Winter in The Alps Introduction:
WINTER, PARTICULARY A EUROPEAN WINTER, IS A TIME OF YEAR WITH A VERY DEFINITE CHARACTER.
There is nothing bland about intense cold, snow falling or a blizzard raging in the mountains. The season’s memorable moments exist at no other time-when the cold has frozen the last droplet of moisture in the air to produce an extraordinary clarity, or when the sun shines briefly on snow or ice and reflects light through their crystals.
In Europe, the very essence of winter lies in the Alps. Running from France in the west to Austria to the east, along the border of Switzerland and Italy, they are the home of superlatives-the coldest, the wildest, the highest, the windiest, the most isolated. They are also true home of all winter sports. The Alps are, if you like, a concentration of the season, the full and complete experience.
Many people in Europe look forward to winter. Life moves indoors which means that the company of family and friends, gathering around a warming fireside, takes on new intensity. The rituals of the season- and there are many including the special celebration of Christmas-bring people together.
Because the days are short and cold, food plays an important part in life. The food is different, of course, from other times of the year, which is what makes it interesting. Traditionally, winter was a time of scarcity and the food the people ate reflected that. The further into the mountains you went, the narrower the range of ingredients and the simpler the food.
Food in the Alps is a real “cucina povera” (poor people’s cooking), but it has tradition and integrity. There is a reason for everything being the way it is. I sometimes think that when you move away from the mountains to the softer more plentiful valleys and plains, especially to the north, the food gets away from its origins. It can become a little too fancy and contrived, altogether less convincing.
My family is from Lugano in the southern, Italian speaking part of Switzerland. From his boyhood my father would go to the mountains near San Bernardino Pass to ski and climb. I now take my own children for skiing holidays to inner Arosa, in the mountains of the Grigione region.
This book is a personal journey to Switzerland in winter. I haven’t set out to give a comprehensive account of the country, as it is based entirely on my experiences in the part of the Alps that lies in south-eastern Switzerland, and in some of the places nearby. It is about the food I have eaten there, and of course it is also about the places I’ve visited and the people I’ve met. It is important to include these things, I think, because it puts food in a proper context and gives it an extra dimension. Eating and drinking is not a random, rootless activity, but is ultimately tied to culture and place.
In the Alps, given their extreme topography, these pockets of food and culture can be tiny, creating extraordinary variety. Language is the clue. My travels move from an Italian- speaking area to a Romansh- speaking area, into an area that historically spoke Walser, then on to areas that speak French and Swiss-German. All within the confines of one small country.
The foods that are unique to the area include air dried beef, venison salami and soft alpine cheeses. These are foods you must try if you are in the region, as you are unlikely to find them anywhere else. But the recipes I give are for dishes I’ve been inspired to cook when I’ve returned home, and which you should be able to make at home too. I have tried to keep them simple. I am not a professional chef and would not prepare something that had a huge list of ingredients or was vastly complicated to make, just as you probably wouldn’t either. Some recipes are very simple indeed, little more than ideas for assembling ingredients.
So whether your winter falls in January or July, rug up, and, as the days close in, enjoy the food of the season from the Alps.