Sunday, February 3, 2008

Notes From A Swiss Canton

cheese at Bern marketYou probably didn't know that you could go to Switzerland to escape New England's frigid temperatures, but I discovered over the past weeks that you can. Sun, and temperatures in the 40s and 50s, reigned, and there was not a drop of snow on the ground--only, in picture-postcard fashion, on the distant Alps seen comfortably from city bridges. There were days when it was too warm to wear a coat.
The capital city of Bern's outdoor markets can thus proceed biweekly year-round. The quality of the offerings at this time of year is remarkable. Special to the locale is the huge selection of cheeses and cured and smoked meats and sausages that never find their way out of the country. I was particularly fond of the dried venison, first sampled on the flight over and a favorite while I was there. The produce, however, was the big surprise. Considering it was late January, the quality and variety (such as some 7 or 8 kinds and colors of carrots) were Lettuce at Bern marketimpressive, and it appeared that much of the product was local. For such a small country, Switzerland is substantially self-sufficient in food production, thanks to a strong, although declining, system of protections for farmers.
Regrettably, I did not have access to a kitchen while I was there, but I was able to sample the excellent local cheese, meats, bread, wine, and chocolate. Swiss restaurants reflect the country's multilingual, mixed culture: French, Italian (the best food in the country, perhaps), and traditional Swiss, the latter serving simple, good food based on cheese, potatoes, and meats. Homey dishes like rosti, fondue, and raclette are easily replicated in American kitchens and are suited to the winter months. I particularly like raclette, an ostensibly dull combination of melted cheese, boiled potatoes, and pickles that makes for a satisfying assemblage of flavors.
Raclettecararaots at Bern market
Traditionally raclette is made by holding the cheese close to an open fire and scraping it onto a plate as it melts. A romantic image, but nowadays it's generally made on top of the stove or under the broiler. Raclette makes for a rather colorless plate (I use red-skinned potatoes for that reason), but resist the temptation to fancy it up. It's plain food that tastes good.
For each person:
1 slice raclette or other flavorful, semi-firm cheese such as Italian Fontina or Emmental, about 3/8" thick (5 oz/person)
3-4 fingerling or 2-3 other small all-purpose potatoes, boiled
4-5 cornichons or small gherkins
Cheese at dept store2
5-6 small pickled onions
freshly ground pepper

Place the cheese in the center of an oven-proof dish and season with a few twists of the pepper mill. Place the dish under a preheated hot broiler until the cheese melts and begins to brown but not burn. Surround by the pickles, onions, and hot potatoes, and serve immediately with dry white wine. Chocolate for dessert adds a touch of luxury to this otherwise homely meal.
Cheese cut 3 copy Ch Raclette 3 copy Chocolates copy

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