"While you're here visiting our country," my Swiss hostess confided, "I know you'll be interested in our assortment of gutzi."
"Well, er -- perhaps," I agreed, fleetingly conjuring up images of designer shoes. But indeed, my hostess was right on target.
As every Swiss knows and will explain with a fond smile, gutzi is the Swiss German word for cookies. I was in Switzerland primarily to research its food, and since I had authored an international cookie cookbook, I was (and still am) partial to these sweets.
One thing I discovered almost immediately is that the Swiss love cookies as much as Americans do. It is no coincidence that many Swiss cookies -- from brunsli and biberli to leckerli and Mailanderli -- have names that end in "li." In Swiss German, this ending is added to suggest affection; it's used the same way we use "ies" to produce words like birdies, kiddies or Twinkies.
I also quickly discovered that gutzi come in great variety: fragrant honey-spice crisps, butter cookies, tinted marzipan /^ cakes, airy meringues and chewy macaroonlike sweets are among the most widely enjoyed. Chocolate turns up in cookies occasionally, though not as often as one might expect in a country known for superior chocolate.
My introduction to gutzi came in northwestern Switzerland in Basel, an ancient, beautiful city that straddles the Rhine river and borders both Germany and France. As it turns out, it was not surprising my hostess mentioned gutzi, since her city is famous for two different kinds: a chewy, chocolaty cookie called brunsli and a thin, spicy crisp called Basel leckerli.
I learned more about the latter variety as my hostess showed me around the town. One of our first stops was the Leckerli House, a quaint cottagelike shop that offers bright tins of the crunchy, sugar-glazed cookies and kits for making miniature leckerli houses at home. The shopkeeper said that Basel leckerli have a long tradition and actually hark back to the time the city was a major European spice importing center. (Later on our walk, my hostess pointed out another reminder of the flourishing spice trade of the past -- two narrow, picturesque passageways named Pepper and Ginger streets where the spice merchants once lived.)
My gutzi lesson continued later when we stopped at a cafe that happened to have freshly baked brunsli in its pastry case. As is typical, the ones we enjoyed were a chewy-crispy amalgam of dark chocolate, almonds, egg whites, cinnamon and cloves. No wonder these are famous throughout Switzerland.
Still more opportunities to learn about Swiss cookies came the next afternoon when I visited the annual Basel Autumn Fair, a late October outdoor fair featuring food and craft stalls, music and children's rides. One booth I stopped at was selling individually wrapped filled cookies called biberli. These were dark, spicy, exotic-tasting squares sandwiched around a layer of marzipan. Biberli are a very old-fashioned sweet, the girl at the counter explained, and keep well due to the marzipan, honey and spices in the dough.
At another stall I purchased some pretty ceramic cookie molds similar to the hand-carved wooden ones traditionally used for German springerle cookies. However, the vendor emphasized that the Swiss generally use them to make cookies called hazelnut leckerli instead. A Christmas specialty of the capital city, Bern, hazelnut leckerli are not at all like the Basel version I had obtained at the Leckerli House. The Bern cookies don't contain honey, are not thin and are embossed, not iced, on top.
As I discovered a few days later, no gutzi education is complete without a visit to Switzerland's unofficial sweets capital, Zurich. Here, in one of the city's most charming and best-loved cafes, Sprungli am Paradeplatz, I took my first bites of the addictive almond-meringue cookies known as Luxembourgerli. (The name means "little Luxembourgers," and the recipe was supposedly brought to Switzerland by a Luxembourg chef.) One of the cafe's specialties, these are delicious button-sized puffs sandwiched together with a rich buttercream. Most Swiss seem to consider Luxembourgerli professional bakery cookies not to be attempted the home cook. But after considerable experimentation, I created a version that can be made at home, and feel they are well worth the trouble. They look especially pretty on a Christmas tray.
While in Zurich I also stopped by the venerable old Cafe Schober, where basket upon basket of imprinted, cut-out, iced, tinted, painted, piped and beribboned cookies dazzled me and more of those names -- like wissi leckerli and Mailanderli and Linzerli -- danced in my head. With Advent at hand and Christmas fast approaching, the staff told me the usual Swiss interest in cookies would be increasing, and that they were already prepared to meet the demand.