Roland Heuberger sits among the giants in the forest of “God Ruinas”, just above St. Moritz. Among larches, spruces and Swiss stone pines. One of the latter lies on the ground before him, felled by nature. Autumn has already turned some of the needles brown. This is not the ideal time: normally Roland would come in spring, when the Swiss stone pine trees are still fresh and lush green. When the rain from the previous day is still in the air, and the sun’s rays try with all their might to evaporate the tiny drops from the twigs. And then Roland, with birds singing all around him, would disappear into his own world. He would listen to Phil Collins through his headphones, or maybe AC/DC, to evoke youthful memories, and cut twig after twig from the fallen pine. Today, however, it takes more dexterity and patience to pick out the green needles, which fall one by one into the paper bag between his knees. If you did not know better, you might think Roland was mad.
In fact Roland Heuberger is a butcher, and always has been. His grandfather took over the butcher’s and meat drying facility in St. Moritz in 1946, which had been producing Graubünden air dried meat since 1906. In those days this was the largest meat-drying plant in Graubünden. Ever since his grandfather acquired the business, it has remained in the hands of the Heuberger family. From a young age, Roland would flit around the butcher’s, giving a hand where needed, even though at times he would rather have been playing football. But for boosting pocket money, he found that doing the vacuuming and hanging up sausages wasn’t so bad after all, and he would even be rather proud when he was allowed to operate the grill at the market. He wanted to be a butcher himself one day, he knew that ever since he was little. Eventually he did his apprenticeship in Davos and then worked in St. Gallen, where he also met his future wife, Anita. He did not actually want to return to the Engadin, he wanted to travel the world and work for Anita’s uncle in Canada. But fate had other plans in store.
When one day he received a call from his father saying he did not have enough staff at the business in St. Moritz, Roland did not need long to decide what to do. He was 20 years old at the time – the same age as his youngest son, David, today. From one day to the next, he became responsible for the boning section at the butcher’s: no easy matter, with five butchers all aged between 60 and 65. The experience cannot have been too bad, though, because Roland stayed. Today, he and his two siblings run the business. While Roland is responsible for production and the shop, his brother Erich looks after hotel clients, deliveries and purchases, and his sister Marianne takes care of administration, alongside Roland’s wife.
The fact that Roland is now sitting in the middle of the forest collecting pine needles is down to his son, David – who is also following in the footsteps of his father, grandfather and great-grandfather. Two years ago, however, David was still studying at the commercial
college in Chur, racking his brains together with his fellow students trying to figure out what kind of mini-company they could set up for their final-year project. The big idea eventually emerged at the Heubergers’ home, around a kitchen table big enough to seat a family of seven: cured sausages flavoured with Swiss stone pine and hemp. And that was the beginning of the brand “Salzin Engiadinais”.
But first back to the cured sausages. The idea was to make something unusual: a long, thin sausage, handy as a snack for out and about, like Switzerland’s popular Minipics, but premium quality. Roland loved the idea and supported his son, offering his knowledge, facilities and the necessary utensils. Roland would never admit – he is too modest – but without him, the idea would probably never have made it through to production. It took quite a few hours of fiddling and a lot of work before the sausage would be ready for the shop counter.
While it soon became clear that the way to make the hemp sausage would be with roasted hemp seeds, the Swiss stone pine version needed more experimentation. First attempts
similarly involved the tree’s seeds, but the final flavour did not appeal. Essential oil from the tree was also ruled out, because it blended poorly with the meat, so that some parts of the sausage did not taste of Swiss stone pine at all, while others tasted too strongly of the essential oil. It took the tree’s needles to do the trick: the sausage was full of favour and almost melted in the mouth like a piece of tender fillet steak. And every bite on a finely chopped piece of pine needle released the unmistakable aroma of Swiss stone pine.
Roland was delighted with the results, and so were the clientele. The students’ sales went well – so well that they were even able to pay out a profit at the end of the project. And that is where he story was due to end, because the students wound up the mini-company after a year. But as the sausages had gone down so well, and because Roland enjoys trying out new and even slightly crazy ideas alongside traditional and proven recipes, he wanted to continue producing the sausages. The minicompany gave him the rights, and the story started a new chapter. Last summer, no fewer than 1,500 pairs of sausages were sold every month – an incredible number for such a small sausage.
Nowadays Roland often sits in the forest, for hours at a time; sometimes together with his wife. He cuts the needles from the twigs. Later he will wash them, chop them up in his old food processor, dry them and freeze them. As the mixer works its magic, the aroma of Swiss stone pine will spread through the cool and sterile rooms of the meat processing plant. Eventually, the needles will be blended with the chopped meat, salt, sugar and spices, and the mixture filled into casings of sheep intestine. The nearly-finished sausages will then be stored in the cold smoking room for four days, briefly smoked, and dried for a week. For now, however, Roland is still working with the scissors. As the needles fall from his fingers and rustle in the paper bag, he starts to talk about his next project: a boiled sausage flavoured with Swiss stone pine. It might mean he would have to spend a few more hours in the forest. One thing is clear: he would be more than happy to.