As promised in the fist half of this story, “Les Diablerets, Switzerland
– Where the Cows Take a Walk,” I’m going to tell you about the events that followed my trek up the Alpine slopes on my walk with the cows on their way to the high summer chalet.
Once the procession of decorated cows had gone through the valley and up to the top of the eastern Alpine mountain, they were herded to their corral and I was herded into the cavern of a seemingly huge, brightly lit restaurant with many large windows set side by side in high wooden walls.
I admit that by this time I was light-headed from the hiking and the ever increasing altitude, but the place seems like the biggest, brightest restaurant I have ever seen in my life. I know we ate a large meal courtesy of the Swiss herdsmen (really, they were all men), but I can ‘t tell you what it was nor how long we were there nor even how we left. (The huge gap in my memory here can only be explained by hypooxygenation from the day-long hike UP the Alps.)
I can tell you though that a waitress was always at my elbow to fill my wine glass even though my hand was firmly pressed over the top of it, a universal signal for “no more,” or so I thought. And I can tell you that the next morning I awoke in a vast single-room chalet atop whatever mountain this was–I never did hear a recognizable name.
That morning, when I awoke tucked in a warm bed in a far corner of the kitchen-dinning-everything room of this chalet, I was greeted by a woman’s voice coming from way over by the sink, ahead of me way off to my left. “Guten Morgen,” she said. She was washing fruits for the breakfast meal and at the same time making preparations for the upcoming 1 o’clock dinner.
The room’s interior was all exposed beams, from the looming height of the walls to the sharply peaked roof overhead. Aside from the front door toward my left in the wall behind me, there were two doors in the room. Both were visible over the tops of my feet, still warm in bed.
Both doors were in the corner of that side of the big, big room. One opened in the wall directly in front of and across from me, the other opened at the end of the wall to my right. If anyone were to try to open both at once, they’d crash into each other–the doors and the people.
I later learned that the door in the right-hand wall opened into the old barn where the cows and pigs were once upon a time kept. The other door opened to a ladder-like stair case leading up to a loft above the old barn. It was in this loft that the assortment of herdsmen had slept during the night.
My hypooxygeniated disorientation finally began to clear after I’d washed up and eaten some breakfast and stepped out the front door to see where I was.
I was standing on a wooden deck up about nine steps and I was looking out and up at sharply pointed Alpine peaks all around me: everywhere I looked, snow covered Alps. It was cold but I didn’t even notice. I was enchanted by the high chalet in the summer Alps where the cows got to play all summer long.
The door behind me eventually opened and my host stepped out and, in a Swiss-German accent, said, “There you are. We were getting worried about you. Are you all right?”
“Oh! Yes,” I said. “I’m just admiring the view.”
“It is beautiful,” he said. “Nothing like it anywhere.”
“And breathing the air. The air is so wonderful.”
“Yes, it is fresh and clean here. But you must come in now. You’ll get cold.”
“Oh, I’m all right.”
“No, but it’s cold. You’re not used to it. Me, I can stay out in this all day. But you cannot. You must come in now. “
“All right. I will. Just one more minute. I’ll never see anything like this again .”
“Well–one minute. Then you must come in…. It’s very cold.”
And I did go back in after one more minute of breathing in the splendor before my eyes. What I then saw inside the bigger-than-I-can-say room, warmed by a fire laid in a five-foot high fireplace built into the wall next to the door leading to the loft, was the dinning table spread for a banquet.
The table was long and built of pine boards with equally long pine benches on either side and an armed chair at the head and the foot. This table comfortably sat eight on each side; uncomfortably, ten per side. That’s 18 to 22 persons total who could gather around this pine table in this large room.
The table, which looked like a piece of straw in the huge room, was aligned front to back, with the head of the table toward the fire (but nowhere near it) and the foot toward the window in the same wall as the front door, also nowhere near it. Our party, which had collected around the table in my absence, filled six places on the first bench and I filled the fifth place on the second bench. Well, actually, the host later came and sat beside me, so that made six on each side.
His wife, the woman who had been working at the sink earlier, eventually took her seat at the foot of the table and the head herdsman, the one who had invited me on the trek and who was also their broad shouldered son, sat at the head and did the honors. This is when and where I was introduced to Roqulette.
Roqulette. So good, it bears repeating. On the table were pots of boiled whole baby potatoes, jars of pickled vegetables–cauliflower, broccoli, beets, carrots, red and green pepper slices, baby onions, garlic cloves–and small loaves of bread with handmade butter nearby.
At the head of the table, the head herdsman, whose name I’ve forgotten so I’ll call him Chris–Chris, with floppy sandy blond hair and beard–had at his left hand a small heater-type contraption with exposed wires glowing bright red–a grill of sorts. At his right hand was a round and a half of Roqulette cheese, each round is about ten or eleven inches in diameter and about five inches thick: not small.
Once the feast began–I suppose, really, they had been waiting for me–Chris took up the half-round of Roqulette with a giant clamp tool and held the cut edge over the flaming wires of the grill, thus melting the cheese that he then scraped onto one plate. A beautiful Roqulette ritual then followed.
The man at Chris’s RIGHT, next to the cheese rounds, was the guest of honor. Chris handed a melted Roqulette laden plate to the man on his LEFT. This man passed the plate on to the person at his left. The plate traveled hand to hand to the left and then ACROSS the table and then back up, hand to hand, until it reached the honored guest.
He then helped himself to his choice of the potatoes, pickled vegetables and breads. He began eating right away and the rest of us were invited to sample the breads and pickled things while we sipped from our wine glasses that were never allowed to empty.
This process was repeated time and again–heating, giving melted Roqulette, passing hand to hand to the left–until each had a plate full of Roqulette (in between anyone was permitted to request seconds also!). It was the most soothing and beautiful, rhythmic meal I have ever eaten.
I must say, that when the first plate came to me, I thought it was for me. Amidst polite calls of, “No, no!” when I started to set the plate down before me (wondering all along why I was being served first), were coached instructions to “Pass it on, pass it on.”
“Across the table???” I asked.
“Yes! Across the table,” I was told.
“But I can’t…it’s far…..”
“You must stand up. You must pass it on.”
“But I can’t rea….”
“Or you must walk around to pass it on.”
I half stood from the bench and did my best to reach the very big plate across the very wide table. The recipient reached but didn’t rise, and eventually we made the hand off, many times, in fact, after that first one, though I was pretty confused about the ritual for five or six plates or so.
Not only was the whole Roqulette meal absolutely delicious, it will always live in my memory as one of my life’s most pleasant moments. Now you have the story of how a walk with the Swiss cows turned into a meal of Roqulette at a Swiss chalet.