Visitors to Switzerland probably want to taste some authentic Swiss food. For many, this means fondue. It’s a great cold weather dish, but a bit harder to eat in the middle of summer. The Valaisian Plate (Assiette Valaisanne in French and Bündnerfleisch in German) is great in summer, but perfect when the weather turns. It is a savory plate of charcuterie and good choice year round. Consisting of paper-thin slices of local dried meats such as salami, bacon, and/or dried beef it isn’t a vegetarian dish. People order it as an appetizer or side. Since it usually comes with bread on the side, I’ll order it as my main course (as it is usually an affordable option) in more casual restaurants.
Often, it will include pickles and pickled onions on the side. They got a little crazy with the plate above. Notice the nuts and prunes. By the way, feel free to laugh at the super American bottle of Heinz ketchup and the burgers in the background of the top picture. Everyone else ordered them while I ordered by standard go to dish, the Valaisian Plate. It’s never bad. In fact, it was so good that I had to slap their hands away from my plate as they tried to steal from it.
Years ago, someone told me that it was easy to tell I was American when I ate. It wasn’t the massive amount of food I shoveled into my big mouth at an astounding rate. They told me that Americans are easy to spot because they tend to cut their food with the knife in their right hand and the fork in their left hand. After cutting their food, they set the knife down and switch the fork to their right hand to eat. They told me that a spy gave himself away as an American by doing this and lost his life. Knowing that my life could rest on this small habit, I promptly changed to the European method and haven’t looked back (just don’t ask me to right-click with my left hand).
If you want to eat like the Swiss, here are some simple rules:
Always eat with knife in one hand and fork in the other (except for fondue). I have seen people eat open-faced sandwiches with a knife and fork. Although I found it difficult, I did it too. When in Rome, right? I didn’t want to be the bad American with horrible table manners.
Under no circumstance are you to switch the fork to your right hand from your left.
Note the palms concealing the handles of the utensils in the top photo. Americans tend to hold their fork like a pen. If you are a spy, don’t let this detail ruin an otherwise seller performance.
Do not put your one or both of your hands in your lap at the dinner table. This even borders on rude. Here, people put forearms and/or elbows on the table when they aren’t eating. That’s also different for me because on the US elbows on the table is considered rude.
Take bread and wipe your plate until it is sparkling clean. The bread here is very good, so this should not present any difficulties.
If this seems like a lot, you could just avoid the knife and fork altogether and live off fondue or switch to chopsticks.
If you come visit, expect to eat fondue. Fondue restaurants are pervasive and even a non-cook like me can make fondue at home. Our friends Pitbull and TNT came to visit and we had a fondue extravagaza. Here’s how we made it:
Cut the bread into cubes of less than an inch. Some people like the bread a bit dry (to better absorb the cheese) and will use day old bread and/or cut it a few hours ahead.
Split a piece of garlic in two. Rub the inside of the fondue pot it.
Pour a bit of white wine (preferably Swiss, it should be dry not sweet) in the bottom of the pot.
Pour the shredded cheese (see below for which ones) in the pot and stir.
Add more wine, bit by bit to ensure a smooth texture. I find it helpful to leave a bit of cheese in reserve to add if the mixture becomes a bit thin and/or runny.
Stir the mixture so that the cheese melts and cooks evenly.
While you want the cheese to melt, you don’t want it to burn. Check the temperature to make sure that it is not too hot.
Raise your glass, toast and begin eating.
While eating, adjust the heat so that the cheese stays at a constant temperature and does not overcook.
Eating fondue is easy. The largest problem associated with eating fondue is overeating. Put a small piece of bread on the fork/dipper/fondue skewer, stir it in the cheese and enjoy. Although I can’t help you with the overeating part, here are some tips and etiquette for eating fondue:
Even though you will want to pop the cheesy goodness right into your mouth, try to be patient and let the cheese drip/cool for a second.
To avoid sharing too many germs, people avoid touching their mouths to the fork/dipper/fondue skewer.
Drink only white wine or room temperature water while eating fondue to avoid indigestion. You will thank yourself if you do this and curse yourself if you don’t.
If you lose your bread in the cheese, custom dictates that you buy the next round of drinks or be thrown in the lake (Lac Leman/Lake Geneva). Given Geneva’s expensive prices, you may be in for a dunking in Geneva’s approximately 5 degree waters (41 Fahrenheit). You were warned.
La religieuse (French for the nun) refers to the well-cooked remnants of cheese that stick to the bottom of the pot. They are scraped out and eaten. Yum.
The Swiss debate the best type of cheese fondue. The most popular types include (in order of popularity):
Sometimes, a shot of Kirsh, tomatoes, peppers (red and green), or mushrooms will be placed in the cheese. Of course, the French (Comté savoyard, Beaufort, and Emmental or just different types of Comté) and Italians (Fontina, milk, eggs and truffles) have their own versions.
There is, apparently, a much larger world of fondue out there, just waiting to be discovered (and eaten). Other types of fondue include:
Chocolate fondue, where pieces of fruit are dipped into a melted chocolate mixture,
Fondue bourguignonne, where pieces of meat are cooked in hot oil
Finally, I have gotten to the really important things for expats in Geneva. The Buvette at the Bains de Paquis has the best fondue in Geneva. As much as I want to bring you the scoop, I am certainly not about to eat every fondue in Geneva. Regardless, I stand by my statement. Here’s why. It is really good fondue. At 20 CHF, it is reasonably priced. The best part though is the location, its wonderful view and relaxed atmosphere. This is your view. Outstanding. I rest my case.
It is a great place to bring out-of-town guests. When my mom was visiting, we brought her here (by boat from Eaux-Vives) for a very memorable evening. She ate it up. Heck, I ate it up. Literally.
If you are visiting the greater Geneva area and are not a hiker (there are great places to hike near Gruyères), you can take the chocolate train. It is a great way to see beautiful scenery, the cheese tour, Gruyeres and the Cailler chocolate factory in a single day.
*I just learned that there is a second cheese factory in the mountains around Gruyères. Don’t worry about being uninformed, I will try that one for you too.
I am so glad that we are not lactose intolerant. This is a country of dairy where the cow is practically a national symbol (not to discount the goat and sheep’s milk products you see everywhere). The Swiss do dairy. They do it a lot. They do it very, very well. As a result, we find ourselves constantly trying new, wonderful dairy products. Delightful (and tasty). If you are lactose intolerant, you can still easily enjoy the good food here. It is of high quality and very fresh. You will just miss out on some of the abundant dairy yumminess.
To prove my point that the Swiss do a lot of dairy, I took photos of just some of the dairy in one grocery store. Mind you there is another one across the street. Enjoy!
P.S. I pounded not one, but two delicious youghrts for breakfast this morning and having mountian milk in my coffee. Excessive? No, just a delightful, darylicious way to start your day.