Switzerland’s famous Raclette cheese, melted and served with boiled potatoes, originated in the canton of Valais. This alpine tradition has continued over centuries, and you can still find farmers high in the mountains producing this and other types of cheese. My family and I recently stumbled across a small, artisanal fromagerie in the Alps above Crans-Montana after an overnight stay at the picturesque Cabane des Violettes, a mountain hut maintained by the Club Alpin Suisse (Swiss Alpine Club).
Arriving at the Buvette de Pépinet
After a hearty breakfast of bread with jam and yogurt mixed with applesauce and muesli at the Cabane des Violettes, my family and I started off on the hiking trail toward the village of Vermala. Knowing that we would reach the Buvette de Pépinet along the trail, as the sign indicated it would take approximately 30 minutes to get there, we intended to stop in for a cup of coffee. As we neared the buvette, we first reached an alpine pasture with brownish-black cows of the Hérens breed.
Soon after we spotted the cows, we came across a sign for the Buvette de Pépinet, located approximately 2,000 meters above sea level. As we glanced up the road, we saw a stone barn that had a large cow with an enormous bell around its neck out front, almost as if she was welcoming us to her home.
Learning about Cheese-Making at the Buvette de Pépinet
At the Buvette de Pépinet, people have been making Raclette cheese over a wood fire for generations. A quick stop for coffee turned into an impromptu mini-tour of the buvette given by Paulette Vocat, who is the co-owner and chef at this alpine restaurant and fromagerie.
After we met Paulette and ordered our coffees, we asked about buying some cheese from the alpage (high mountain pasture). She regretfully told that us that she did not have any for sale because it was too early in the season. However, she offered us some cheese for a dégustation (tasting).
On a small cutting board, we had a few thin slices of rye bread, typical of this region of Switzerland, as well as a hunk of Raclette cheese made right there on the farm. It was one of the most creamy and flavorful versions of this cheese I had ever tasted. Paulette said that the pasture where the cows graze—the flowers and herbs they consume, as well as the dryness or humidity in a particular area—can impact the taste of the cheese.
After we finished our cheese, Paulette showed us the room where the milk from the cows next door is brought for making cheese. Altogether, this farm has about 110 cows. She said that they have been making cheese at this farm since the 18th century, using a wood fire to heat the unpasteurized milk, a practice that continues today. Each year, they make about five tons of cheese—about one ton of cheese is used at the restaurant, while the rest is sold directly at the farm or at a laiterie in Crans-Montana.
When we arrived that day at around 10:00 in the morning, they had already made a first batch of a fresh cheese known as sérac (ziger in German). As we were getting ready to leave, Paulette gave us some sérac that had been shaped into a heart. We ate it during our picnic back in Sierre with some fresh bread from Boulangerie Taillens in Crans-Montana. This very soft and mild-flavored cheese also had a slightly herbal taste, and we scooped it up with torn pieces of our bread.
For an authentic Swiss experience among high alpine pastures, I recommend a visit to the Buvette de Pépinet. Along with exceptional hospitality and incredible views of snow-capped mountains, you can enjoy cheese made in a traditional way in the Alps. Paulette does not always have time to show people around, especially if the restaurant is busy, but you can organize a more formal tour by contacting her or Michel Vocat in advance, which includes the opportunity to actually help make cheese yourself.
Opening hours: From about mid-June to the end of September, and then from around the end of November / beginning of December to April. 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
How to get there:
- On foot – About 30 minutes from the Cabane des Violettes and the cable car station Violettes. Or, about a one-hour hike from Vermala.
- Ski in – In the winter, you can ski down on the blue run from Les Violettes.