Zermatt and Italy: a glimpse of cuisine on the "other" side
Zermatt is not just synonymous with the ultimate in winter sports. It is also well-known for its superlative cuisine in two countries, on the slopes on this side and the other side of the Matterhorn. A trip into the wealth of Italian meat and gourmet dreams in Val d'Aosta.
Culinary expertise is more important than winter sports
Many Zermatt winter sports enthusiasts don't just make their choices based on the beautiful slopes on this side or the other side, but rather based on this or the other cuisine. Cucina italiana, or specifically cucina valdostana or Valais specialities? Cervinia/Valtournenche offers precisely the kind of exotic dishes that Swiss guests adore. Often home cooking, served simple and warm, with a glass of fine wine and concluded with a mandatory grappa. You need time for this culinary experience and you need to leave the slopes to be, well just slopes, for some time. And many make their first pit stop on the Testa.
The Rifugio delle Guide del Cervino (3,480 m) on Testa Grigia looks inconspicuous. A low rise building amidst houses of indifferent beauty, with and without aerials. This is the meeting place for Val d'Aosta mountain guides, open 365 days a year and many hand-drawn portraits show the ancestors and ancient ancestors of the charismatic mountain guides. Names like Gaspard, Carrel, Barmasse, Pession, Bich or Maquignaz are reminiscent of the pioneers of Alpine mountaineering. Three men manage the Rifugio: Laurent Nicoletta (35), Eric Windeler (38) and Massimiliano Pession (38) from Cervinia and Valtournenche. They and their chef Antonello Felice (35) have built up a lasting reputation amongst carnivores with their home-made specialities: meat, meat and more meat. Exquisitely prepared, with portions weighing up to 300 grammes of beef entrecôte from Ireland or Argentina. Or lamb cutlets too.
Three men manage the Rifugio: Laurent Nicoletta (35), Eric Windeler (38) and Massimiliano Pession (38) from Cervinia and Valtournenche. They and their chef Antonello Felice (35) have built up a lasting reputation amongst carnivores with their home-made specialities: meat, meat and more meat. Exquisitely prepared, with portions weighing up to 300 grammes of beef entrecôte from Ireland or Argentina. Or lamb cutlets too.
Gattisti, mountaineers and athletes
"Noi siamo l'autogrill dei gattisti," says Laurent. The Rifugio is also the meeting places for piste basher (snowcat) drivers from both countries, who take a short break here to have a chat and a cup of coffee. And athletes come here too after their strenuous training sessions: Martin or Simon Anthamatten from Zermatt, Yannic Ecoeur or Florent Troillet, who have rapidly covered the route from Zermatt (1,620 m) to the "Testa". "Even opponents meet up here," says Laurent Nicoletta. Opponents and, at the same time, friends, who contest Alpine skiing races, like the Patrouille des Glaciers or the Matterhorn Ultraks. Alpine climbers planning a future expedition to the Himalayas or to South America often hang out here too. They acclimatise their bodies sleeping in the 40-bed dormitories to complete their essential altitude training. High and convenient is their maxim: half-board costs only 50 euros.
However, the Rifugio is also a "posto strategico". Laurent Nicoletta, who is also a mountain guide, is the Rescue Chief and has responsibility for Alpine rescue for the Cervinia/Valtournenche region. The Rifugio is also the starting point for the ascent of the Matterhorn up the Lionsgrat ridge (Cresta del Leone). "Our climbers mainly want to climb to the cross," explains Laurent. Many choose this route, because the Hörnligrat on the Zermatt side is overcrowded. But Laurent does not always have boastful pride in his visitors. The lodge can only be reached by crossing the glacier. This is not an issue in winter for skiers crossing on the groomed slopes but "in summer it is imperative that you are accompanied by a mountain guide," he says, pointing towards the Theodul Glacier. "There are some people who simply don't take glaciers seriously. They even become rude when you warn them," he says with the grim laughter of someone who knows.
Many of the ancestors of Laurent, Eric, and Massimiliano underwent difficult times and were familiar with heavy work as mountain farmers, earning extra income as mountain guides or mule drovers. They were confronted throughout their lives by smuggling, however, Laurent does not reveal whether they themselves smuggled.
Historical building at the pass
The Rifugio delle Guide del Cervino on the Testa Grigia was built in 1980 because the Theodul Lodge (Rifugio del Teodulo, 3,317 m) owned by the Club Alpino Italiano (CAI) had burned down shortly before. This historic building directly on the Theodul Pass originally dates back to 1928 and was rebuilt after the fire. The premises were renovated in 2011/2012 and here too the cuisine is regional. The accommodation provides the essentials - for skiers and climbers, in the summer and winter season. The dining room alone is worth a visit, because the large window offers a unique and unusual view of the Matterhorn and the Grandes Murailles. Descents on skis in the moonlight are organised from this lodge for fans of romantic skiing.
A whole host of stopovers
Skiers from Zermatt always talk about the same thing: they always keep each other up to date about the time of the last cabin running from Cervinia to Testa Grigia. Because anyone who comes too late, has to stay in Italy. That in itself is not such a bad thing, because there is a wide selection of hotels and good restaurants.
Many of the restaurants in the "comprensorio sciistico Cervinia/Valtournenche" are of international repute. Like the restaurant Foyer des Guides in Valtournenche, just before the bottom of the slope. However, if you don't want to eat so far down the slopes, you can lunch in the Chalet des Etoiles, where Italy shows its most beautiful Alpine Chic-side. With excellent cuisine. One thing, however: Getting a table is not easy. Useful tip: Don't be deterred from sitting away from the hustle and bustle on the terrace. You can say the same about the terrace of the Ristorante Bontadini - don't be deterred if you enjoy good food. Last but not least, La Pera Doussa, an agri-tourism establishment where mountain farmers feel at home. The older generation speaks the local language, the Valdostana, similar to French. The special factor here: leave the slope shortly before it ends at Valtournenche and follow the small signpost for "Agriturismo". Don't forget to take euros with you, otherwise the exchange rate to Swiss francs might not work out in your favour. The food is excellent, and ultimately, after a large grappa, you have to take your courage in both hands because you will be carried back to the slopes on the back of a snow-mobile.