A tender piece of lobster lay in a bowl with a bright orange smear of sweet potato and an umami-packed broth made from an ingredient I had never heard of: amburana. Bel Coelho’s 6-course gourmet dinner at the Grand Hotel Kronenhof in Pontresina, gave her the chance to share some of her favorite dishes from Brazil with a European audience. Organized as part of the St. Moritz Gourmet Festival, this event took place in the Kronenstübli. This is the hotel’s cozy wood-paneled restaurant. Under the leadership of Executive Chef Fabrizio Piantanida, it has earned 16 out of 20 points from Gault & Millau. Significant for its Neo-Baroque style of architecture, this historic hotel offers a range of dining options, such as the Brazilian dinner prepared by Coelho, and in the most spectacular settings.
Switzerland’s Upper Engadine Valley has a wealth of historic palace hotels. The Grand Hotel Kronenhof, in particular, stands out for its quiet elegance. Located about 10 minutes by car from St. Moritz, which attracts the rich and famous from all over the world, the village of Pontresina feels more understated in terms of its luxury accommodations. A multitude of outdoor gear shops line the streets, instead of high-end fashion boutiques. Also, it has less than half the population of St. Moritz.
The area of Pontresina where you’ll find the hotel is known as “Laret” (Romansh for larch trees). In this corner of the village you’ll see some examples of well-preserved Engadine houses. They have thick stone walls and Sgraffito decorations around the doors and windows. Overall, I find that this community has a peaceful, slower-paced atmosphere that I really enjoy.
“The Grande Dame of the Engadine”
The Grand Hotel Kronenhof started out as the Gasthaus Rössli, originally purchased by Andreas Gredig in 1848 for his son, Lorenz. Over the decades, this structure underwent various renovations, additions and name changes. In 1898, the hotel took on its current “horseshoe” shape with its two side wings.
Walking up from the train station in Pontresina, you can reach the hotel in about 15 minutes. As you travel along the narrow Via Maistra, you’ll see a golden metal sign. It also has a crown, advertising the hotel’s restaurant. When you reach the hotel and turn left, you enter the impressive garden courtyard of the hotel.
Inside the Grand Hotel
Through the main entrance you reach the grand lobby. Its pastel-colored frescoes on the ceiling were painted by Bernese artist Otto Haberer in the early 20th century. This elegant space with its large picture windows overlooks a beautiful view of the mountains. With piano music in the background, the hotel has two menus for afternoon tea. One menu features local Engadine specialties, such as Bündnerfleisch, thin slices of air-dried beef, and Engadine Nusstorte, a shortcrust pastry tart filled with caramelized walnuts.
Frescoes from Otto Haberer also adorn the ceiling of one of Switzerland’s most beautiful dining rooms, in my opinion. Hotels guests have breakfast in this breathtaking room, with a well-stocked buffet and impeccable service.
A Taste of Brazil in the Swiss Alps
So, what is amburana? To create this special broth for her lobster dish, Chef Bel Coelho used the seeds from a deciduous tree that grows in the Brazilian rainforest. I learned about this and other ingredients native to Brazil during my conversation with Coelho. She is one of 10 female guest chefs invited to the St. Moritz Gourmet Festival this year. We sat in the hotel’s peaceful Salon Bleu during her break between cooking for the Mountain Brunch at the CheCha Restaurant & Club and her preparations for dinner at the hotel that evening.
During the 27th edition of the St. Moritz Gourmet Festival, Coelho partnered with the Kronenhof’s Executive Chef Fabrizio Piantanida. In all, they worked together on several different types of events for the first half of the festival. They include the Grand Julius Bär Opening, three Gourmet Dinners and Gourmet Safaris and more. About six months before the festival started, the two chefs began planning together. About how they would prepare the dishes and where to source the ingredients. Of course, Coelho could not bring fresh produce from Brazil to Switzerland, so she opted for dried versions instead. She described Piantanida as very organized and helpful. “I’ve been talking to Fabrizio, so he could maybe one day come to Brazil and cook with me.”
A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Coelho has become well known in Brazil for her restaurants, as well as her television program. Her current restaurant, Clandestino, opens only two weeks per month. This gives her the flexibility to maintain a better work-life balance in comparison to having a more traditional restaurant schedule. Her televsion program, “Receita de Viagem” focused on regional Brazilian foods. It gave her recognition from a global audience because TLC, Discovery Channel and ARTE have rebroadcast it in other languages.
Through her work on her television program, she created a “Biomas” menu inspired by Brazil’s six biomes — communities of flora and fauna living in a particular climatic zone. This menu features foods from each of the following biomes: Amazon, Atlantic Forest, Cerrado, Caatinga, Pantanal and Pampas. In her native country, she uses these menus and her research on native plants, in part, as a form of activism to promote more sustainable agricultural practices. I asked about ingredients like the bright yellow uvaia that she used in one her dishes for the festival’s opening party. She told me that even most Brazilians have likely never tasted this native fruit. “We’re not used to eating uvaia. It’s a sad thing because they’re delicious. They bring complexity to the dishes,” she said.
Passionate about drawing attention to these native plant species, Coelho is also working on a book about Afro-Brazilian cuisine associated with Candomblé religious traditions. In addition, she is fascinated by the culinary rituals of this religion. The roots of which were brought to Brazil by enslaved people from West Africa. As such, she developed an entire menu around the Orixás, the deities of Candomblé. The Orixás represent elements of nature, such as iron or wind and lightning. Each of these deities have their own sacred dishes, music and unique dances presented and performed during religious services. Furthermore, women play an important role in these ceremonies as the yabasse. This is a cook who has learned over time how to prepare the special dishes of these individual deities.
Via the St. Moritz Gourmet Festival, Bel Coelho brought the taste of Brazil to Switzerland’s Grand Kronenhof Hotel. More specifically, with several events held at the hotel and elsewhere in the Upper Engadine Valley, she shared her dishes with a rich culinary history. Overall, her menus carry an underlying message of promoting sustainability and celebrating Brazil’s cultural diversity. At the forefront of Brazilian gastronomy, she was a dynamic force at this year’s festival.
For more information:
- Grand Hotel Kronenhof, Via Maistra 130, 7504 Pontresina, +41 (0)81 830 30 30
- St. Moritz Gourmet Festival
- Chef Bel Coelho
Please note: I stayed at the Grand Hotel Kronenhof in Pontresina as a guest of the St. Moritz Gourmet Festival. The thoughts and opinions expressed in this article are purely my own.
Updated: January 9, 2023