Lessons In Heidi-land

Kunal Tej Bir Lama

When I landed one early October morning at Zürich’s Kloten airport many years ago, the winter was already flexing its muscles. My local guardian, Gian Pepi Saratz, was waiting with a 1st class train ticket in hand to take me straight to his hometown, Pontresina, up in the Swiss Alps. I was a still a little dazed from my long flight from Kathmandu via Bangkok. I had travelled far away from the familiar madness of Asia straight into the clinical efficiency of one of Europe’s richest nations.

Gian’s ancestors were the actual founders of the resort town of Pontresina, their roots going back to the Saracens, an Arab people who came from North Africa as early as 932 BC travelling via Spain, over the Alps, and into this region of modern day Switzerland. Gian had once been the mayor of the town, and so had his forefathers. The family also owned a hotel there though they were no longer running it. (Since 1996, renovated and with a modern wing, Hotel Saratz has reverted to the ownership of the 5th generation of the family to reclaim its former class.) Within minutes, ensconced in the warmth of the 1st class carriage, we silently sped away. We passed by many fairy tale villages and towns, including Zizers where Zita, the last Empress of Austria, Queen of Hungary and Bohemia, eventually took up residence after the death of her husband, Emperor Charles, in 1922. A widow for 67 years, the couple was poignantly reunited when Zita died in 1989 and her heart, following an ancient custom, was rested in an urn in the same church where her husband’s heart had been placed since his death. This story has always captured my imagination, one of loyalty and love unto death – and forever after.

An hour later, we stopped at Chür (destined to play a big part in my 2 years in Switzerland as my hotel-school was just above this town in Passugg). We changed from our modern train to the famous narrow-gauged Rhätischer Bahn, which would climb even higher to take us to Samedan, where we would leave the train and drive up to Pontresina, a short distance away. If I had thought the journey from Zürich was beautiful, the stretch from Chür to Samedan – where one also jumps off to take a short drive into St. Moritz – was spectacular. As the train chugged its way up and away clinging to the ever-climbing track, the beauty of the Alps revealed itself in all its storied glory: mountain meadows spotted with late-blooming flowers; deep valleys misty with freefalling waterfalls; and fields of early snow which, with every revealing twist, got wider and whiter.

Samedan had arrived. We got out. Gian called out “Grüzi!” – a common greeting always delivered politely but seldom with a smile to one and all in the local Romansch language of this proud Graubünden region. We climbed into his trusty Subaru station wagon, crunched some snow and ice along the way, and were soon in front of his manorial house Chesa Melna, the Yellow House. Nora, Gian’s wife, who was a little hard of hearing, finally appeared and graciously welcomed me. After exchanging pleasantries, I was shown to a warm room on the 3rd floor with a high bed covered with the fluffiest, lightest and shortest duvet.

That first evening, we dined à la maison. The meal was simple: a hearty potage of chunks of meat and vegetables. The stock – enough to last an entire winter – for the potage was in the cold room, in a huge metal pot, a gelatinous, reduced product of many hours of slow boiling of marrow bones, onions, celery stalks, carrots, parsley and black peppercorns. Whenever soup was on the menu, the required amount of stock was brought back to life on a low fire, the heat gently releasing all its nutritious secrets. Then, if you wanted potato soup, you would throw in chunks of potatoes and, after half an hour so of simmering, voila, potato soup! However, this simple meal was accompanied by the pièce de resistance of the evening: an exceptional bottle of Bordeaux from the year of my birth retrieved from Chesa Melna’s bountiful wine cellar deep down under!

The next day, the Saratzs’ proposed we lunch out. The restaurant was in Corviglia, a skiing area above St. Moritz – the famous snowy playground of the rich and famous – run by the renowned chef, Reto Mathis, in a funicular station. This didn’t sound at all good; neither was the restaurant, basic as it was in both structure and décor. Though the ski season was almost over, it seemed busy enough. Slightly disappointed, and out of my elements, I sat down, meekly expecting the worse.

Nora and Gian were greeted familiarly almost immediately by a bespectacled waitress in her 40s wearing a ruffled apron à la Heidi. The moment we were seated, the order was given: a bottle of white wine and pâté de foie gras, for which Chez Mathis was famous. The menu was, obviously, not necessary.

The waitress arrived with 3 wine glasses in her left hand, the bottle her right. She pulled out a corkscrew from her left pocket and deftly uncorked the wine. She offered some to Gian. He peered into the glass through his thick spectacles, swirled it a bit, slurped and spluttering, spat it out with a look of slight disgust. After one more look at the glass, he shook his head. No good. The waitress poured some wine and drank it. She nodded her head in agreement, and off she went muttering about a fresh bottle. No one seemed surprised, or unhappy. Another bottle appeared, tasted, pronounced drinkable, and it was “Zum wohl, mittenander!”

What had just taken place fascinated and horrified me. As far as I had been taught, a corked wine was a disgrace to the establishment, and to have brought it to the table casually with the glasses in one hand sans tray and the bottle in the other was simply wrong. Then for the server to have the gumption to drink the dubious wine right at the table and, with no sign of abject contrition, march off and produce a second bottle insouciantly was absolutely insulting. The puzzling fact was Nora and Gian were not the least bothered.

The wine, Dézaley, was deep yellow–gold, nutty, mellow and delicious, and one of Switzerland’s best. Made from Chasselas grape, it became my favourite wine, along with Aigle, St. Saphorin and Yvorne (all white, which I preferred over the Swiss reds). The foie gras soon appeared on individual plates, one big lump in the middle accompanied by plump figs stewed in curry (!) sauce. It should have been a marriage made in hell but was heaven. With baskets of hot and crisp Melba toasts to spoon the foie gras into our hungry mouths, bottles of Dézaley washing it all down, ending with a wickedly luscious mousse au chocolat, I was lulled into a benevolent state from which even a shot of espresso could not awaken me, so much so the trespasses of Ms Heidi, the waitress, were duly forgiven.

Unknowingly, my hotel management education had already begun. In Europe, the distinction between the guest and the server was not one of social hierarchy or status, merely a distinction of profession. One followed certain rules, but just because you were serving a customer didn’t mean you needed to grovel, bent over, hands forever clasped and mutter “Yes, Sir”; “No, Madame”. All you had to be was neat and clean, polite, professional and knowledgeable.

Lessons are learnt in different ways and places, and not always from a teacher in a classroom. In a funicular station, halfway up a ski slope, in the company of two 70-plus-year-olds? Unorthodox, yes, but priceless!


Chicken Liver Pâté, Serves 6
Duck or goose liver, known as foie gras, is not readily available locally. The best substitute is chicken liver. Foie gras – translates as ‘fattened liver’ – is made from made of the liver of a duck or goose that has been specially fattened through ‘gavage,’ or force-feeding corn, viewed as cruel by many. Some countries have laws against force-feeding or the sale of foie gras.

225g chicken livers, rinsed and trimmed
2 tablespoons Cognac or brandy
225g butter
¼ level teaspoon ground mace (nutmeg shell)
1 level teaspoon chopped fresh thyme, plus 6 sprigs to garnish
2 cloves garlic, crushed
Salt and freshly milled black pepper

You need six 1¼ inch (3 cm) deep ramekins with a base diameter of 2¼ inches (5.5 cm).

Take a medium-sized, heavy-based frying pan, melt about 25g butter in it until hot but not smoking, and fry the chicken livers over a medium heat for about 5 minutes. Keep them on the move, turning them over quite frequently. Remove them from the pan using a draining spoon and transfer them to a blender or food processor. In the same pan, gently melt 150g of the remaining butter and add this to the blender or food processor. Then pour the cognac, or brandy, on to the juices left in the frying pan (to capture all the lovely flavours), and pour that over the livers. Add the mustard, mace, thyme and garlic, season well with salt and freshly milled pepper, and blend until you have a smooth, velvety purée. Next, divide this purée between the ramekins (heat resistant ceramic or glass pots). Then melt the remaining 50g butter, pour a little over each one to seal, press in a spring of thyme, and leave them to get quite cold. Cover with cling film and leave them in the fridge till needed (will easily keep up to a week). Remove from the fridge about an hour before eating as the pâté needs to be served at room temperature.

Melba Toast
Preferably day-old whole loaf of white bread sliced thinly, without crusts, toasted slightly brown but crisp (be careful, don’t burn!). Serve hot.

Wine To Go
Since I’ve been chardonnay-ed out to the gills, I would go for a bottle of Drostdy Hof sauvignon blanc or Penfolds Rawson Retreat riesling. If in an extravagant mood, a glass of champagne, or a super-chilled sparkling white wine such as Lindemans Bin 25 Brut Cuvée would never go amiss.

If red wine is more to your taste, a merlot or pinot noir would do nicely. I would recommend Hardy’s Varietal Range or Rosemount Estate Diamond Label Vintage.

As you can see, I’m rather partial to New World wines in Nepal as they, in my opinion, are better value for money. Though usually young, they seem to travel well and, in most cases, are cheaper. The resulting quicker turnover helps as wines, most often – and even bigger department stores are guilty of this crime – are still stored or displayed upright, sometimes in windows facing the full glare of the sun. More and more New World wine bottles now have screw caps. Unromantic but practical; goodbye corked bottles! I have also come across rather dubiously labelled European wines and, regardless of the origins, found the more expensive the bottle is, the more likely it is to be either disappointing or undrinkable.