You can't visit Switzerland without a taste of their iconic cheeses. Whether Gruyère, Vacherin, Tilsit, Emmenthal or Appenzeller, fondue or raclette is a must. The fondue tradition is alive and well in Canada's mountain towns, too — it's the way we apres!
By CINDA CHAVICH
(GENEVA) – The restaurant is underground, below the Edelweiss Hotel lobby, perhaps to keep this temple of Swiss stereotypes beyond public view.
Once the yodeling starts, it’s hard to hide the fact that this place has all of the Swiss clichés covered — and the cheesier, the better.
From oversized Saint Bernard plush toys to happy wanderers serenading diners with a Sound of Music medley rung out on tinkling cowbells, it doesn’t get much kitschier than this.
But it’s the standard stop for busloads of visiting tourists and conventioneers on a night out in Geneva. Tonight, the place is crammed with doctors dunking bread in pots of cheese and lining up for a chance to press their lips against the soggy mouthpiece of the 12-foot alpenhorn propped across the stage.
It’s the full-on Swiss alpine experience recreated in the centre of this suave business and banking city. I’ve even received my official certificate of fondue cookery, after ducking into the kitchen to watch a chef quickly melt shredded cheese into a slurry of wine and potato starch.
But that’s why we’re here. When in Switzerland, eat cheese.
The Swiss do it daily — cheese is on the menu almost everywhere, scraped in gooey masses off wheels of melting raclette, gratineed atop cast iron pans of fried potato rosti, broiled on cheese toasts, and served in classic macaroni and cheese.
And the bubbling enameled orange pots delivered to the table at the Edelweiss actually do offer a delicious example of this Swiss dish, filled with a rich medley of cheeses from every corner of the country.
The Gruyère, Vacherin, Tilsit, Emmenthal, Appenzeller and Corolle de Gruyère each brings its own character to the mix, and with pickles, cold cuts and crisp Swiss white wine, we’re soon more than comfortably sated.
TO GRUYERES, THE LAND OF CHEESE
The great Gruyère that forms the nice, nutty background to any perfect pot of fondue comes from the eponymous mountain town, in the nearby canton of Fribourg, and so I hop a famously punctual Swiss train to investigate.
Our light-filled dome car is a mix of locals in transit and gawking tourists taking in the stunning mountain scenery. The track loops up from Vevey and around the east end of sparkling Lake Geneva, circling the rooftops of posh Montreaux, and it’s not long before we’re climbing through deep green valleys dotted with dairy cows. At one of the quaint alpine stations, a couple of gangly boys with backpacks stuffed with climbing ropes get off for a day’s recreation.
We switch trains, too, lured by the promise of cheese.
CHEESE MAKING AND MUSEUMS
Gruyères is a busy tourist town, and the first stop is La Maison du Gruyère, a co-operative dairy making cheese with milk delivered from some of the 3,200 milk producing farms in the region. It’s also a working museum and visitors can watch the cheese-making and aging process through picture windows while listening to a running commentary (in several languages) on a hand-held phone. Gruyere is made here twice a day, when milk deliveries arrive and, in the temperature-controlled aging cellar, a robot roams the aisles to turn the 7,000 massive wheels on schedule.
We learn all about the history of Gruyère, an AOP cheese – controlled appellation of origin product – made in 200 cheese dairies in Le Gruyères region, where cows wander the fields with their cow-bells ringing like wind chimes.
The most coveted cheese is the Alpage, made from the milk collected in the summer when the cows are in the highest alpine pastures, with its hints of sweet wild flowers and herbs.
You can buy it in the gift store where a big cheese counter features award-winning Gruyere and other Swiss cheeses, and there’s every kind of fondue pot, raclette machine, or cheesy souvenir you might imagine.
You can also hop on the Fondue Train – an historic little train that runs from Bulle to Montbovon several times every weekend – for a fondue tasting excursion. More adventurous foodies can get a map of the hiking trails around Gruyères from the local tourist office and climb through green alpine pastures, past pretty chalets, on a two-hour hike up to see how cheeses were made before modern automation took over. Or just head to the local Musee Gruérien in Bulle, where a diorama approximates the process.
We opt for a walk up to the walled medieval town of Gruyeres, with its small inns, restaurants and tidy castle. It’s touristy, though we find some interesting corners, from the surreal museum and bar created by avant-garde artist H.R. Giger, to the sweeping views across the valley from the castle gardens.
But it’s really all about the cows – and the milk – here in the canton of Fribourg.
At the annual Désalpes festivities, celebrating the noisy herds of big bell-wearing cows descending from their summer pastures, the best bovine milk producer is crowned the grand dame of the bunch and paraded through town bedecked in flowers. You’ll see the scene depicted in the local folk art that still decorates some farmhouses, naïve paintings of a family’s black (or caramel) and white dairy cows, switching back down the slopes to the farm.
While we only find a few young Holsteins in the fields on this early September afternoon, they come curiously to the fence, their individual bells clanging melodically, when we approach.
Someday their rich milk will be made into the kind of nutty Gruyere that was bubbling atop the thick potato and bacon rosti that I dug out of a hot cast iron skillet for lunch, the thick double cream poured over my Swiss meringue dessert, and those pots of fondue the raucous locals share with us at Le Fribourgeois cafe.
I don’t even want to imagine the calories we’ve consumed, but after a few days walking the steep streets of this mountainous region with my fit Swiss guides, my appetite is ready for the big orange pots of melted cheese streaming out of the kitchen at the Edelwiess.
And though the foggy sounds of the big Alpenhorn blown in the dining room don’t actually bring the cows home from the hills, as I dunk another cube of chewy bread into the warm fondue, I can almost hear their distant bells.
IF YOU GO:
La Maison du Gruyère, Gruyères
Demonstration Gruyere AOC dairy and museum, with a casual Cheese Dairy Restaurant and market where you can buy cheese, fondue pots and specialized cheese cutting and serving equipment.
Fromagerie d’alpage, Moleson
STAY AND EAT:
Small but serviceable rooms in the heart of the busy little alpine town of Bulle. www.alpesgruyere.ch
A classic family restaurant for fondue and other local specialties in Bulle.
12 Place des Alpes, Bulle
At this bakery and tearoom you’ll find deep yellow saffron bread, a specialty of the area, served with moutarde de benichon, a sweet and sour reduction of apples and pears.
5 Avenue de la Gare, Bulle
La Fleur de Lys
A typical tourist restaurant in this small hotel in the old town of Gruyeres – great view of the valley from the terrace and good traditional dishes including rösti with cheese.
14 Rue de Bourg, Gruyeres
Banff may be one of the best places to indulge your fondue fantasies – thanks to a the Swiss mountain guides who first traveled here to guide climbers up unconquered peaks in 1897 – fondue remains a Rocky Mountain tradition. Try it at several spots:
The Grizzly House – All fondue, all the time – any kind of cheese, poultry or protein, from beef and shellfish to rattlesnake and shark.
Ticino – This is a Banff institution, where the chef’s from Appenzell and the fondue is made just as it is in the southern canton of Switzerland.
Bison Bistro – From classic fondue with three Swiss cheeses to goat cheese fondue, this contemporary restaurant specializes in local ingredients, charcuterie and fine cheese.
Mountaintop Fondue in Whistler, BC
Looking for an ambitious dining experience to add to your mountain itinerary in BC? Try this fondue dining adventure in Whistler, operated by Canadian Wilderness Adventures. First, you’ll hop on a snowmobile or snowcat to take a 60-to-90-minute evening journey up Blackcomb Mountain. Your destination is the charming, rustic Crystal Hut, which sits at an elevation of 6,000 feet. There, you’ll enjoy a romantic fondue dinner followed by a freshly-baked fruit pie for dessert, while admiring the panoramic views of the Coast Mountains and Whistler Village below.
And new to BC's capital city, Victoria, is L'Apero Bistro, a cosy spot that's dedicated to wine and cheese, with both fondue and raclette on the small menu. There's a great cheese counter along with picnic boxes and raclette boards to go, you can even have your Swiss dining experience at home.
RECIPE: CLASSIC SWISS FONDUE
Gruyere is essential for classic fondue. It’s usually combined with Emmenthal and Appenzeller, though can be mixed with other cheeses, including Tilsit and Vacherin. Serve air-dried beef, smoked sausage and pickles alongside.
1 clove garlic, halved
¾ cup dry, fruity white wine
1.5 pounds Swiss cheeses (equal parts Gruyere, Emmenthal, Appenzeller), grated
1 -2 tablespoons cornstarch
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
cubes of crusty bread for dipping
Rub the inside of a fondue pot with the cut garlic cloves and add the wine. Bring to a boil over medium heat.
In a bowl, combine the shredded cheeses and toss with the cornstarch.
Add the cheese to the simmering wine, a handful at a time, stirring until melted. Season with salt, pepper and a light grating of nutmeg. Keep the mixture warm and serve bread cubes for dipping. Serves 4.