A trip to the Swiss mountains usually guarantees good, hearty, winter fare. After a day of heavy duty winter sports, the body is likely to crave something substantial, something loaded with calories. On a recent weekend away in the picturesque Swiss village of Kandersteg, my husband and I found it difficult to hold back when it came to mealtimes, despite the fact that neither of us had engaged in any strenuous outdoor activity which would have explained our hearty appetites. But as my husband likes to put it, some dishes taste best when served in the appropriate surrounding environment; a fondue somehow tastes better when served in the mountains in an old wooden hut where everyone is rugged up in their winter woollies.
Other typical alpine dishes include the skiing classic of macaroni and cheese with an accompanying serve of apple compote.
Also popular is the Käseschnitte, the heart-stopping Swiss version of a Croque Monsieur sandwich.
And once you are done tucking into one of these delicious cheese dishes, you must absolutely make room for some apple fritters for dessert. These fritters have all the reminders of a hot cinnamon donut, but with a sweet apple interior.
We found the variety of restaurants in Kandersteg to be somewhat sparse. In fact, compared to the more touristy Grindelwald, the village of Kandersteg was eerily quiet during our stay. It was only when we ventured into the forests for a hike that we were quiety relieved to find other signs of life, namely people doing cross-country skiing or tobogganing. Perhaps it is a popular destination for snow sports but not necessarily a popular place to stay?
Nevertheless, our favourite pick of restaurants in Kandersteg include:
Landgasthof Ruedihus The streets in Kandersteg might seem awfully quiet at night but this hotel restaurant is always bustling with activity inside. The downstairs area has an informal menu of classics such as fondue and raclette, whilst the section upstairs houses a fine-dining restaurant, both serving amazingly, delicious food.
Hotel Victoria Ritter We were lured to this restaurant by the “Tea Room” sign outside, indicating a warm and cosy place to escape the blistering cold outside. Sadly, there was no such tea room inside but the restaurant nevertheless had a very nice menu and the food did not disappoint.
Hotel Restaurant Oeschinensee A visit to the Oeschinen Lake is a must if you are in Kandersteg. It is an incredibly picturesque lake in the summer, nestled between the huge walls of the surrounding snow-capped mountains. In winter, the entire lake is frozen over, making for an impressive scene in itself but you can also try ice fishing if you are keen. You can reach the Oeschinen Lake by foot from Kandersteg, or by taking the cable car part of the way up and walking the remaining 30 mins or so. It is a fairly easy walk (I managed with a baby in a carrier!), although you will be walking across ski slopes and sledding runs, so it is best to have your ski or winter hiking gear on during the winter. The restaurant overlooks the Oeschinen Lake and is a welcome sight if you are tired and hungry after your walk.
One particular dish from the mountains which is neither rich nor fattening, yet very restorative, is the Gerstensuppe, or pearl barley soup. After hiking through the pictureque forest to the Oeschinen Lake, we arrived at the Hotel Restaurant Oeschinensee for some much-needed sustenance, and their simple pearl barley soup served with a smoked sausage was enough to revive the body and prepare it for the trek back down (after a generous serving of dessert and some Glühwein!).
Pearl barley soup is not particular to Switzerland, although it is a popular dish in the mountains. The pearl barley takes a good 30 minutes or so to cook and soften, but it has a wonderful way of thickening the soup as it cooks, adding some body and texture and consequently making the soup more substantial. In fact, it’s a good way to bulk up any plain vegetable soup. If you’re in a hurry to get dinner on the table, you could even speed up the cooking process by using a pressure cooker.
The recipe below comes from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Veg Everyday, a lovely book of robust, vegetarian meals. Similar to most recipes which I lean towards, this one is easy to prepare and is full of flavour. The cayenne pepper provides a nice kick to this vegetable soup, but feel free to leave it out if you are serving young children.
If you’ve been out show-shoeing or hiking in the mountains in sub-zero temperatures, this is the soup you want to come home to. Instant comfort in a bowl.
Pearl Barley Soup
Recipe adapted from River Cottage Veg Everyday by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
The original recipe calls for parsnip instead of potatoes. Use whichever is available to you, but potatoes will make this soup a little bit more filling.
To make the croûtons, simply slice some stale bread into 2cm (1 inch) cubes. Heat some olive oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat and fry the bread, turning them frequently so that all sides become golden and crisp. The croûtons hardly take any time to cook so don’t leave the pan unattended as they can burn very quickly.