Switzerland lies in the middle of many giants of European cuisine, including France, Germany and Italy. Every Swiss person I’ve met speaks at least five languages fluently, and a week of researching their culinary traditions has convinced me that they treat their food with a similar sense of external acceptance and integration. Traditionally, Switzerland was dominated by farms, and so food was originally very rustic and relied on simple, home-grown ingredients. Due to the numerous dairy farms, Swiss food perhaps most famously includes superb chocolate and cheese. Wikipedia informs me that cheese-based dishes, such as fondue and raclette, were originally regional, but became popular after extensive promotion by the Swiss Cheese Union. I am inexplicably upset that the Swiss Cheese Union is not called the Swiss Cheese Board, but I guess they grate up against awful cheese-based puns on a daily basis and try to avoid them. Grate up against, get it? Too cheesy…?
Fondue and raclette are heavily cheese-based Swiss dishes. I felt like my stomach could only handle one of these this week, so I chose fondue, but raclette deserves an honourable mention. Raclette is actually a type of cheese fashioned into a big wheel. A specialised machine or open fire is used to melt an open side of the cheese wheel, and then the melted part is scraped off the top, onto some token vegetables like potato, gherkins and pickled onions or dried meat. Fondue, on the other hand, is more notorious in the English-speaking world, perhaps because the equipment and ingredients required are less complicated than for raclette. Fondue is a big pot of mixed melted cheese (such as gruyère, emmentaler and appenzeller) with white wine, garlic, corn starch and kirsch, which is a Swiss fruit brandy. At least in Australia, fondue enjoyed a cult following during the 70s, and every baby boomer I’ve spoken to reminisces on the exoticism it represented during that time. Although fondue was originally cheese-based, the name has now been extended to refer to dipping any solids in some variety of hot liquid, such as meat broth or chocolate. Fondue is commonly served on top of a small flame, as the cheese starts to solidify quickly and becomes difficult to dip into. It’s most traditional to serve fondue with pieces of sourdough bread, but, as you can imagine, many things can be dipped into cheese and be delicious, including raw and cooked vegetables. As you may have noticed from my picture, I took the opportunity to stuff myself with various vegetables – perhaps more than is usually served with a fondue, but nothing offsets artery-clogging quantities of molten cheese and wine like vegetables!
Züri gschnätzlets and rösti
Züri Gschnätzlets means “Zurich-style slices meat” in Swiss German, traditionally made by combining slices of veal with shallots and mushrooms in a sauce of white wine, parsley, lemon zest and cream. It often makes me laugh that where the Mediterranean or Latin America name their foods incredibly cryptic and colourful names, like “old clothes” or “chicken under the umbrella”, German-inspired names are wonderfully explicit and descriptive. The dish’s home city of Zurich is a stone’s throw from Germany, which is reflected in the heavy German flavours combined in the dish. Rösti are grated potato fritters, originally a breakfast dish of farmers, but now acceptable at any time of the day anywhere in Switzerland. The simplest rösti are formed solely by grated raw potato with a little salt and pepper and frying them with a little fat (such as butter), although other ingredients such as apple, bacon and herbs can be added depending on personal taste and regional tradition. Rösti, now widely considered the national dish of Switzerland, are commonly served as a side dish, or can even be dressed up to form the basis of an entire meal. Rösti are another dish with Germanic origins, hailing from the part of Switzerland closer to Germany. Indeed, rösti are so synonymous with the German-speaking part of Switzerland that the conceptual border between the French and German-speaking parts of the country is sometimes called the “röstigraben” (rösti ditch). I must confess, I was a ever so slightly disappointed that a rösti ditch didn’t describe a hole brimming with rösti, but I suppose the mountain I made myself will suffice for now. I served this decadent swathe of meat and potatoes with some token fresh sugar snap peas, which almost fooled me into supposing that the dish was good for me.
A Berner platte is a platter of varied boiled ingredients from the Swiss canton of Bern, in West-Central Switzerland. Common ingredients include pork belly, smoked beef, different varieties of sausage, pork tenderloin, juniper-flavoured sauerkraut, boiled potatoes and green beans. The dish is thought to have arisen from the 1798 Battle of Neuenegg, in which the Bernese were victorious against the French invaders. Apparently nobody was expecting the victory, because a victory feast had to be hurriedly cobbled together afterwards with whatever supplies the townspeople had on hand or in storage. This assortment of preserved meat and vegetables was consequently fondly remembered by the Bernese people, and eventually became a famous regional dish.
Bündner gerstensuppe and capuns
Büdner refers to people living in the eastern Swiss canton of Grisons (called Graübunden in German), while “gerstensuppe” is comprised of words means “barley” (gersten) and “soup” (suppe). The simple soup has many variations throughout the many small valleys of Grisons, and I cooked my version by first sautéing leeks, onions, carrots, celery and smoked bacon in butter, then adding bay leaves, cubed potatoes, pearl barley and stock. Once all of the ingredients are cooked, parsley and cream is mixed through to create a decadently rich and comforting concoction. Capuns are also from Grisons, and are reminiscent of the cabbage rolls so popular of eastern Europe. Instead of a minced meat filling, however, the dumpling-like filling is formed by a dough made with flour, eggs and milk (similar to spätzle dough), to which herbs (such as mint and chives) and finely chopped bacon, dried meat and/or sausage, and sometimes pieces of bread are added for flavour. This dough is then rolled up in lightly blanched chard leaves, and the little parcels are simmered in a broth of stock, sometimes combined with milk. Once cooked through, the capuns are carefully removed and served covered in grated cheese and pieces of dried meat. I found them to be a surprisingly innovative and delicious dish – I would have never thought to fill vegetable leaves with spiced dough, but it was incredibly simple and the combination of flavours astonishingly comforting and delicious. The chard used for capuns is often referred to as “Swiss chard” in the English speaking world, however, it is not native to Switzerland, so it’s unclear where this association stemmed from. Some say it may be due to early descriptions of the vegetable by Swiss botanist Gaspard Bauhin, although I have a competing hypothesis that capuns are so explosively delicious that they left an indelible mark on the history their primary ingredient.