A Swiss culinary journey

Published on page 24 of the Weekender section (now known as Star.Weekend) of The Star in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
March 30, 2002

You will discover, as I did, that eight days are hardly enough to uncover the many hidden pleasures that Switzerland has to offer.

Switzerland is, of course, famous for its breathtaking view of the Alps, the invigorating mountain air, the exciting winter sports and some of the finest hiking trails in the world.

However, those in search of more sedentary pursuits will certainly not be disappointed: gourmets and gourmands alike will be delighted by the variety of hearty Swiss cuisine which has nurtured the rosy complexions and stout constitutions you find here.

Swiss cuisine draws upon the cuisines of the countries it borders: there is a hint of French, German and Italian in every dish. Undoubtedly because of the quality of the soil, the freshness of the air and water, there is a certain wholesome quality entirely unique to this melting pot.

The first morning in Switzerland saw me in the tiny reception of the minimalistic Hotel Scheuble in Zurich, smelling the coffee from the nearby dining area. We sat down to coffee with hot milk and crisp golden croissants for a traditional Continental breakfast. Swiss breakfasts are healthy affairs with baskets of fresh bread, home-made preserves, fruit salad, cold cuts, and of course, Swiss cheese — savoury slabs of Brie, Gruyere, Camembert and my personal favourite, Appenzeller cheese. Finally, a satisfying way to end one’s breakfast is with a hot cup of frothy chocolate.

Our first culinary stop was a fascinating restaurant named the Zeughauskeller (The Armoury), aptly named for its interesting collection of weaponry, from mediaeval helmets and halberds to 1920s’ machine guns. The restaurant is situated in an historic building which is said to have housed William Tell’s crossbow and the weapons personally carried by Swiss reformer Zwingli in 1848. The Zeughauskeller looks rather like a large Bavarian tavern, and one in search of refreshment would certainly be spoilt for choice when confronted with the impressive list of beer and wine.

The extensive menu does not disappoint either, and one can choose from a large variety of home-made soups, sausages and house specialities. We began our meal with the soup of the day, a rich and creamy red pepper soup. Wienerschnitzel followed, a gigantic breaded veal cutlet fried to golden-brown perfection and served with either fries, hash brown potatoes Swiss-style, noodles or rice. Our visit would not have been complete without sampling one of the 14 varieties of sausages — so we ordered a paprika-flavoured, pan-fried pork sausage served with potato salad, which was subtly spicy and filled the senses delightfully.

Speciality sausages from several other regions are also available, ranging from the spicy, deep-smoked pork and beef sausage from the region of Glarus, to the Engadine Valley smoked sausage made of beef and pork, various spices and red wine.

Non-lovers of sausage must try the Kalbsgeschnetzeltzes nach Zuercher Art (pan-fried sliced veal and mushrooms in a creamy white wine sauce), or the Burgermeister Hans Waldmann Sword for two to three persons, a whopping 400g of marinated baby-beef steaks, pounded thin, wrapped around the sword blade and grilled lean, served with a bowl of mixed salad, garlic curry and barbecue sauce.

Finally, those with a sweet tooth are not forgotten, as there are 12 home-made desserts to salivate over, including the Zeughauskeller ice-cream pie, with chocolate and hazelnut chips, flavoured with kirsch and cognac and topped with whipped cream, Vacherin Glacé, a crispy meringue filled with vanilla ice-cream and topped with whipped cream, raspberries and raspberry sauce, garnished with fresh mint, and the walnut parfait, made with sugar-roasted walnuts and topped with walnut liqueur.

The next day, we headed for Chur, a picturesque little town where the weather is brisk but surprisingly sunny. The buildings here are covered with captivating paintings by regional artists, as well as coats of arms of families who lived there in times gone by. Our hotel, Romantik Hotel Stern, fits in perfectly with the old-world setting of the town. It is also famous for its excellent restaurant, which is packed to the gills almost every night, so much so that we had to wait well over an hour before a table was available to us for dinner. In line with the quotation on the front page of the menu, “He who drinks well, eats well!”, we began with a ‘00 Weissburgunder white from Malanser which had a light, golden flavour.

Taking the special menu, we began with the Carpaccio Buendnerfleisch, wafer-thin slices of air-cured beef served with slices of cheese, and aniseed-flavoured rye bread and butter. The beef’s sharp salty taste goes well with the light, subtle buttery flavour of the cheese. This was followed by the clear soup with Churer Morel Risotto dumplings, which are golden brown, lightly breaded dumplings with a slightly spicy aftertaste.

The Capuns Sursilvans — small dumplings wrapped in chard, served in a creamy, yet light and fragrant sauce — has a lovely rich flavour complemented by spring onions, cheese and bacon bits in the sauce. Next, the lemon sorbet in white wine sauce served in a tulip-shaped glass, did more than just cleanse the palate. Rather than the usual icy bite of most sorbets, it is rather pleasantly creamy. The white wine asserts itself first as you taste it, followed by the sweet-sourness of the sorbet.

By now, we were eagerly anticipating the main course, the Churer Ratsherrenteller, or fillet of beef and veal served with a light herb sauce, bizochels (country-style flour) and vegetables. Although the bizochels were a tad heavy, the cranberry sauce went marvellously well with the tender and moist morsels of meat and the garden-fresh long beans and carrots. The shrivelled black stewed pear added an unusual flavour to the dish, making this entrée a well-rounded dish.

Thoroughly stuffed now, we ended with the delightful Cupetta Cun Tschueschinas, an ice-cream sundae with dried plums marinated in liqueur. The crunchy, home-baked style, horse-shaped cookie and whipped cream countered the strong liqueur flavour in the ice-cream, while the plums managed to retain their original sweetness and, at the same time, tasted strongly of the liqueur, with an overall tangy, almost citrusy flavour.

Our next culinary adventure began rather simply in St. Moritz as we watched the annual greyhound races. I have developed a taste for freshly grilled sausages — either brown cervelat or white bratwurst — served with a roll and a dollop of mustard, together with hot coffee to counter the extreme cold at Lake Moritz, which I felt even while sitting in a heated tent. Simple though the snack was, it was wonderfully satisfying to munch on the sausages and the coffee certainly warmed our bones!

We visited the famed Muottas Muragl mountain, where Sophia Loren recently had a photo shoot. This was a panoramic 2,456m journey by funicular to the peak, which has the most spectacular views in St. Moritz, especially at sunset. The restaurant at the top certainly offers a gorgeous view of the mountains, although we could only stay there for a little while.

Dinner was a merry affair at the Steinbock back in St. Moritz, a delightful Italian restaurant where even the décor is reminiscent of a Mediterranean courtyard, a welcome change from the biting cold outside. Our Italian maître d’ offered us a medium dry Vigneronne wine from the Yvorne region, which was effervescent and slightly grassy.

For starters, the Engadine soup with mushrooms, potatoes and milk was excellent, as was the beef marrow soup with its light, savoury taste and the marrow which melts in your mouth.

The Panzerotti “Steinbock”, a pancake with ham and cheese and gratinated with béchamel sauce, was fluffy and simply oozing with cheese, while the Tagliata Di Manzo Al Balsamico (sliced sirloin of beef with balsamic sauce served on rucola and country potatoes) was rich, tender and not too robust, and wonderful with the crisp potatoes. Grilled meats are the restaurant’s speciality, and we decided on the Spiedino Di Manzo Con Speck, or beef brochettes with bacon, grilled so that the brochettes were still moist but not undercooked, a real delight for carnivores worldwide (like me!).

Aboard the Glacier Express from St. Moritz to Zermatt, one will not only encounter dazzling vistas of the surrounding Grisons Mountains, but also first-class dining and, upon request, an interesting little sideshow as the waiter pours grappa into a tiny shot glass from a great height, teh tarik-style, without flinching or even spilling a drop.

I had the special three-course menu, which consists of a salad in the summer and a soup in the winter, the main course (Hauptgang), and the dessert or cheese platter to finish. We started with bouillon with vegetables, a clear light soup of carrots, celery and leek that was enjoyably fortifying. This was followed by beef stroganoff with buttered rice and Vichy carrots, with a lovely sauce that was perfectly complemented by the lightly fluffy rice and juicy carrots, so much so that we were happy to take a second helping. Finally we ended with a Swiss roll, possibly the best I’ve ever tasted, and a platter of Gruyere, Camembert, Emmenthal and Appenzeller cheese.

On arriving in car-free Zermatt, we were greeted by a winter wonderland and I had a fun ride in the back of an electric buggy to our hotel. We had dinner in the extraordinary Chez Heini restaurant, owned by Danny Daniell who not only cooks divine food, but also does his own (rather eclectic) décor and flamboyantly serenades the diners every night at 10:30 pm.

Celebrities such as Robbie Williams, Christopher Lambert and Phil Collins have dropped by and left a souvenir for the restaurant’s Wall of Fame, although Daniell may be considered a celebrity in his own right.

We sat down at the rose petal-strewn table and ordered from menus made from old LPs, selecting a starter of Ravioli Rondeli ala Heini — a subtle vegetable-filled dish decorated with heart-shaped pieces of radish — followed by asparagus with béarnaise sauce served with crispy rice crackers and an espresso-sized cup of creamy pumpkin soup with heart-shaped pastry.

The restaurant’s speciality is lamb; as Daniell laughingly remarked about his father, Heini, a sheep farmer: “He loved lambs; all the good ones he kept in his collection and all the bad ones were sent to the kitchen!” The lamb brochette kebabs with red peppers, onions and potatoes au gratin were delicious, as were the roast lamb with grilled vegetables, eaten with either yoghurt or garlic sauce, and grilled to a light crispness.

Dessert was, like Daniell himself, an entertaining affair — a parfait en flambé with coffee ice-cream and Grand Marnier liqueur, as delectable as it was enjoyable.

Lunch the next day was at the Restaurant Furri, a popular haunt for skiers as it is close to the slopes, halfway between the top of the Matterhorn Mountain and Zermatt. Here we got to enjoy several types of roesti, a Swiss-style hash brown dish, the Valais platter of air-dried beef, bacon, cheese, sausages, and pickled onions and gherkins, as well as the quintessential Swiss dish, cheese fondue.

According to Swiss restaurateur Heinz Bauert of the Chalet Suisse in Kuala Lumpur, there are several different varieties of fondue, the most difficult to make being the Fondue au Vacherin, made solely with Fribourg cheese, using water instead of white wine and warmed up instead of boiled like normal fondue.

Each restaurant has its own different cheese mix, and Restaurant Furri’s fondue uses a mix of several types of Zermatt cheese with a strong garlic and liquor flavour, which asserts itself strongly after a few bites of bread dipped in the bubbling cheese. As there are many Japanese visitors to this restaurant, there is a special Japanese roesti menu with fried veal sausage, ham, fried eggs, and the “Grandmother’s vegetable soup” (filled with beef cubes, sausages and bread).

The French-speaking Lake Geneva region, deemed the “Swiss Riviera”, is blessed with a wonderfully mild climate which is ideal for the Swiss wine-growing industry. “Swiss wine is a light wine; the lighter, the fresher, the better,” Bauert says.

Most Swiss wine comes from the cantons of Vaud, Valais and Graubuenden, and is usually made with the Chasselas grape. It does not travel well, is drunk very young and very expensive due to the high demand for it.

Within this region is Montreux-Vevey, final home of Charlie Chaplin and Freddie Mercury, and also the home of the famous Saucisson Vau-dois, a farmer’s sausage made with either leek or liver, available in the cheerful gnome-themed Le Chalet Paradise restaurant. We began our meal here with a glass of Chardonne wine (not to be confused with Chardonnay), immensely drinkable with distinct honey flavours.

Next was the speciality soup filled with spinach, carrots, farfalle (butterfly pasta), celery, legumes and fresh cream, followed by the Saucisson Vaudois, a zesty giant sausage filled with pork, special spices and leek and served with potato and leek salad. The meal ended most pleasantly with a peach and banana tart drizzled with chocolate sauce.

The next part of the culinary journey was to icy Les Diablerets (The Devils), a popular ski resort and site of the innovative new Glacier 3000 restaurant designed by star Swiss architect Mario Botta. The trip up the mountain was slightly harrowing, what with the bone chilling cold and the plaintive howling of the wind outside. But it was well worth it to sample the creations of chef Helmut Forbach and view the cutting-edge design of the restaurant, shaped like a devil’s pitchfork from the outside. The ceiling is made from a special material which absorbs noise and cigarette smoke.

It is brightly done up in yellow and blue, and jazz played softly in the background as we sat down to a glass of Pinot Noir from Valais. The leek soup we had was creamy while the bacon in it added a wonderful flavour and colour.

The excellent foie gras was followed by buttery toasted pears, lightly spiced and smooth but a little too salty for my taste, although the little berries added exquisite sweetness to this dish. The sirloin steak with shallots, snow peas, carrots, pickles and roesti was beautifully presented, and the steak was crisp and juicy; however, the roesti tasted a little dry.

Forbach explained that making roesti up here was extremely time-consuming as the potatoes used must be fried and kept overnight before being refried, and due to insufficient staff, frozen potatoes had to be used. The penne with wild shiitake and chanterelle mushrooms tasted wonderful, yet the al dente texture couldn’t be achieved because the low air pressure caused the water to boil at 86°C and therefore pasta must be cooked longer than usual. Besides the main restaurant upstairs, there is also a self-service area downstairs which serves fast food, spaghetti with a variety of sauces and salad.

Of course we were taken to a cheese factory, since cheese-making is such a traditional skill in Switzerland. We were able to watch a movie of the complicated cheese-making process in Chateau D’Oex, famous for its L’etivaz and Rebibe cheeses, the latter being an exquisite brittle cheese left in the cellar to mature for four years instead of the usual six months. First, the morning’s milk is combined with the previous evening’s milk and heated with an enzyme extracted from the cows themselves, which causes the milk to curdle.

The curds and whey are separated and stirred, and the whey is later separated from the cheese. Finally the cheese is left to mature in a cellar after being treated with a salt bath which gives it its rind. A word of caution when visiting the cellars: the ammoniac odour from the salt baths is a little unpleasant!

Dinner was served at our hotel, the La Rocaille, in Chateau D’Oex. La Rocaille is one of those charming little hotels where the personal touches of the owner are very much in evidence, from the décor to the service. The owner, Patrick Gazeau, also serves as chef in the hotel’s restaurant, Au Train Bleu (At the Blue Train).

As usual, we began with a glass of Yvorne wine, the Cant des Resses, an almost colourless wine which begins to sweeten towards the later part of the meal. Although the Swiss are not enamoured of seafood, our first dish was reflective of French influence — Gratin Du Pêcheur or gratinated perch, pike, char and scallops in a delicate lobster base. This was followed by Brochette de Canard, Pommes de Terres Sautées, and Effilochée D’Endives (duck brochettes cooked in a honey sauce, sautéed potatoes and endives). The sautéed potatoes were heavenly, golden-brown and still sizzling hot, a perfect foil for the naturally bitter, tea-like taste of the endives cooked in olive oil as well as the slightly chewy but otherwise tasty duck brochettes.

The dish was also served with prune-like morel mushrooms which had an unusual herbal flavour. We also had a typical French dessert, the Chausson Aux Pommes or apple turnover, which was beautifully flaky and crisp, made with lots of vanilla sauce.

Our final destination was the “Top of Europe” — the Crystal Restaurant at the Jungfraujoch, 3,454m above sea level. After a rather uncomfortable ride up the mountain, we were glad to have a bowl of lobster bisque with a dollop of cream and were delighted with the golden colour and smooth consistency of the soup. For the main course, I had the pork escalopes served with a mushroom cream sauce, plain noodles and a slice of peach and whipped cream. I was pleased to find that the sauce was creamy and not too salty and an excellent accompaniment to the meat.

Finally, we had a selection of nine flavours of ice-cream and 12 types of dessert to choose from, from traditional favourites like tiramisu and flan caramel, to the more exotic Terrina Croccante (vanilla ice-cream, cocoa, liqueur) and Sorbet Colonel (lemon sorbet with vodka), to towering giants like the Coupe Eiger and the Coupe Jungfrau. I had the Mini Coupe Eiger, a concoction of divine tiramisu and vanilla ice-cream topped with pink grapefruit, cocoa beans and whipped cream. Simply sinful, and a perfect end to my culinary travels in Switzerland!

Swiss cuisine can be summed up in one word: multicultural. It is impossible to separate it from the different cultures which it has borrowed from, refined and perfected. Its very uniqueness lies in the successful marrying of the four cuisines and cultures — French, German, Italian and Rhaeto Romanic — which make Switzerland such an unforgettable experience for even the most finicky of diners!

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