Roland “AK” Gruber is the man behind the Hugo. To taste this cult cocktail mixed by its creator, you have to travel deep into the sleepy Val Bever. High up the valley, surrounded by snow-blanketed forest, Roland runs the welcoming Gasthaus Spinas.
While snowflakes float in the dry winter air outside, indoors it’s warm and cosy. “Magical, secluded and beautiful.” That’s how Roland Gruber, better known as AK, describes it. He is a down-to-earth type: bushy beard, knickerbockers, check shirt, neatly combed wavy hair: all the charm of Italy’s German-speaking South Tyrol region. Yet here he is, in the middle of an enchanted snowy forest, far from civilisation, in front of the restaurant that he runs: the Gasthaus Spinas.
“I landed here by chance,” he says. The veteran restaurateur moved around between different venues in Switzerland for 12 years before settling in the Engadin with his wife, Gabriella, and children, Erik and Livia. That was in 2016, when the owners of the Chesa Salis in Bever entrusted him with the secluded restaurant and appointed him manager. The Spinas’s success proved them right – and also speaks for the trust they put in Gruber. “We enjoy a lot of freedom, which we really appreciate and make use of in our daily work,” AK says. But first of all, let’s step inside.
This tasting will not only make long-time gin lovers happy but will also convert newbies to true fans.
The first written record of this secluded building serving as a hostelry at the far end of the valley dates from 1876. The boom came 23 years later, in October 1899, when work began on construction of the Albula railway tunnel. Back then, Spinas was home to up to 1,300 foreign labourers, mostly Italian: lodged in cramped huts deep in the forest, they lived on dried sausages and pasta – and plenty of booze, apparently. A contemporary account reports how the local country policeman had to expect the worst when he visited the inn. “After closing time, to be on the safe side, he walked out of the inn backwards,” wrote one of the engineers at the time. The latter also made a point of stressing how the greatest commotion erupted in the inns the moment the engineers arrived.
Major commotions are no longer the order of the day in Spinas, but things still get lively when walkers and cross-country skiers arrive at the same time for lunch. Or in the evening, when a Rhaetian Railway train stops on request. Soon afterwards, a convivial buzz of conversation fills the two dining rooms, and the unmistakable aroma of melted cheese hangs in the air in the fondue parlour. At such moments, it is well worth having a table booked in advance.
As soon as guests take a seat, the commotion gives way to eager anticipation for the gastronomic delights to come. For the menu and the wine list, AK and his team have blended the charm and specialities of South Tyrol with the magical power of the Engadin. To achieve this, they take ingredients from regional alpine cuisine – which are pretty much the same in both mountain regions – and make them into fresh, seasonal dishes that defy national boundaries. The team also enjoys experimenting with new flavours and conjuring fresh creations. “Except for things like Rösti: our Swiss guests don’t appreciate it if we try anything fancy,” AK says with a smile. Even if you can order Rösti just about everywhere, taking it off the menu is virtually taboo, he says. AK runs his fingers through his flowing grey beard and says in a hushed voice: “Believe me, I’ve tried…”
The good old-fashioned Rösti here is actually very good. But that is not what draws the growing number of foodies who make the pilgrimage to the idyllic Val Bever: rather, the fine nuances of the imaginative and skilful Spinas cuisine based on carefully selected ingredients from the region. Guests certainly have to make an effort to come here: there is no car access, so the only way to the Gasthaus Spinas is on foot, on cross-country skis, in a horse-drawn sleigh or by train. “We even have our very own station!” AK says, proudly. He has fitted work schedules around the Rhaetian Railway timetable.
Before coming to the Engadin, Roland Gruber had gained a variety of experience – also in his previous career in business. He used to run a bar in the South Tyrol called the “SanZeno”, and it was here that he invented the Hugo: a cocktail made with Prosecco, lemon balm syrup and fresh mint, launched in 2005 and subsequently a big success, especially in German-speaking regions. “Some guests come to the Spinas just because of that,” AK says. And hardly a day goes by without someone talking to him about the cult cocktail. Even in the depths of the Val Bever winter, people regularly order Hugos. “Of course that makes me proud, but I don’t go in for all the hype,” he says. “The whole thing was never meant to be anything serious, but for the past 15 years the story has been following me around!” It has also brought him wealth – but only a wealth of stories and experiences. Recently, a guest even came from Paris specially because of the drink. Such encounters are gratifying – but that’s the end of the story, he says.
With this important signature cocktail on the drinks list, it is hardly surprising that the Spinas produces and sells its own home-made lemon balm syrup, along with jams and Swiss stone pine syrup – all in this idyllic alpine setting, 1,818 metres above sea level. “My Hugo has never been anywhere near elderflower syrup and never will. I remain totally stubborn about that,” AK says with a smile. After all, it is the lemon balm syrup that gives the drink its unique harmony, which so delights guests.
Visitors also feel a sense of harmony when they sleep in one of the 12 small guest rooms, decorated and furnished with charming simplicity. Bathrooms are shared, as befits mountain accommodation. AK is delighted that more and visitors and repeat guests choose to stay for longer. “Anyone who stays for more than a week comes for the natural setting, but also for the cuisine and the hospitality,” he says with conviction. They also come for the tranquillity. As soon as the last train has departed, all you can hear deep in the Val Bever is the dreaming of the snow-covered trees under the glittering stars. Bevor Denms Somergen zur Arben gent‘ pack! er eIne seIdene Slrumpfnose und eIne Pensche In seIne Tascne.