A taste of nature

Natural goodness is the chief ingredient at the Castle restaurant in the Goms valley. No wonder, as talented chef Peter Gschwendtner finds all his inspiration in nature.

When Peter Gschwendtner speaks of nature, he knows what he is talking about. Here in his village, at an altitude of 1,350 metres, he is surrounded by it – nothing but. Just one glance from the Hotel Castle in Blitzingen over the high, wide and lush Goms valley and its towering peaks confirms the fact: pristine nature, wherever you look. It is hard to imagine anyone ever tiring of these views, a symphony of greens and blues: a blissfully soothing sight for the eyes of any city-dweller.

The perfect spot for Peter, then? As a qualified ski instructor, mountain guide and keen climber – definitely. But he has another side, too – and as a top chef, the idyllic location is not always an advantage. Of course, he is in heaven when it comes to sourcing ingredients: lamb from the Lötschental valley, beef from the Fieschertal, trout from Raron, vegetables, mushrooms and berries from the Goms, herbs from his own garden. The cook at the Castle is not the only one to take advantage of this cornucopia of high-quality regional produce. But when it comes to the effort and devotion he puts into conjuring exquisite dishes from them, he is in a class of his own. Self-taught, Peter is now a master of his art. The GaultMillau guide praises his sophisticated cuisine and, with 16 points, places him firmly in the champions league. In Zurich, Bern or Basel, his skill and creativity would guarantee full bookings year-round. In the Goms, however – well off the trails favoured by the urban gourmet crowd – Peter’s style of cooking is a spirited choice. “That’s true,” he says, before adding modestly: “But then I couldn’t do it any differently. Whatever I do, I try to do well. As well as possible – whether in the kitchen or up on the mountain. And secondly, I wouldn’t want to live or work anywhere else. I get my energy from nature – from this place I call home.”

Originally from the Austrian Tyrol, this joiner, ski instructor and mountain guide by trade made his home in the Goms long ago, captivated by the beauty of the valley – and of one of its locals, Brigitte. Their children are now adults, and the couple are proud grandparents. Peter, now in his mid-fifties, has become a local, too, and speaks the Goms dialect without accent. The Gschwendtners have run the Castle together for 22 years. When they took over, it was an ailing apartment hotel that had faced bankruptcy three times in five years. They turned it into a real gem: an oasis of wellbeing for guests from far and wide, providing a dozen jobs for the valley and a gastronomic hotspot for the region. And because Brigitte, a qualified physiotherapist, barely eats meat, vegetarians are in for a treat at the Castle. “Coming up with a top-level five-course menu, depending on season, can be a real challenge,” the chef admits.

But challenges are just what Peter likes. The biggest of all is finding time for his second passion alongside working as a top chef: the mountains. Here, too, he does not do things by halves. He knows the local mountains top to bottom, has taken part in several expeditions in Nepal and has conquered various 8,000-metre peaks in the Himalayas. On 16 May 2004 he even scaled the ultimate summit, Mount Everest. A photo bearing the date, taken at an altitude of 8,848 metres, hangs in the lobby of the hotel. It shows Gschwendtner on top of the world, his piercing blue eyes brighter than the cloudless sky. “It was a powerful moment, to be sure,” he says. “But the challenge is not just climbing up but getting down, too.” By which he means not only coming down physically from such an extreme experience but – even harder – returning to daily routine.

Peter und Brigitte Gschwendtner
Brigitte Gschwendtner has created a Kneipp hydrotherapy trail around the Hotel Castle, and shows guests how to make the most of it. Peter joins them on trips into the mountains.

Recently, he experienced an even more rewarding sense of satisfaction than those he is accustomed to on each of his ascents. Last November he travelled to Nepal, to the remote mountain village of Patale in the Solukhumbu district, which had suffered badly in the 2015 earthquake. His goal: to open a school built with money that the Gschwendtners had raised themselves. It came about because Peter had experienced the earthquake himself as he climbed the 8,163-metre Manaslu. “Suddenly the whole mountain shook,” he says, and with a great deal of luck the team managed to avoid several avalanches. They only discovered the magnitude of the earthquake on the journey back, and realised its full scale when they got home: the deadliest catastrophe in Nepal’s history, with thousands killed and many more wounded. Peter had developed a great affection for Nepal and its people over the years, and immediately wanted to help with reconstruction. Brigitte had the idea of organising a fund-raising event in place of the Castle’s planned 20th anniversary celebration. The event was a great success – financially, too. “But we didn’t just want to send money,” says Peter, “we wanted to invest in a sustainable project.”

He knew he could count on a reliable local intermediary in the form of Sherpa Mingmar, a veteran climbing companion who over the years had become a trusted friend. And that is how last November, 160 children were able to step into their new school, 50% financed by the efforts of the Gschwendtners. Of course, a lot remains to be done. An aid project such as this requires careful planning, but Peter has it all under tight control – and as an extreme mountaineer and top chef, he is a champion of precision and endurance. For this job, too, he needs strength, and he finds that every day, all around him: here in the Goms valley.

From the start of the summer season at the Castle, on 8 June, the Gschwendtners are available for their guests day-in, day-out. Before then, they treat themselves to an extra dose of nature. Brigitte heads southwards, for warmth and sunshine, while Peter sets his sights high once again: a new mountain adventure and another 8,000-metre peak.

 

Text: Anita Lehmeier
Photographs: Sedrik Nemeth

 

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