Only those with solid roots reach the summit of their art: virtuosos such as the leading chef from Sierre, Didier de Courten. A day with the ambassador of Valais cuisine.
Your heart skips a beat or two when you see 600 kilos of muscle hurtling down a steep meadow towards you – led by a head as big and black as a winter tyre, bearing mighty horns. “Don’t worry, they aren’t dangerous,” says Monsieur Gabriel, who looks after this herd of 23 cattle of the Hérens breed. “They are only aggressive towards one another.” Three of these powerful beasts grazing in the postcard-pretty landscape of the Val d’Anniviers belong to Didier de Courten. We are accompanying the head chef of the Hotel Terminus in Sierre for a day as he does one of the things he enjoys most: spending time with his animals in this region where he feels so much at home.
He approaches Prunelle with respect, strokes her scarred neck and speaks gently into her ear. “I bought my first Hérens cow eight years ago,” the cook says; he now owns three cows, two heifers and a bull-calf. “My grandparents kept cows, and having my own is a childhood dream come true.” Of course, for someone so attached to his native Valais, these had to be Hérens cows, a race established in the Rhône valley for more than 5,000 years.
The name echoes the French word “reines”, which means “queens”, and in Valais these animals are royalty. By natural instinct, Hérens cows fight to establish a hierarchy within the herd, locking horns until the weaker animal turns tail. At organised events known as “Combats de reines”, cows skirmish in pairs until the overall winner is crowned queen. Didier de Courten does not send his cows to compete in the arena, nor are they destined for his kitchens. “For sentimental reasons,” he admits.
Inspired by nature
De Courten’s menus nonetheless feature Hérens meat – fresh and cured – as well as Hérens cheese. He also serves delicious lamb from the Valais Blacknose breed, another unmistakable feature of the local landscape. Today Didier de Courten has brought some bread to give the sheep and, sitting on the grass, he feeds them. The world-renowned chef enjoys the gentle moment; his gaze roams to the horizon and at last he is relaxed. “Top performance demands discipline. In my profession, you have to give a lot. In nature, among my animals, I receive a great deal in return.” Such as wet kisses – from the donkeys who have noticed the chef’s arrival and are walking towards him with ears erect.
The love and respect that Didier de Courten shows his animals extends also to his home region. “I am very close to my surrounding environment, I get my strength from it. The steep slopes of the mountains, the patterns of the vineyards, the scents of the forest… This landscape has shaped my way of living and thinking,” he wrote in the preface to his cookery book. Naturally, this land also informs his craft: “Cuisine is the memory of taste, and produce is the memory of the soil.”
The finest local produce
While other restaurateurs enthusiastically adopt the fashionable concept of “terroir”, the Valais chef has never followed any other philosophy. Of course, a restaurant as prestigious as Le Terminus de Didier de Courten also features lobsters from Brittany, salmon fished in the Scandinavian fjords and truffles from Périgord. But the finest produce from the Valais takes pride of place, raised to gastronomic perfection in his kitchen.
De Courten buys asparagus, strawberries, cherries, apricots, aromatic herbs and juices from Vergers du Soleil (“Orchards of Sunshine”), a family business run by Maurice Arbellay at Granges. The saffron comes from Venthône, where the chef’s ancestors have been cultivating it since 1646. For Didier de Courten, only the finest ingredients are good enough.
Mutual respect binds Didier de Courten to the Rouvinez family of winemakers in Sierre. In the cellar’s famous tunnel, Dominique Rouvinez and Didier de Courten taste a young Chardonnay, and then a Cœur du Domaine, an award-winning “assemblage” made exclusively with grapes from the heart of the Rouvinez family vineyards. Most of the wines in Didier de Courten’s cellar come from his beloved homeland.
At the last stop on today’s tour, we find that this culinary alchemist is not content just to buy the best ingredients; he also helps produce them. In his cellar, in the basement of an old chalet, he matures alpine cheeses of different origins and ages – some as old as a teenager. This vaulted stone chamber contains slowly maturing delicacies that cannot be found for sale. The crowning glory of this treasure, however, is a barrel of wine. The dim light is just sufficient to make out the year it was made: 1775. “Since then, wine has been drawn off but the level always topped up,” its proud owner explains. “If anyone emptied the barrel, it would break apart. This is nectar, and we only ever serve it right here – it would be sacrilege to transport it.” As he speaks, he pours us a glass. “That’s not wine you’re drinking,” he says, “that’s history.”