Joël Quentin is the head chef at the Peppino restaurant in Villars-sur-Ollon, Switzerland, and a busy man when we meet midway through an evening during which I’m tasting his Alpine Garden menu.
Each of the dishes being served is based around local ingredients (with the obvious exception of his seafood creations) and flavoured or garnished using wild mountain herbs, leaves and flowers.
Foraging in the Swiss countryside
Alpine flora adds taste and visual appeal to Joël’s dishes. Farmers and chalet owners around Villars-sur-Ollon have become accustomed to the sight of him foraging on their land. Over the past dozen or so years he’s built up relationships with locals, gaining their permission to go onto their properties. He heads out from Peppino most days to harvest ingredients that most people would consider mere weeds.
He picks herbs, leaves and other edible items from April until October or November. The precise length of the season depends upon the first snowfall. This region is prone to heavy snow coverage, meaning there’s no chance of picking fresh stock during winter.
All of the plants, berries and flowers used by Joël grow at an altitude of between 500 and 2,000 metres above sea level.
As we chat in his busy restaurant he explains that everything used to flavour his Alpine Garden menu has been picked from meadows and mountain slopes within a 20 minute drive of the Eurotel Victoria Villars.
Knowing what to pick
He became interested in the idea of foraging for wild ingredients and attended a course run by a specialist. Joël tells me that expert knowledge is important when foraging, as plants, roots, mushrooms and flowers can be toxic or carry parasites. Some, I learn, need to be boiled to make them edible to humans. Others have medicinal properties. Knowing what to pick and how to collect them, so as not to kill the plants, is important.
“We live in a natural garden so it would be crazy not to use it. That’s why we call this kind of menu the Alpine Garden,” he says. “Our ancestors used to do it naturally, picking up herbs in the gardens around their chalets.”
To ensure he can serve his Alpine Garden menu during the winter Joël preserves a stock of ingredients. Some can be frozen or dehydrated while others need to be prepared as syrups and marinades.
The hotel receives a large number of Indian guests and has a chef specialising in Indian cuisines. Joël tells me he has forged a productive working partnership with the Indian chef, blending Alpine herbs with spices, to create a fusion that appeals to South Asian palettes.
A booklet in multiple languages
Joël has set his knowledge of the region’s wild edible plants down on paper and is seeking a publisher. His booklet is written in French, German and English and includes the taxonomical names for ingredients.
He lists the habitat, recommended uses and months of availability of wild Alpine ingredients, along with descriptions of their flavour, medicinal qualities and the number of species found across Europe.
As you’d expect from a chef, he also shares a number of recipes. Dishes such as shin of lamb in wild garlic pastry and grated potatoes with hogweed are listed, alongside salmon with cowslip bread and braised Good King Henry with potato balls.
Tonight my meal began with sea scallop flavoured with common ivy, which has earthy, minty tones. It was followed by a main course featuring loin of lamb with creeping thyme and served with a purple clover flower. The white from the centre of the clover is edible and pleasantly sweet. The dishes have been creatively presented and delicious.
Joël excuses himself and returns to the kitchen, promising to send a dessert that features poppy, wild mint and woodruff. As I wait for it to be served I can’t help wondering what I’ll be able to find within 20 minutes of my own kitchen.
Taste Joël‘s work at the Peppino restaurant within the Eurotel Victoria Villars (Route des Layeux, Villars-sur-Ollon, tel. +41 (0) 24 495 3131). Reservations are recommended.
Photos illustrating this post are by Stuart Forster.
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