Eating in the land of chocolate and snow

Switzerland is a cold country most of the time, and the Swiss people are very active.

This means they eat well, and much of what they eat would be classified as hearty food. And with good reason. It takes a helluva lot of calories to keep warm and to nourish an active body.

The potato rösti is ubiquitous – at pretty much every restaurant where we ate in Zurich, Davos and Klosters, it featured on the menu. And sausage – wurst – is another regular. Bratwurst, cervelat, landjäger and schüblig but the one I ate most often last week was bratwurst of generous proportions, accompanied by a rösti, sometimes by vegetables and on other occasions, a lovely green salad.

It would be easy to classify such staple cuisine as pedestrian or uninspired, but that would be a mistake. The food is well prepared and presented, generous in proportion, and always very tasty.

With the temperatures hovering between -2°C and -12°C, eating became something of a focus, as we moved from experience to experience, most of them physically strenuous.

Tobogganing, hiking in the snow and Bavarian curling all gobble calories at a remarkable rate.

A substantial breakfast at our home from home the Sunstar Alpine Hotel in Davos – beautifully full Continental plus omelette and eggs to order, with bacon (crispy streaky and back) and mini bratwurst – disappeared by mid-morning, so that the pending lunch at the next dining establishment was greatly anticipated.

We dined formally at Hotel Alpenhof on Tuesday night, an upmarket establishment which served a magnificent cheese fondue, the national dish of Switzerland.

Being gluten intolerant posed not the slightest challenge. In short order I was served with a bowl of lightly seasoned and roasted baby potatoes, and a platter of veggies cooked just al dente, prefect substitutes for the lovely bread which my travelling companions dipped into the gently bubbling cheese, typically a mixture of Gruyère, Emmental and Appenzeller, melted slowly in dry white wine and kirsch.

The bread is typically baguette-style or firm crumbed artisinal, and each piece is cut with a side of crust which gives the delicate fondue fork purchase, so that you don’t lose your bread in the cheese pot and have to pay a forfeit!

The ceramic bowl with slightly rounded bottom is also traditional, because when you dip your chunk of bread into the cheese you must swirl it around the bottom to prevent the cheese from sticking.

Having said that, the sticky-salty-chewy layer of cheese that adheres to the bottom of the pot when the cheese is almost finished, is a sought after prize.

Of course there are fine dining establishments in all of the places we visited, but their prices would be stratospheric, and typical clientele would be the very well heeled, both local and tourist.

Perhaps the most memorable meal for me, was at Alp Garfiun Restaurant, a goodly distance up the valley from Klosters, en route to the Silvestra Glacier. Our group had split up somewhat, some wanting to walk the about two kilometres on the snow track, while others preferred a slow amble along the roadway.

Feeling the need for a spot of exercise, I race-walked the distance in 16 minutes, and so was ravenous when we arrived at the restaurant.

Imagine our surprise when the chef walked up to our table and said: “Wie van julle kan Afrikaans praat?” And so we met Reinhard Nänny, a Swiss national who had worked in South Africa for 27 years, most recently as exec chef at Neethlingshof Restaurant in Stellenbosch for 13 odd years. Reinhard returned to Switzerland with his family two years ago, and is blissfully happy. (Reinhard’s daughter, Pia, is a contributor to Bolander.)

We shared a board of bündnerteller (air dried meats) and Alpine cheese, after which I had his lovely curry lentil soup, followed by the plate of the day, a golden brown rösti with bündnertrockenfleisch (air dried beef) and melted cheese on top. Just what I needed for the long afternoon that followed.

But it’s not just the food, it’s also the beverages. A prodigious number of artisinal beers, a lovely sweetish amber drink with a touch of effervescence called Rivella (derived from milk), spectacular hot chocolate, and a number of really good pinot noirs, all locally produced.

From a light and fruity Bündte-Wy Maienfeld 2013 to the more substantial Davaz Pinot Noir 2104 from Fräscher near Landqaurt to the magnificent Marschallgut Pinot Noir Reserve Maienfeld 2013. There were more, but those were the ones that truly stood out.

In all the time we were there, and in all our wanderings, including through a fair chunk of Zurich on our last day, I felt that something was missing, and the penny finally dropped when I finally spotted a MacDonald’s and a Burger King, the only two such establishments I recall seeing on the trip.

Unlike so many other European destinations, Switzerland has a dearth of American-style fast food restaurants, and that can only be a goods thing.

No doubt this lack of junk food emporia, coupled with the natural inclination of the Swiss to an active lifestyle – I saw many people, some well into their later years, energetically tackling Alpine cross country skiing, hiking and walking, riding bicycle, and jogging – contributes to the remarkable paucity of obese people. I saw only one person in our four days in the country that I’d classify as obese.

But Switzerland is an expensive country to visit, particularly on the Rand (1CHF=R16).

A bratwurst will run you around CHF6-7.5, a glass of wine or beer, or a cappuccino or hot chocolate, about the same.

As guests of Switzerland Tourism, we dined on some occasions on vouchers of CHF50 each, and while we did not eat lavishly we did eat very well and heartily, including a few glasses of wine each.

In Rands, that amounts to about R800 a head, so doing those little calculations in your head as you contemplate what to order, is a self-defeating exercise, and you learn very quickly to not do it.

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