Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Cuisine of the Alps

When one thinks of the Alps, the thought of cold winter weather, mountain chalets and hot nourishing food come together. Certainly that is the case of the Alps of Switzerland and France. Geography plays a big part in the cuisine of the Alps. Pastureland is plentiful and there are many cattle. Cheese is dominant. Meat and potatoes are almost always present in a dish. Zürigschnätzlets (pork or veal scallops) and Rosti (like American 'hashbrowns') are classics of Swiss cuisine. Vegetables as known in the US are rare.


When one mentions Swiss cuisine, everyone in the US knows fondue, the pot of melted cheese over a small flame in which to dip bread. Fondues are found on menus as the classic Cheese, 'Oriental' (beef and vegetables to be dipped in a broth) and 'Bourgogne' (a deep fat fondue with beef to be dipped and cooked). During my vacation in Switzerland, we ordered cheese fondue with tomato, a perfect dinner in a small Swiss chalet high in the mountains. The plates and wine were placed and the fondue arrived. The pot was full of a bubbling orange-red thick liquid accompanied with a small ladle of about 1/4 US cup. There was a large basket of boiled small potatoes. Voilà. Hmmm. I thought bread should be a part of the diner and something else. Well, it was a very simple offering. Soon the hostess asked if everything was alright and as an afterthought she offered bread cubes. I do not know if bread is part of the traditional dish or if she wanted to please the American at her table. At any rate, the tomato fondue was indeed delicious and hearty for the chilly and raining, mid-summer evening.


Along the same theme of melted cheese, is the Raclette, another hearty dish of the Alps. Cheese is served as a half large round of cheese of about 6 kg (13.2 lb), five inches thick and perhaps 12 inches in diameter, cut into a semicircle. The half round is for two persons. There is a large table-top electrical heating element over the open part of the half cheese. A metal cradle holds the cheese under the heating element. The cheese is heated until the surface starts to melt and then the cheese round can be moved out from under the element so the cheese is open and easy to scrape the top layer of melted cheese with a special spatula onto a plate below. Racler means to scrape. The melted cheese is served with cured ham, boiled potatoes, gherkins and bread. One melts a small amount of cheese at a time from the Raclette to serve hot in small portions. For two people the large half round cheese is of course impossible to finish. I am sure that the remains find there way into tomorrow night's fondue !


To conclude a meal, often an herb-based alcoholic digestive, Génépi is served. The flavor is less sweet than many digestive and somewhat of an acquired taste. There are commercial products available but the homemade 'rule of thumb' is 40 flowers, 40 grams of sugar, 40 degrees of alcohol. For dessert one evening after a supurb Raclette, I enjoyed an ice cream flavored with Génépi and decorated with a sprig of mint.

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