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The Traveller's Guide To: Swiss food and drink
Whether you prefer sweet or savoury, there's lots to get your teeth into, says Cathy Packe
Saturday 26 February 2005
ALL CHEESE AND CHOCOLATE?
ALL CHEESE AND CHOCOLATE?
It is certainly true that cheese and chocolate are Switzerland's best-known culinary exports, but the country has also given the world muesli and meringues, not to mention Nescafé and Ovaltine. Although Swiss cuisine tends to be overshadowed by that of its neighbours, particularly France and Italy, the food is based on high-quality, locally produced ingredients.
The Swiss set a great deal of store by the origins of what they eat and, since 1997, the label AOC has been awarded to certain products as a guarantee of their quality, origins and methods of production.
I THOUGHT AOC WAS A WINE LABEL
In France, the AOC ( Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée) label is applied to wines, but in Switzerland it applies to food. Among the products which are entitled to call themselves AOC are several cheeses, including the Gruyère made in the village of Gruyères itself; Sbrinz, a strong, hard cheese often grated with pasta; and Tête de Moine, a cheese originating in Bellelay in the Jura mountains. Instead of being cut, the top is removed and it is scraped with a special knife, known as a girolle, and served in rosettes to release the flavour. Other AOC products include the schnapps made from Williams pears and a rye bread from the Valais.
WHAT ABOUT FONDUE?
Fondue is a traditional winter dish; no Swiss person would consider eating it in the summer. It is the ideal food for everyone to share - if more people turn up, all that is needed are a few extra forks to spear the cubes of bread. The origins of fondue are the subject of several competing legends. One has it that a 13th-century monk from the Fribourg region was spending some time in the monastery of Montserrat, near Barcelona. He took with him some cheese from his local region and melted it, thus - or so he believed - getting around the rules of the church that decreed that no one could eat full-fat cheese during Lent.
WHAT SORT OF CHEESE DO THE SWISS USE FOR FONDUE?
One version of fondue is made from Vacherin Mont-d'Or, a soft cheese with lots of flavour which is made in the Vallée de Joux, in the Jura mountains, from the end of September until April. It has a pale orangey rind, the rim of which is wrapped in bark; the whole cheese is then encased in a box made of thin fir wood. It should be eaten at room temperature, and is often served with hot potatoes. To turn it into a fondue, the lid is removed and the base wrapped in foil. A glass of white wine is then poured in through the crust and the whole thing is baked in a hot oven. But there are plenty of variations on this recipe.
Restaurants often serve a fondue moitié-moitié - half and half - which consists of a mixture of Vacherin Fribourgeois, a semi-hard cheese, and grated Gruyère, melted together. Others would insist that the essential ingredients for the dish are a mixture of Gruyère and Emmental.
Fondue ("melted") is traditionally made in a pot known as a caquelon, which is placed over a small flame. The only thing to add to the cheese is a glass of white wine and, possibly, a dash of kirsch.
WHAT ABOUT RACLETTE?
This is another simple cheese dish which, in its purest form, consists of melted cheese and potatoes. The cheese used is also called raclette, a semi-soft cheese which originated in the Valais region of southern Switzerland, and in the Bernese Oberland, but which is now produced all over the country. It is produced in large rounds, which are cut in half; the cut side is held over a stove, or a traditional raclonnette, until it melts. The melted cheese is then scraped from the surface (the French verb racler means "to scrape off"). The dish is served with small potatoes, boiled and kept warm in a covered basket. Pickled onions and gherkins are often served as an accompaniment.
TELL ME ABOUT THE REGIONAL SPECIALITIES
There are plenty of variations in the food according to which part of Switzerland you visit. In the German-speaking area, where evening meals tend to be eaten early and portions are large, the emphasis is on sausages and veal. A typical dish is Zürcher Geschnetzeltes: strips of veal which are sautéed, finished in a creamy sauce and served with rösti. This tasty potato concoction was originally a breakfast dish, but is now usually served as an accompaniment to a main course. It is hardly difficult to prepare: potatoes are grated and then fried until they are golden-brown. But modern cooks often buy packets of grated potato from the supermarkets to cut down on the preparation time.
Meringues also come from this region, taking their name from the town of Meiringen, close to the waterfalls from which Sherlock Holmes fell. Other sweet delicacies in this part of Switzerland include läckerli, a hard, chewy biscuit from Basel, made from a sweet mixture of honey, nuts and spices; go to the Läckerli Huus (00 41 61 264 23 23; www.laeckerli-huus.ch) at Gerbergasse 57 if you want to taste or buy the genuine article.
Further south in the Ticino, the cuisine is heavily influenced by that of northern Italy, so pasta and polenta are popular staples, washed down with red wine made from locally grown Merlot grapes. This is also an important chestnut-growing region; in winter, hot chestnuts from the Ticino are sold on street corners in towns and cities all over Switzerland.
Specialities in the French-speaking part of the country include lake fish, such as perch and pike, and other local fish such as omble chevalier and féra. Another regional speciality is papet vaudois, a mixture of leeks and potatoes mashed together and served with a pork and cabbage sausage.
WILL I GET A DECENT GLASS OF WINE?
Switzerland produces more than a hundred million litres of wine each year, but few people get to try them unless they go to the country, as only 1 per cent is exported. More than 50 varieties of grape are grown, of which the main ones are Chasselas, which is turned into a white wine known as Fendant, Perlan or Neuchâtel, according to exactly where it is grown; and Pinot Noir and Gamay for red wine. For the first time last year, the production of red wine was slightly greater than that of white.
Most wine is grown in French-speaking Switzerland, principally in the cantons of Valais and Vaud along the shores of Lake Geneva, which between them form a bigger area than California's Napa Valley. The wine-making process is very traditional; the steep terraces on which many of the vines are grown mean that most of the grapes have to be harvested by hand. During the harvest, many of the village roads are closed, and everyone comes out to lend a hand. Wine trails through the various regions are clearly signposted, among them the Lavaux trail (00 41 21 721 24 24; www.ovv.ch), designed for cyclists and hikers, which starts at the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, and ends at Villeneuve, at the far eastern end of Lake Geneva. The Valais region, which produces more wine than any other, includes the highest vineyard in Europe - Visperterminen, near Zermatt (00 41 27 948 00 48; www.visperterminen.ch) - as well as the smallest in the world, Saillon (00 41 27 743 11 88; www.saillon.ch), near Martigny, which contains only three vines. The wine produced here is added to other wine from the region and auctioned for charity.
I'VE GOT A SWEET TOOTH
Chocolate became popular in Europe during the 17th century, when the wife of the French king, Louis XIII, who was brought up in Spain, introduced a chocolate drink to the French court. But it was the production of solid chocolate 200 years later, originally in Italy, which really caught on. Many people travelled to Italy to learn the new art of chocolate production, among them Francois-Louis Cailler, who established a production facility at Vevey on Lake Geneva. Others, including Philippe Suchard, Rodolphe Lindt, Jean Tobler and Henri Nestlé, followed him, returning to Switzerland to produce their own chocolate, whose qualities owe a great deal to the pure Swiss milk with which it is made. The Swiss have certainly taken chocolate to their hearts: on average, each Swiss citizen eats around 11 kilos of the stuff each year, twice as much as we manage ourselves. The Cailler brand is still in existence, although it is now part of Nestlé, and the chocolate is produced in the village of Broc, north-east of Vevey. Visitors are not allowed on to the factory floor, but they are welcome to tour the plant (00 41 26 921 51 51; www.cailler.ch) between May and October. Visits take place 9-11am and 1.30-4pm from Tuesday to Friday, and also on Monday afternoons; they cost SFr 4 (£1.75), although children under 16 get in free. The visit consists of a film about the history of chocolate production and an explanation of the various production processes - roasting, milling and conching, which gets rid of the acidity in the beans - followed by a tasting of Cailler's extensive range. There is also an opportunity to buy chocolate at the Cailler shop, which offers 20 per cent discounts on regular prices. It opens 10am-5pm from Monday to Friday.
WHERE CAN I EAT OUT IN STYLE?
Switzerland has a number of restaurants with Michelin stars, and a host of renowned chefs, of which the best-known is probably Fredy Girardet. Now retired, he is acclaimed as one of the chief Swiss exponents of nouvelle cuisine. Other celebrated chefs include Philippe Rochat, whose restaurant is the Hotel de Ville in Crissier (00 41 21 634 05 05; www.relaischateaux.ch), Bernard Ravet at L'Ermitage in Vufflens-Le-Château (00 41 21 804 68 68; www.ravet.ch) and Gérard Rabaey at Le Pont de Brent on the Route de Blonay in Brent, near Montreux (00 41 21 964 52 30; www.lepontdebrent.com).
But Switzerland also has many restaurants where the emphasis is on simple food in cosy surroundings. Wander through the old centre of Basel, with eateries set up in the old guild buildings, once the home of medieval craftsmen; there, look out for Zur Schuhmachernzunft on the first floor at Hutgasse 6 (00 41 61 261 20 91), or Schlüsselzunft at Freiestrasse 25 (00 41 61 261 20 46).
In the wine regions of the Valais and the Vaud, expect to find a decent restaurant in each village, serving local specialities, accompanied by the wines of the village, usually with panoramic views over the vineyards; if you are in the Lake Geneva area, try the Relais de la Poste at Route de Cretaz 10 in Grandvaux (00 41 21 799 16 33). In the Ticino, the tradition is for grottoes, country restaurants which often have a shaded outdoor terrace and which serve simple food, with home-cured hams, local cheeses and plenty of local wine.
SWISS CHOCOLATE TRAIN
Every Wednesday from June to October, and every Monday in July and August, an elegant belle-époque-style train (00 41 21 989 81 90; www.mob.ch) runs from Montreux station to the villages of Gruyères and Broc. The train leaves at 9.30am, returning to Montreux at 5.40pm, and the trip includes a stop at the cheese factory at Gruyères, followed by a tour and tasting at the Cailler-Nestlé factory at nearby Broc. Tickets cost SFr75 (£33), although discounts are available if you have any of the Swiss railway travel cards, and can be bought at any station.
Muesli was created by Dr Bircher, a Swiss dietician, at his diet clinic in 1887. Since then it has become a Swiss tradition, known as Bircher-Muesli. It is usually prepared the night before it is eaten, rather than thrown together at the last minute with ingredients poured out of a packet as we would do. The real Swiss version is more likely to include yoghurt, and sometimes cream, rather than milk; fresh fruit is also an important component. And while in this country we would be unlikely to eat muesli at any time other than breakfast, in Switzerland it can also be eaten as a light evening snack.
And why are 'southern' ways of speaking spreading north?
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