It was the first snowy Sunday morning of the season as I drove up West Virginia Route 46 and pulled into the tiny town of Helvetia, population 59. Helvetia was settled by a small group of Swiss immigrants high in the West Virginia mountains just after the American Civil War. The isolation of Helvetia has certainly helped the residents continue many of their Swiss traditions, and I was there to enjoy one: the Bernerplatte buffet lunch at The Hutte Restaurant.
Arriving on a snowy morning was perfect as it added just that little extra touch of authenticity to my visit. I pulled off the highway and went for a wonderful walk around this small community. There are only a handful of buildings, but it felt like walking out of West Virginia and directly into the past in some far-off European mountain village. There were plenty of signs around to help explain the settling of the community and on a November Sunday morning I had the town all to myself.
I had a nice little wander, but it was pretty cold and the smoke curling out of the chimney of The Hutte was too inviting to put off any longer. When I walked in, I was warmly welcomed by the two ladies working there. They showed me to a table and aimed me in the direction of the Sunday buffet. The hodgepodge of serving dishes, pleasantly arranged around a dining room table were a wonderful sight to this cold and hungry traveler. I dug in. I started off with a salad, some pickles and pickled beets, cheese and wonderful home-baked bread. I don't know why we insist on adding sugar to our bread in America, but bread is not supposed to be sweet (and we really don't need the extra sugar in our diet). Their's was bread the way it was meant to be.
Moving on to the main table, the chicken and sausage were tender and delicious and the potatoes and vegetables were wonderful but my favorite part was the boelletuenne - a hot onion and cheese pie. One plate was enough for me, but I went back for seconds on the boelletuenne. Sitting there enjoying my Sunday lunch I felt like I was in someone's dining room, enjoying a home cooked meal. It was a wonderful feeling. Just when I thought it was coming to an end, the waitress arrived with the most delightful peach cobbler and a steaming hot cup of coffee.
Pleasantly satisfied and I'm sure with a warm glow surrounding me, I wandered over to the Kultur Haus to look at the Fasnacht masks. I would love to head back to Helvetia for Fasnacht, a pre-Lenten celebration in the tradition of Mardi Gras or Carnival. The townspeople don masks, drink beer, sing, dance and become whoever they want for the night. It's been moved from Fat Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday) back to the Saturday before so everyone can really get into the spirit and not worry about work the next day. The masks were wonderful.
There wasn't much else to see in this tiny town, so I packed into my van and wound my way down the mountain, back into modern-day West Virginia and out of the snow.
My rule number one when it comes to attracting tourism is be authentic, take what you have and own it. Tiny Helvetia is doing just that. The Sunday bernerplatte at The Hutte is a delicious and traditional home cooked meal in an authentic, unpretentious restaurant. And it is definitely my first must-have food experience in West Virginia. Come hungry and leave content. In French they would say Bon Appetit, and I believe in Swiss German it is En Guete!