Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Oh! So Swiss

Ever since I read Johanna Spyri’s classic Heidi, I was 11 at the time, I have wanted to see the Swiss Alps. In 2011, on my trip to Italy, we crossed the Italian border into Switzerland for a day to visit Lake Lugano and Monte Tamaro, an experience that culminated in a definitive moment of my life, a moment of transcendent beauty really. But that’s another story.

However, my only meal on Swiss soil comprised a couple of crumbed turkey breast cutlets with a side of fries and a couple of bread rolls and cheese, and a glass of white wine, which I had relished sitting on a mountain-top café, overlooking the vast expanse of the snow-capped Swiss Alps. Swiss folk songs played in the background and the wind threatened to blow everything away. It was a lovely lunch, but I have always regretted not having sampled Swiss cuisine proper. And I told myself that when I make that trip to Switzerland I am going to eat my way through the country.

I haven’t yet taken that dream trip but last Friday I got a taste of Swiss food and how. As a member of KFB I had received an invitation to the inaugural dinner of Swissotel Kolkata’s Swiss Food Festival on August 1, also the Swiss National Day. And boy was I excited to be a part of the gala; and all set to raise a toast to all things Swiss.

Talking about raising a toast, for reasons I haven’t quite fathomed, I refused a chilled glass of sparkling wine and settled for a mocktail. The drink was a stunning beauty, a deep scarlet, topped with a dash of cream, to form the likeness of the Swiss Flag. The thought that looks might turn out to be deceptive did cross my mind (I am a little wary when it comes to mocktails). This time though I didn’t regret my choice. Cranberry juice, a shot of espresso, a squeeze of lime and cream, this mocktail, I forget the name, turned out to be a winner.

To go with it were Swiss sausages and plum tomatoes on sticks and a fiery mustard to go along, Mushroom Pastetli, phylo pasty roundels topped with mushrooms and cheese, Grilled Swiss Zopf, Swiss braided bread with a shiny crust, topped with chicken and gooey Swiss cheese, Swiss cheese fondue in shot glasses, and more, a delicious stringy cheese ball, Swiss sausages topped with caramelized onions and cheese, and more.

And of course, Rösti, often deemed as the National dish of Switzerland. Rösti is nothing but round deep fried patties of coarsely grated potatoes, originally from the Canton of Bern of Switzerland. Rösti, though popular throughout the country, is considered more a reflection of Austro-German influence. Incidentally Switzerland shares its borders with, Germany, France, Austria, Lietchenstein and Italy and Swiss cuisine, like every other aspect of its culture, reflects this extraordinary jumble of influences. Rösti for instance, though popular throughout the country, is associated primarily with the German speaking parts of Switzerland.The Swissotel version was topped with a slice of grilled tomato and melted cheese.

The selection of Swiss salads like the Carrots and raisins salad, the apple and walnut salad with a light creamy dressing, the Swiss potato salad, it had slivers of gherkins in it and was laced in a creamy dressing too and of course the Swiss cheese salad, tiny cubes of cheese and shredded lettuce in a cheesy dressing, this one is so rich it can numb your tongue. And while I love potatoes and the apple-walnut salad was good too, my favourite was the wurstsalat! Ah well sausage salad!
 Moving on to the main courses, we were spoilt for choice really. Earlier while taking photographs I had spotted the Cordon Bleu, again a French classic but equally popular in Switzerland, chicken stuffed with ham and cheese, crumbed and deep-fried. I wasted no time and headed straight for these meaty morsels of unadulterated pleasure. How many of these mini Condon Bleu I wolfed down is a secret I'll take to the grave. But there was so much more to try.

Chunks of Salmon skin-side up, along with French beans, cherry tomatoes and broccoli,  in a light delicate sauce made with cream and sparkling wine. While the fish was delightfully and the sauce, subtly flavoured, beautifully underscored the quality of the fish, I had been hoping the skin would be crispy, It wasn’t and disappointed me just a little. 

But the next dish, Rippli, pork loin cooked with baby potatoes and French beans, made up for it. The best thing about these dishes is that each ingredient speaks for itself. Swiss food is essentially straightforward and unpretentious, gorgeous nonetheless. The flavours are delicate, the dishes simple but delectable. No complex flavours, no culinary theatrics or ostentatious trimmings, just plain gorgeous food that will warm the cockles of your heart. A delightful array of Swiss cheese, the soft bread rolls and melt in the mouth Zopf, the succulent meats and the salads to die for, and finally the desserts, each one a stunner, a Swiss feast will leave you breathless and longing for more, all at once. 

But my pick among the meaty  Swiss delicacies is definitely Suure Mocke, tender chunks of meat  in a tangy sauce made with wine, herns and spices, along with chopped carrots and pickled pearl onions. The flavours were strong and intense and the burst of tang a little overwhelming. The tanginess, the acidity in the dish might not be appealing to some of us, but for me that’s what made the dish a winner. I especially enjoyed the sudden bursts of tang from the pickled pearl onions between mouthfuls of juicy meat. 

And while there were several other dishes to sample like the Capun, cabbage rolls stuffed with  vegetables and dough, served with a tomato sauce, and prawns with garlic flakes and olive oil, I was too full and a little impatient. The dessert section was a distraction to die for. The Raspberry cream chocolate torte, chocolate torte with a melty core on a shortcrust biscuit studded with roasted cumin, came  as a special recommendation and it was indeed brilliant. The there were Baba au rhum, an yeast-ed cake infused with the goodness of rum. The strawberry Swiss rolls were delightful too and the apple fritters topped with a generous sprinkle of cinnamon, reminded me of churros, another delightful dessert fritter from Mexico, was beautifully paired with vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce, but my pick of the day would definitely was of Engadin nut cake or Engadiner Nusstorte. A tart cake, the Engadine (a region in Switzerland) culinary artists called the shortcrust pastry "Fuatscha grassa", is filled with walnuts, honey, cream and caramel. I couldn’t have enough of that one. It was a pity I had absolutely no space to accommodate just another slice. I can't stop thinking about it.

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