In a shop full of organic, locally-made goodies in a remote-ish Swiss valley, the counter laden with farm-produced cheeses was doing a roaring trade.
Even at 9pm on a Saturday night, the place was buzzing, largely because the shop also doubled as a bar and restaurant and because there would be no shopping the day after, when only the churches would be open for business.
Narrowing down the choice of cheese was made simpler because we had just enjoyed a splendid dinner, with one Alpine-style cheese in particular playing an important role.
Our main course had been pizzoccheri, which we were shown how to make (more of that later!), before our culinary tutor treated us to her own version starring a luxury cheese officially called bio Supertony. This appellation-quality product, we were told, was the best semi-hard mountain cheese there is, because it’s made using shed-loads of extra fresh cream before being matured for three or four months while it develops a distinctive, hard grey/golden rind, which then has its name and provenance branded on.
And the reason for the name? Because with all that cream and TLC, its quality and taste is super and Tony was the name of the farmer who first made it here.
Not really big enough or remote enough to be a Lost World, stunning Valposchiavo is in a popular part of Switzerland, but has hardly even registered on our radar in Britain, or most other places across Europe.
It’s in the same Graubünden region as top resorts like St Moritz, Davos and Klosters, so there’s every chance that a good many visitors are distracted by their nearby glitz and don’t latch on to the fact that there’s an almost-hidden gem quietly tucked away and waiting to welcome you with open arms.
Distracted, too, by the fact that its key town of Poschiavo is just one stop on the glorious, four-hour route of the Rhätische Bahn’s Bernina Express as it winds its way from the Swiss regional capital of Chur through to Tirano in Italy.
The route is so special that it’s one of only three in the world to have UNESCO World Heritage status; and I felt blessed to be able to savour both the ride and the foodie delights it unlocked on a culinary winter trip.
The self-styled slowest express in the world covers a route that is a masterpiece of engineering, with view after breathtaking view almost overloading the senses as its 122-km route takes in six valleys and two mountain passes, crossing 196 bridges and viaducts and winding through 55 tunnels as it climbs and then descends some mind-boggling differences in heights.
World-famous highlights include the 138ft span of the Solis Viaduct, almost 300ft above the Abula river, and the graceful, sweeping beauty of the Landwasser Viaduct, 466ft long and with towering 328ft arches leading to a solid vertical wall of rock and the entrance to the Landwasser Tunnel, one of many thrilling features on the heady journey from Chur.
Chur itself, the oldest oldest town in the country, has a lot more to offer than being just a rail connection from Zürich, too, as I was delighted to find out on my first day amid the mountains.
My flight from Manchester to Zurich was as comfortable as ever with SWISS, despite a de-icing delay which meant missing a planned inter-city train connection, but that was no problem thanks to the efficient Swiss Travel System. The user-friendly interchange at Zurich Airport meant that within 20 minutes of landing, I was on a feeder train to the city’s main railway station, the Hauptbahnhof, only another ten minutes or so away; and easy-to-read information boards soon had me relaxing on an express to Chur, a scenic ride in its own right taking in the shores of three picturesque lakes.
Once in Chur, it was short walk to the Romantik Hotel Stern, where charming Cornelia Keller from Graubünden Tourism introduced travel writing colleagues from Europe and Scandinavia and where we relished our first taste of regional specialities.
Alpine food is often defined as peasant grub to keep you going, with plates piled high with calories and stodge designed to keep out the cold. But not here. The Stern has a rich culinary tradition dating back 300 years, so host Adrian K Müller and wife Sue have built on this and their kitchen brigade have refined what might sound like daunting mountain dishes to fine dining standards.
We started with tapas-style nibbles to fire up our appetite, then enjoyed a ‘Bündner Trilogie’ of local tastes. Impossible to give definitive recipes, as every family has their own, but the three were a butter-rich roasted potato speciality called maluns, served with applesauce and slivers of mountain cheese; rösti with house-made sausage; and capuns, which are chard-wrapped parcels of meat and Spätzle dough, covered in melted cheese. Delicious!
Dessert was a nut ice cream served with marinated plums, delighting in the name of ‘Cupetta cun Tschüschinas’ which no-one could translate successfully, and we rounded off the meal with a glass of Röteli cherry and herb liqueur, which figures on most souvenir lists to take back home.
Our meal was accompanied by a bottle (or two) of 2015 Maienfelder Blauburgunder POLA by Andreas von Sprecher, a pinot noir that was well matched to the menu as well as the enthusiastic diners.
Suitable fortified, we set off into the evening to explore the winding streets of the old town by the light of candle lanterns, with guide Marlen Helmi-Brunold suitably attired in night-watchman’s hat and cloak. A haunting walk like this, steeped in atmosphere and full of flickering shadows, took in original gateways to the town and the menacing old prison, underlining Chur’s ancient roots and helping put into context some of the historic buildings that might not register in the daytime bustle.
We shared some of that bustle after a good night’s sleep and a light early breakfast, heading back to the cobbles of the old town to tempt the tastebuds again before the next leg of our trip. And temptation it was, in the Aladdin’s Cave of confectionary called Bühler’s Zucherbäckerei, where locals pop in for a breakfast pastry and a coffee, and where we tried to resist having too many tastes of the shop’s gorgeous artisan bread and nut tarts shaped like an ibex horn, and unique marzipan novelties looking like peach stones.
It took an effort to tear ourselves away, but it was time to rejoin the Bernina Express and head for our next overnight stop at the unspoilt village of Bergün.
For information visit www.MySwitzerland.com or call Switzerland Travel Centre on freephone 00800 100 200 30 or e-mail [email protected]; for packages, trains and air tickets [email protected]. SWISS offers more than 180 weekly flights from London City, Heathrow, Gatwick, Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Dublin to Zurich, Geneva or Sion. All-inclusive fares from £74 one-way. Visit swiss.com or call 0345 601 0956.
The Swiss Travel System provides a range of passes and tickets for train, bus and boat, plus more than 500 museums. Call Switzerland Travel Centre on 00800 100 200 30 or visit www.swisstravelsystem.co.uk.