HELVETIA — Clara Lehmann hugged a gray recipe box close to her chest and smiled.
“This is special,” she said running her fingers through the box of hand-written recipes passed on through the generations in her family.
The contents of the box are a well-kept family secret.
And if you want to try some of them, you’ll have to travel to Helvetia, a small Swiss village in the mountains of Randolph County.
At the center of the small town (population 59 by the last count) stands the Hutte, a Swiss-German restaurant originally owned by Lehmann’s late grandmother, Eleanor Fahrner Mailloux.
Lehmann, donning a traditional Swiss skirt and blouse, spent Saturday working at the Hutte for the town’s biggest annual celebration: Fasnacht.
Fasnacht is the pre-Lenten tradition of burning Old Man Winter. The town — and hundreds of guests from across the state and the country — come together for the event each year on the Saturday before Ash Wednesday, which is Wednesday.
Similar to Mardi Gras, or fat Tuesday, Fasnacht is a celebration filled with food, music and dancing. The festival has roots in the Swiss Winterfest.
“It’s exciting for us,” Lehmann said. “We’ve kind of been in hibernation mode, generally. This year has been kind of mild weather. Helvetia is kind of one those places that’s really free but sometimes suffocating. You’re in this little ravine and you don’t get out much. If the weather is really bad, you don’t get out for a week or two.
“All of a sudden the colors come. The influx of people. It’s fresh and new. Everyone’s happy and excited and little bit drunk,” Lehmann said, laughing.
“There’s just this happy atmosphere of, ‘I love you, and I’m so glad that winter is almost over.’ I think that’s my favorite part. There’s just this feeling of freedom in expression but combined with this feeling of almost being emaciated until that point.”
There were no worries about being emaciated Saturday in Helvetia.
Before a night filled with dancing, music and the burning of an effigy of Old Man Winter, locals and guests alike gathered at the Hutte.
The restaurant, which was built in the early 1900s, was filled with burning wood stoves, hungry guests and a bustling staff for the festival.
The Hutte served its Sampler Platter for Fasnacht guests. The platter is a smaller version of the restaurant’s famed Sunday buffet.
The dish included the Hutte’s sausage, a family tradition made with secret ingredients.
“It’s our very own sausage,” Lehmann said. “Some of it’s secret, but it’s a pork sausage with a red sauce. Lots of ingredients. A laundry list of ingredients.”
The platter also included a traditional bratwurst, green beans, sauerkraut, applesauce, parsley potatoes and an onion quiche known as Bolleflade.
The dish also included a curry chicken with a sweet and spicy curry pineapple on top.
Serving curry chicken might seem strange for Swiss Germans, Lehmann admitted, but it’s a testament to Mailloux, her grandmother.
Mailloux, who was known as “Mutter” to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, traveled to Asia often, Lehmann said. There, she discovered a love for the spices and flavors, which inspired dishes like her curry chicken.
For dessert, guests enjoyed a homemade peach cobbler before they went off for a night of dancing.
“The Hutte is kind of like the hub. We are in the center of town,” Lehmann said. “It’s kind of nice. We feel like the passageway to happy bellies and happy hearts. It’s a good feeling to see people come and eat, clean their plate and go out. They’ll have a good night.”
The kitchen at the Hutte is a well-oiled machine. Family by blood and “family by association” gathered Saturday in the kitchen to feed the masses for Fasnacht.
It’s second nature for the group of women running the show.
Everyone knows his or her duty and what needs to be done, and no one stops working until everyone has been fed.
“Everybody here is very kind,” Lehmann said. “The staff enjoys feeding people. We like to see people enjoy our food. There’s a feeling of ownership, whether you own it or not. There’s a pride with that.”
Swiss artifacts — both collected and donated to the Hutte — hung on the walls and sat on display throughout the restaurant.
The Hutte is very intimate, making guests feel like they’re enjoying a meal at grandma’s house.
For Lehmann, who grew up inside the restaurant and now lives on the floor above it with her husband and twin daughters, Fasnacht is a celebration of the town she loves — and it’s a celebration of her grandmother.
Lehmann went away for college and then moved to Chicago after graduating. She and her husband own a post-production company that they run out of Helvetia — a place she hopes to stay for years to come.
“Eleanor, my grandmother, she trained every single one of us to wash dishes, launder the dirty napkins. We didn’t all learn how to cook certain foods, but we all are very familiar with the processes. There are three of us in the family that are very familiar with the recipes. Waitressing, serving, cleaning the Beekeeper Inn — we’ve all done that from age 12 on,” she said.
“We all spread our wings and go away for a while. Some of us return home and continue to help. I feel very lucky to have done it. When I left here, a piece of me was missing. I couldn’t wait to get back.”
After a meal at the Hutte, festival-goers wandered over to the Helvetia Star Band Hall for drinks and music.
Fasnacht traditionally features a masked parade to the community hall, where guests enjoy a night of dancing before burning Old Man Winter.
Guests enjoyed snacks and homemade doughnuts while at the dance, prepared for the “farming women,” Lehmann said.
The homemade masks are large and often frightening and artistic. Masks this year ranged from Nemo, from the movie “Finding Nemo,” to unrecognizable monsters.
At midnight, the effigy of Old Man Winter was cut down from the ceiling of the Community Hall, carried on the shoulders of the celebrants to the bonfire outside and burned to signal the end of winter
At the end of the night, festival-goers gathered around the fire and sang John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” before turning in for the night.
“We can enjoy the fun elements like today,” Lehmann said. “I feel very lucky.”
The Hutte’s Bolleflade (Onion Pie)
2 cups flour
1/4 cup butter
1 package of yeast and few drops of milk
1/4 tsp salt
2 lbs onion chopped fine
1/4 lb bacon cubed and lean
1/2 pint sour or sweet cream
2 tbsp flour
1/2 tsp salt
Work dough like bread dough. Let rise, then roll out and place in large form. Let rise, briefly then put in filling.
Toss bacon cubes and chopped onions in frying pan until floppy, not yellow. Mix cream and eggs, bacon, onions, flour and salt well. Spread on dough and bake at 350 degrees until crust is golden and filling has set. Serve hot.