Mont-PÃ¨lerin, Switzerland: The Country Manor & The Cable Car (1st of 6 parts)
Vevey, Switzerland: The Old Town, A Great Big Fork, & Charlie Chaplin (2nd of 6 Parts)
Vevey, Switzerland: The Market & The Museum ”“ 2 Photo Essays (3rd of 6 Parts)
Lausanne, Switzerland: Up The Hills & Fondue for Two (4th of 6 parts)
Geneva, Switzerland: The Smallest Big City In Europe (5th of 6 parts)
Fondue x Four: Food in Switzerland (Last of 6 parts)
There are few, if any, hard and fast rules for (cheese) fondue. After all, the dish gets its name from the French word fondre, “to melt,” and was originally Swiss cheese melted in dry white wine. Traditional Swiss caquelons (ceramic pots) are suitable receptacles for cheese and chocolate fondues. Fondue must be stirred throughout the heating and eating process ”“ it prevents the mixture from curdling and/or worse, burning. My first fondue feast in Switzerland has me desperately hailing the server begging her, in my broken French, to please extinguish what I perceive to be an overly enthusiastic flame. Coolly assessing my situation, the woman makes a vigorous stirring motion with her wrist declaring, ”Malaxez le fromage! Malaxez!” (“Stir the cheese! Stir!”)
In my seven-day stay in Switzerland, I have fondue four times. It’s not a dish that I can tire of. After all, who doesn’t like melted cheese? But cheese isn’t the only thing the Swiss eat. Depending on where one goes in Switzerland, the locals will be speaking French (in the west), German (predominates in the north, east, and center), or Italian (in the south). It’s because of these closely linked linguistic lines that result in a confluence of cuisine. Hence, pasta and risotto co-exist comfortably on the same menu with strudel, fondue, and sausages.
Language differences aside, all Swiss are linked by their love for salads, cheese, and bread. Low or no-carbohydrate diets are non-existent here. Definitely my kind of place, yes. Nouvelle cuisine is frowned upon, or at least looked on with some degree of suspicion, and establishments serving international cuisine are almost exclusively located in the big cities like Zurich and Geneva. Most Swiss restaurants are homely, serving classic, traditional food, like Café Au Bon Vin, a family-run restaurant in Chardonne that my Bin and I like so much that we eat there twice.
The man of the house is very proud of the sausages he makes, even going to the extent of showing us his rows of sausages drying in the back room. We eagerly order the saucisse et rÃ¶esti (sausage and rÃ¶esti) along with a traditional cheese fondue made with Emmenthal and Gruyere. It’s a meal that illustrates the Swiss culinary dictates that sausages are legion and potatoes are practically compulsory.
The fondue arrives first and as my Bin and I settle into dunking chunks of bread into the cheesy, molten mass, the sausage ”“ horseshoe shaped and intimidating — (“how will we ever finish this?”) — makes its debut. The restaurant owner tells us, in his carefully pronounced English that we “must be careful when cutting into sausage.” Seeing tufts of steam evaporating into the air, we gingerly pierce the sausage’s exterior with the tip of a knife and are instantly rewarded with a pool of juice oozing from its insides, rivers of salty brine. On cue, my mouth waters.
French food and wine critic André Simon (1877-1970) once described sausages as “tasty little bags of mystery,” and that, truly, is what they are. Resolutely robust and teeming with porcine gloriousness tinged with just a hint of pepper and smoke, the meat tumbles from its casing with gentle prodding. With discreet glances at the Swiss couple beside us, my Bin follows their lead and scrapes off the meat, leaving the skin on the plate. I, a proud member of the clean-plate-club, devour the sausage, caul (sausage skin) and all. Eaten alternately with bites of rÃ¶esti, we are transported into a utopia from which we don’t want to return.
Café Au Bon Vin
1803 Chardonne, Switzerland
Fondue has one final reward for its devotees, the golden brown crust (tutong) that covers the bottom of the pan known as la croute, or more reverently as la religieuse. For those who understand the wonder of such things, it’s an honor to scrape this crust off with the fondue forks, a crispy finale.
A not-so-traditional but fairly common fondue found in Switzerland is tomato (cheese) fondue. Seeded tomato chunks are softened in a hot pot along with olive oil, garlic, and onions. Perhaps some tomato puree will be added as well for that delightfully rosy hue before adding the requisite cheeses and white wine. It’s this that my Bin and I have at a small café in the heart of Geneva’s Old Town, a small café called Le Boel. Called Fondue ProvenÃ§ale, it’s just as creamy and irresistible as the traditional cheese fondue with an added taste element of thyme. Délicieux!
We also have their steak beurre maison, a thick cut with potato frites, but the meat is tough and dry ”“ it’s the only “bad” food we encounter on this trip. Perhaps knowing that the Swiss generally eat twice more pork than beef should have tipped me off on this one.
Le Boel is also the only restaurant we find in Switzerland that serves le fondue chocolat, chocolate fondue. It’s well known that the Swiss are the world champions in chocolate consumption ”“ an impressive 10.5 kilos (23 lbs.) per person per year. That comes out to about one regular-sized chocolate bar per person, per day! I must say however that I don’t know where or when they eat all this chocolate because for the entire time I’m in Switzerland, I don’t see too many people walking around munching chocolate. Yes, there’s chocolate everywhere, but not too many people eating it in plain sight.
When it comes to chocolate fondue, it seems that the whole world loves it ”“ except for the Swiss. Despite their love for all things chocolate, they draw the line at chocolate fondue, which they consider an aberration, as well as “too much work,” according to the waiter at Le Boel. Who has the time really, to slice and dice fruits anyway? Still, to have chocolate fondue in Switzerland is immensely gratifying, never mind that the chocolate is a little too dark and bitter for me. I find myself missing the Toblerone fondue atOld Swiss Inn.
Le Boel, Café-Restaurant
4 Tour du Boel
1204 Geneva, Switzerland
I’ve mentioned in a previous post about the magnificence that is the Swiss tomato. Its purity of flavor and juiciness is enough to make me weep at the reality that I can’t bring any back home with me. I savor these tomatoes perfumed in olive oil and mozzarella cheese dotted with basil leaves (photographed here “ninja style” at a self-service buffet)…
… as well as in this roasted vegetable sandwich I have at a café overlooking Lake Geneva…
… and again in a gyro at a kebab place in Vevey.
When it comes to coffee, Switzerland is no different from any other country. The Swiss love their coffee, and I come to love something they call café renversée, a frothy, French-style café au lait that revivifies and cuts through the chilly air.
Our last day in Switzerland is my birthday, and to celebrate, my Bin and I have le pique-nique (picnic) at the waterfront in Vevey. We buy a little of all the foods I love: a thick baguette possessing an insistent, irresistible smell of wheat; sharp cheddar and aged Gruyere; millefeuilles with custard dribbling down its sides; Schweppes citrus drinks that my Bin has grown inordinately fond of on this trip; and a roasted pepper and olive “pizza” layered on puff pastry.
In the coolness of noon on my special day, I hear the occasional chirp of birds and the wind kissing our cheeks. Occasionally, a gutsy pigeon approaches to nab any stray crumbs (there are many) that fall to the ground. In between crunchy bites of his millefeuille (my Bin), and my wrestling with the baguette’s chewy crust (me), we talk softly about our trip and the special memories that we’re taking home, experiences that are already giving me heimweh (“homesickness”) for Switzerland.