What I knew of authentic Swiss cooking was like a ripe Emmentaler: full of big holes. Fondue, chocolate bars--that much was familiar. Now I wanted to get beyond the clichés and into something real. Could I even find a vernacular cuisine in a multilingual country that practically invented the word international?
Back from a trip through four of Switzerland's most definitive cantons--where fellow critics and insiders led me to the best Swiss restaurants--I am still fuzzy on the regional variations of Rösti and raclette. But my visit was a collage of perfect Swiss moments: Coffee served with milk so good you want to guzzle it straight from the pitcher. Lunches of fish just plucked from a glossy lake. A night at a hotel that far exceeded my expectations of traditional Swiss hospitality. The thrill of discovering L'Etivaz-Rebibes, the grainy aged cheese of the Pays d'Enhaut, and the fruity white wines of Lavaux. And, of course, falling in love again with cheese, butter, and cream. (Hike--you can always hike.)
So is there a quintessentially Swiss way of eating?Natürlich. Certo. Bien sûr. And whatever they say in Romansh.
At a Lucerne café a British schoolboy announces, to no one in particular, "We eat well around here--you see, we have a boat." The young squire has a point: some of Switzerland's top lakefront fish restaurants--idyllic, popular, yet discreet as a numbered bank account--are accessible only by private boat (or, for the rest of us, by water taxi).
The best of the handful on Lake Lucerne, Gasthaus Obermatt occupies two waterside terraces and a pair of wooden chalets tucked beneath a verdant cliff. As my friend and I order, the lavender sky casts its glow on the shadow theater of mountains and foothills that ring the lake. A flotilla of boats arrives--punctually--for the heart-stopping sunset. The boat owners pull on their tennis sweaters in unison and attack the flawless sautéed fish: Felchen (whitefish) and the prestigious Egli (perch).
Small garden salad, anyone?Nah. We'll take the artery-clogging Aelplermagronen. This ultimate Alpine comfort food consists of macaroni bound with a blend of several cheeses, garnished with caramelized onions, and eaten with a slathering of applesauce. The boats cast off and we linger over pear schnapps while nervously fingering our francs: Obermatt doesn't take credit cards, and the short round-trip water-taxi ride is a $55 indulgence. But nothing beats floating back to Vitznau under a dome of stars.
If Switzerland were a hotel it would be the Park Hotel Vitznau, a turreted Edwardian fantasy 15 miles northeast of Lucerne. The Park's crisp efficiency and modern amenities rival those of any Four Seasons, yet its acres of old-world plushness and polish could charm the most delusional exiled aristocrat. On the ravishing lawn the landed gentry rub shoulders with young entrepreneurs, gazing at the dramatic vista of Lake Lucerne framed by the Alps.
A meal at the Park's endearingly formal panoramic dining room restores one's faith in the patrician roots of European hotel food. Strong, classic beef consommé, exemplary rabbit risotto, and medallions of Swiss veal with béarnaise are accompanied by the wistful tunes of roving musicians imported from Budapest. At breakfast, well-mannered children glide around the opulent buffet while their dads scan the stocks in Neue Zürcher Zeitung.
In Lucerne itself, where the restaurant scene is exploding with spots named T-Bone and Cucaracha, Old Swiss House--all leaded-glass windows and stately antiques--remains a bastion of Tradition und Gemütlichkeit. Every chignoned old lady, it seems, is tackling the Wiener schnitzel. A plate-size sheet of excellent veal, it's fried to a shattering crisp right in front of you by frilly-aproned Teutonic servers (close your eyes if the sight of butter upsets you). The equally heroic portion of wurst comes with the best Rösti I've tasted in Switzerland. And you could easily get drunk on the "Zugkirsch tart," drenched with double its weight in kirsch.
LAKE GENEVA AND VAUD
The canton of Vaud, Switzerland's Francophone heart, is home to the outstanding white wines of the Lavaux and a whole constellation of Michelin stars. Consider Hôtel de Ville in Crissier, L'Ermitage Bernard Ravet in Vufflens-le-Château, or Le Pont de Brent in Brent-sur-Montreux if you're in the mood for foie gras and truffles--but that's not a very Swiss mood.
The alternative?Spend the morning ambling on the Parcours Viticole, a spectacular 20-mile trail through steeply terraced Chasselas grape vineyards above Lake Geneva. Taste cheese tarts and local vintages at the rambunctious Sunday wine market in Vevey. Then lunch properly at L'Auberge de l'Onde in the cobblestoned wine-making village of St.-Saphorin.
L'Onde's weathered wood paneling, heart-shaped chairs, and gnarled grapevine sconces probably haven't changed since the days when Charlie Chaplin dropped by for a carafe of the sprightly local white known simply as "St.-Saph." We're too famished to wait for L'Onde's legendary roast chicken (it takes 45 minutes to cook), so we devour a rare sliced entrecôte with a potato gratin as soft and creamy as custard. The fillet of omble-chevalier (char) from Lake Geneva arrives glowingly fresh in a puddle of delicate sorrel sauce.
Craving fondue, we head for the high pastures of the Pays d'Enhaut, Switzerland's prime dairy country. This is something of a tourist pursuit, since the Swiss rarely indulge in fondue in summer and usually not at restaurants. When they do order it out, custom dictates that the person who loses his bread in the cheese must pay the bill. Still, we're happy to play tourists at Le Chalet, in the village of Château-d'Oex. It's a cute wooden cottage with occasional cheese-making demonstrations, a shop selling cheese and tchotchkes, and a terrace looking out onto peaks, pastures, and more chalets. The fondue here is the real deal: nutty and velvety-smooth, with a nice hint of wine and kirsch. We choose the classic moitié-moitié: half vacherin, half fromage L'Etivaz, a Gruyère-like cheese produced by the cooperative in nearby L'Etivaz (a must stop on your way back to Montreux).
We follow the fondue with a vast casserole of cheesy bubbling pasta and bacon; then a dessert of meringues crumbled into thick double cream. "Hike, you need a hike," the waiter insists. We smile and nod, then take a cable car to a nearby mountain and collapse on the grass. Deafening moos and the ferocious clanking of cowbells soon rouse us from our cheese-induced stupor.
If you go to Jöhri's Talvo in St. Moritz, lie and tell them it's your birthday. You'll get a chocolate cake festooned with gorgeous cream roses, brought by a staff of Heidiesque blondes vigorously singing (in English) "Na-na-na, hey-hey-hey, happy birthday!" This happened more than once during our evening here.
Talvo means "hayloft" in Romansh, which is the archaic tongue of the Engadine valley. For all its folkloric cuckoo-clock charms--a 17th-century farmhouse exterior, potted wildflowers on the tables, carved wood--this is a Rolex of restaurants, a place where truffles arrive by the truckload when the A-list descends upon the nearby ski slopes.
Chef Roland Jöhri is enamored of regional flavors; his special tonight is capuns, exquisite chard-filled dumplings made from flour and Quark (cheese curd). Jöhri has a flair for fusion that would turn heads even in Sydney. From the sesame-crusted prawns and the spring rolls filled with sole (enmeshed in a baroque wickerwork of fried dough) to the foie gras terrine with a luscious mango compote and the butter-soft Engadine beef presented two ways (braised and sautéed), Jöhri's food is classy, creative, and blissfully light. But what really wins you over are the bright sugar sculptures--frogs, clowns, dragoons--that arrive with dessert. So Swiss. So adorable. You even forget to gripe at the oh-so-Swiss bill. (Our dinner for two: $225.)
The cuisine of Ticino speaks in a rugged northern Italian dialect: soulful risottos, coarse polenta, braised meats, and busecca, a bracing tripe soup, are among the many specialties the canton shares with neighboring Lombardy. Uniquely Ticinese, though, are the grotti, village taverns whose prototypes were actual grottoes used for storing wines and salumi (cured air-dried meats).
Reached by a lulling boat ride from Lugano, Grotto dei Pescatori is completely besieged by regulars. You'll see why as you lounge in the shade of a linden tree, swooning over the setting (granite picnic tables on a terrace that nearly floats on the lake), the wine (vivacious local Merlot poured into dainty ceramic cups), and the food.
The salumi here are the gold standard of rustic charcuterie: dense, musky coppa, pancetta, and wild-boar salami, served with five-grain bread. From a small blackboard menu we order the lightly fried perch with a golden squirt of sage-flavored butter and tiny potatoes, and a dense grainy buckwheat polenta with brasato di manzo (braised beef). Afterward, the exhausted proprietor plies us with his famous walnut liqueur and torta di pane, a moist chocolate crumb cake studded with pine nuts.
We contemplate abandoning the car and hiking back to the airport.