horse and carriage from Geneva to Montreux and take a break before entering the jungle and the savagery of the Vallée.”
On the advice of the locals, these British families would climb the Alps. “When they got back to the UK” said Cherries, “the doctors couldn’t figure out how these people were cured of tuberculosis. It was unheard of back then.
It has taken two hundred years to find the answer. Only fifteen years ago, the Spruce pollen was discovered to have antibiotic properties that could clean the lungs. “It doesn’t enter the rest of your body, it doesn’t go into your blood stream, it doesn’t end up in your intestines, so it’s not going to hurt anything else in you, but it actually cleans up the body” said Cherries. “This is where the legend of the cleanliness of Swiss air has come from. All the Sanatoriums were built in the Alps thanks to the good old Norwegian Spruce.”
Gilly Smith is a highly respected well known food writer who has penned the only biographies of Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson. She is the author of sixteen books, mainly about food culture, writes for national press and academic journals and also makes radio and TV podcasts.