Blissful Swiss Cookery

July 28, 1991|By Lynn Williams

It has snow-capped mountains and limpid lakes and well-scrubbed, prosperous cities. Its people speak French, German, Italian and Romansch -- a regional language reminiscent of Latin -- and many make a living herding goats or managing banks.

With all this diversity going for it, how could anyone imagine that Switzerland's cuisine is limited to Swiss cheese, chocolate and fondue?

The misconceptions may be on the way out this summer, when the Alpine nation celebrates its 700th birthday. As all proper birthday parties include food, we may soon be getting acquainted with the variety of Swiss cuisine. And various it is: This tiny country has freely borrowed from the traditions of its European neighbors, but has a long tradition of independence, neutrality and cold winters, which have put a singular stamp on its cooking.

In the summer of 1291, representatives of Schwyz, Uri and Unterwald, three communities near Lake Lucerne, formed an alliance to resist the rule of the Hapsburg dynasty. In August of that year, a declaration of independence was signed and sealed. When our own founding fathers drafted the U.S. Constitution, they were reportedly inspired by the federalist system of Switzerland, one of the few democratic republics then in existence.

The momentous events, celebrated on Aug. 1, naturally spawned a national hero: William Tell. While many historians don't believe the medieval rebel -- who defied the Austrian overlords and was forced to shoot an apple off his son's head -- actually existed, his legend is a rallying point for this summer's festivities.

When Werner R. Kunz, the Swiss-born managing director of the Harbor Court Hotel, celebrates his homeland's septicentennial, however, he appeals not to his customers' sense of history but to their sense of taste. Mr. Kunz and his hotel have launched a summer celebration of Switzerland and its culinary traditions, featuring, among other activities, an Alpine afternoon tea, "cellar-master" dinners with gourmet Swiss cuisine, a Swiss wine tasting and a cooking demonstration.

The celebration was kicked off in June with a Swiss food extravaganza at the hotel, produced by Hans Hauser, commercial attache at the Embassy of Switzerland; chef Michael Rork; Swiss-products importer Albert Uster; caterer Adi Rehm; and several Swiss-based businesses. Featured, of course, were a cheese display -- there are dozens of types of "Swiss cheese," not just one -- chocolate desserts and fondue. While "the Swiss national dish" has numerous variants, the fondue most Americans know is a molten mixture of well-aged Emmentaler (the Swiss cheese, also called "Switzerland Swiss" to distinguish it from generic holey cheeses), dry white wine and sometimes kirsch or brandy.

The party also spotlighted specialties from Switzerland's 26 cantons, among them chalet soup from Fribourg, trout mousse from Jura, lamb stew Benichon style, stuffed cabbage from Neuchatel, a variety of sausages and the rosti -- Swiss hash-browns -- eaten in the country's German-speaking regions.

"This is the real regional cooking," Mr. Kunz explains. "It still exists, but some of these items you don't see on menus anymore. When we study culinary art, we are into the French cuisine."

Mr. Kunz did, indeed, study culinary art.

"I grew up in my parents' restaurant," says the hotelier, who was raised in Zurich. "It's traditional in Switzerland to step into your parents trade." His father's family, he explains, were restaurateurs, winemakers and sausage-makers, and his mother's family was in the hotel trade.

He went to culinary school, then apprenticed under a master chef, until he decided he preferred management. "I knew early in life that I wanted to wear a tie," he jokes.

Although Mr. Kunz did not join their ranks, Switzerland has produced its share of culinary giants. Cesar Ritz, the grand hotelier whose name is synonymous with haute cuisine, was the son of a Swiss shepherd. Other notable Swiss-born chefs include Willi Elsener, acclaimed head chef at the Dorchester Hotel in London, and Henry Haller, former White House chef. While none of these men made their mark whipping up the filling stews and fondues of their homeland, it's not hard to imagine that they were stirred to a love of good food by its wealth of excellent produce, including fish from crystal-pure lakes and streams, and incomparable dairy products.

Not only is most haute restaurant cooking French, Mr. Kunz says, but even the everyday cooking of the Swiss is "a modified French cuisine." But other countries have had a profound influence, too. The southern, Italian-speaking canton of Ticino, for instance, has a pronounced Latin character; you are more likely to find polenta or risotto than fried potatoes here, and minestrone rather than the cheesy, creamy soups enjoyed farther north. Swiss cuisine also flaunts its German influences in its love for sausages, cabbage, hearty game and pork dishes, spiced cakes and strudel pastries.

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