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. I’ve previously had cheese fondue in a restaurant, and mine tasted very similar to that, but I always find the cheese a little strong to make up a whole meal. I used all three cheese varieties, so I’m still not sure exactly which of those I find too strong, but maybe I would prefer it if the ratios were adjusted to favour the less-strong cheeses, or if the strong fondue were served as a smaller appetiser rather than a main meal.
Rösti are grated potato fritters, originally a breakfast dish of farmers, but now acceptable at any time of the day anywhere in Switzerland. It’s commonly served as a side dish, or dressed up to be a meal in itself. This is a Germanic meal originating from the part of Switzerland closer to Germany. I made my rösti by grating raw potatoes, then frying them with some butter in patty shapes. I turned it into rösti Valaisanne by adding Swiss cheese and pieces of bacon on top, which, let’s face it, can only be an improvement. As far as I can tell, it’s called Valaisanne because the cheese on top is often raclette, which is from Valais. I served my rösti with a pickle, a rocket salad and tomatensalat, which consists of tomatoes, fresh herbs and onion, dressed in oil and vinegar.
Zürcher geschnetzeltes is a type of ragout that means “Zurich-style sliced meat”. As you might have guessed, it’s quite German-styled, both in the sound of its name and in its literal meaning. 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. Zürcher geschnetzeltes is made with thin strips of veal, sautéed and then added to a sauce of white wine, onion, garlic, mushrooms, parsley and stock, thickened with cream and flour. Sometimes kidney is also added to the meal, but I elected to stick with the traditional plain veal. I served my Zürcher geschnetzeltes with mashed potato and steamed broccoli. I love the combination of white wine, mushrooms and cream so much that it’s guarenteed I will enjoy a meal with those elements. Unsurprisingly, therefore, this was fabulous and very simple to make.
Swiss saffron risotto
Saffron risotto is perhaps better known to have originated from Milan, Italy than Switzerland. However, a region of Switzerland borders on Italy, and its inhabitants primarily speak Italian; Tincino is famous for its saffron risotto. My Milanese friend was mildly horrified that I had declared saffron risotto a part of Swiss week, but she quickly calmed down when I explained to her that it meant the existence of more saffron risotto in the world. It’s very difficult to find good saffron in Australia – mostly it exists in the form of long thin strands that don’t have a strong taste and that you ultimately need to fish out. Whenever friends go to Europe and ask me what to bring back, I therefore invariably request saffron. There, you can buy it very cheaply and in little parcels of deep red powder that are much more effective as a colourant and flavouring agent. I made the risotto by frying onion, bacon, garlic and thyme in butter, then stirring through arborio rice and saffron, then gently adding stock over a low heat. The first time I ever made risotto, many years ago, I had it in my head that the secret was constant stirring over the lowest heat possible. I’m not sure where I got that idea from, but I made a complete mess of it, as constant agitation of the rice resulted in a very glutinous texture, and also made me very hot and cranky after hours over the stove. After some gentle mocking, my Italian friends gave me the correct instructions, and my risottos have since become blessedly easier and more delicious. The secret is to not stir it too much at all – just enough so that it doesn’t burn and time will do the rest! I served my saffron risotto with a very generous topping of shaved parmesan and black pepper, which in my opinion can never detract from a dish.