Swiss Army Stew
On a recent visit to the Valais, a region in southwest Switzerland known for both the highest mountain peaks and most vineyards in the country, I attended a small wine festival in the German-speaking village of Saas-Balen. One of the food stalls bore a sign that read “Militär Landküche”; inside, a group of Swiss Army veterans wearing camouflage fatigues and crimson berets were cooking in a real-deal Swiss Army field kitchen. From giant iron vats perched in the back of the mobile kitchen trailer they ladled up a stew of beef, cabbage, and root vegetables in a thin but richly flavored broth. The dish was called spatz, and it was humbly served in a paper bowl, accompanied by a plain slice of brown bread on a paper napkin. Though I had been eagerly anticipating a feast of melted raclette, naturally, I had to try it. It was both unexpected and fascinating, an ideal pairing to the alpine red wines I’d tasted at the event.
This dish is simple, utilitarian fare meant for feeding a large group, and it’s deeply nourishing. Every male in Switzerland is required to serve in the military, so the stew is well-known throughout the country, with infinite variations based on the region and season. When I asked my friend Olivier Roten (who is a third-generation Valaisan winemaker of Caves du Paradis in Sierre) about the stew, he recalled eating it regularly from the standard-issue mess kit soldiers carry with them that features two compartments: one side for the stew and the other side for bread and other starchy sides. He explained that stews like this are not only ubiquitous in the military, but to Swiss cuisine in general—so much so that the word for the evening meal in French-speaking Switzerland is le souper, as opposed to le dîner, which is more commonly used in France.
I’ve read that spatz is a variation of French pot-au-feu, although certainly a less fussy one. I love it for its simplicity. Everything goes into one pot; a few hours later a meal ideal for the depths of winter emerges. It’s just the right kind of healthy eating for that post-holiday detox, without sacrificing flavor and satisfaction.
Swiss wines are wildly underrepresented in the United States, but do seek them out. Perhaps you’ve heard of Chasselas, called Fendant in the Valais, and its kinship to all things cheese, from fondue to raclette, but here’s an opportunity to try a Swiss red. Pinot Noir thrives in the Valais, where it grows in the terraced foothills of the Upper Rhône River Valley alongside Gamay and more rustic indigenous varieties like Humagne Rouge and Cornalin. I found Roten’s 2017 Avalanche Pinot Noir a delicious match to this recipe, with its characteristic silky-smooth texture and hints of holiday spice that mirror the clove and nutmeg found in the broth.