Artisanal experiences in Switzerland

View to Storchen Zurich
View to Storchen Zurich

How a new initiative is joining the dots of the luxury travel experience throughout Switzerland.

On a cloudless summer’s day, Zurich is radiating joie de vivre. On its lake are white swans, kayaks, cruisers, sleek ferries and thousands of swimmers in red caps taking part in the annual 1,500-metre swim from one side of Lake Zurich to the other. Sun worshippers are packing the public baths on the lakefront.

Living in the moment? Everyone’s doing it.

So, it seems only right that an initiative optimising the experience of visitors to Switzerland is called The Living Circle. Building on the farm-to-fork philosophy, the enterprise embraces nine businesses — hotels, farms and restaurants — that create a warp and weft of luxury, nature and sustainability.

Jürg Schmid, chairman of The Living Circle and a former director of Switzerland Tourism, says: “There is no alternative to sustainability. The market will punish those who have not yet grasped this. Sustainability will still be a differentiation for the next 15 years, but soon it will be a matter of course and a market exclusion criterion.”

The portfolio of businesses is owned by the families of Gratian Anda and Franz Bührle. Its nucleus is Hotel Storchen and Restaurant Buech in Zürich; the Schlattgut dairy farm in Herrliberg; the Hotel Castello del Sole and its Rustico del Sole retreat in Ticino; and the Terreni alla Maggia estate in Ascona.

More recently added were the hotels Widder in Zürich and Alex Lake Zürich in nearby Thalwil. By 2024, the historic castle at Raymontpierre in Vermes, in the Jura region, will be restored and ready to receive visitors; it already has a working farm.

The merging of family business, and the addition of others, targets food-loving, luxury-loving, eco-conscious travellers who care deeply about how they experience travel.

Says Schmid, “We cook with regional products, produce many of them on our farms, pay attention to minimal CO2 emissions and consistently move towards zero plastic. Our guests love that.”

Making local produce the hero

The farms produce rice, vegetables, meat, wine, beer and gins, and dairy products. If the food in the various hotel dining rooms is not produced on one of the Living Circle farms, it is sourced from local providores identified on the menus.

We get a taste of how it all works at the 49-room, five-star Widder Hotel not far from Zürich’s famous Bahnhofstrasse, in the heart of the old town. Dating back to medieval times, the Widder became a hotel in 1995, cleverly connecting nine townhouses.

Ancient beams and stone walls are juxtaposed with mid-century furniture and futuristic lifts; original windows are set into larger, more modern windows, while thoughtful interior design plays with art and typography to create an edgy ambience. A library is both hotel hangout and waiting room (is that a pencil drawing by Giovanni Giacometti?). Pink hydrangeas flourish in a courtyard that has become a local summer hotspot.

Chef Stefan Heilemann was Gault&Millau’s Chef of the Year 2021. His restaurant has been awarded two Michelin stars. Swiss beef comes from the farm at Chateau de Raymontpierre, wild strawberries from the Schlattgut farm, and wild broccoli for risotto from Terreni Alla Maggia. Heilemann’s “Vegi” menu respects the push for a flexitarian diet, today’s part-time vegetarianism.

Movers and shakers

Presiding over the leather and oak Widder Bar is Matteo Moscatelli, named Best Swiss Bartender 2021. Moscatelli studied chemistry and takes a scientific approach to his cocktails, experimenting with, for example, banana skins to make syrup bases. Cocktails, he maintains, should be “pleasure trips” that have great stories behind them. This is not a bar for the indecisive, boasting 1200 spirits and 650 whiskies.

The French-style bistro, AuGust whose air-dried meats and signature sausage are farmed locally, is street front. The young Merlot Bianco we order comes from Terreni alla Maggia, 140 hectares of cultivated land in the communes of Ascona, Locarno and Gordola. It has crop fields, vineyards and fruit gardens. Unusually for Switzerland, it produces rice.

Ascona, the country’s southernmost canton, is where you find Castello del Sole, a lush, landscaped retreat. Named Hotel of the Year 2022 by the Gault&Millau restaurant guide, expect fine dining (Mattias Roock, head chef at Locanda Barbarossa, has received a rare green Michelin star), 2,500 square metres of spa seduction, a bird sanctuary, botanical gardens and an orchard. Rustico Del Sole is a private haven higher up the mountain for trysts or business debriefs.

Circular motion

Back in Zürich, at around 5:30pm outside the Storchen Hotel, queues are already forming for the rooftop bar, The Nest. Guests will be choosing between barbecued lobster and hot dogs served on nests of hay, and cocktails or homemade sugar-free lemonade.

By the River Limmat, people-watchers having breakfast, coffee or apéritifs can see who’s coming and going aboard the nine-metre motorboat, Alex, which whisks guests staying at the Widder or the Storchen to lunch at Alex Lake Zürich.

At Restaurant Alex, with its suntrap terrace, glistening lake and mountain views, Living Circle polenta is on the menu with forest mushrooms, mascarpone and a frothy shaving of summer truffles. Strawberry ice cream owes its rich flavour to the summer berry crop.

Alex Hotel Zürich was renovated in 2019. Each of its 42 studios soaks up a view of the sparkling lake and snow-capped alps. Alex Lake Zurich is heated and cooled by water piped from the lake.

The Living Circle network taps into local artisans experimenting with everything from organic farming and mould-curing meats to opulent hand-painted wall coverings and scent specialists such as Kukui, whose bespoke diffusions are the first thing you notice arriving at the Widder.

Where to next? “If a suitable operation approaches us, we are happy to check it out,” says Schmid. “But we are very selective. A business must be in the most beautiful location without compromise, our philosophy must be realisable, it must demonstrate hospitality in practice, and the quality must be top.”

The group recently took a stake in Andreas Caminada’s operations at Schloss Schauenstein, a boutique hotel and gourmet restaurant in remote Fürstenau, which won Sustainable Restaurant Award 2019 at The World’s 50 Best Restaurants.

“We can widen the circle,” says Schmid, “but we don’t have to.”

Susan Skelly flew to Zurich courtesy of Etihad Airways. Etihad connects to Zurich via Abu Dhabi three times a week from Sydney and four times a week from Melbourne.

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