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Switzerland à la Carte

By Lavender January 30, 2009

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The payback started at the airport. The connector trams play mood music that’s distinctly Swiss: mooing cows and moaning Alpine horns.

I’m no fool. I’ll leave the ski resorts to those more agile. I’m here to eat. If the way to a girl’s heart is through her stomach, bring it on! From cheese to chocolate, the Swiss know a thing or two about food. And the scenery is nothing short of jaw-dropping, too.

St. Gallen’s Public Fountain. (Left) Marlat Lugano. Saturday Merket in Bellinzona. Outdoor Cafes on Lugano’s Steep Street. Lugano’s Westshore on a Sunny Day. Photos by Carla Waldemar

Past muscular mountains punching through clouds, we traveled on trains as precise as Swiss watches past villages neater than a Grandma Moses painting, clustered in green crevices. A girl in pigtails waved. I’m sure her name was Heidi.

Fog slinked down from the hills in the early morning, dressing the medieval town of St. Gallen in mystery. Here, in the east of Switzerland, German is the spoken language, and the way of life. The town grew up where St. Gallen, a monk who set off from Ireland in 612 to convert the heathen, met up with a bear who spared his life, or so the story goes. With Christianity came education, so St. Gallen flourished as a knowledge center.

Today, the first rude church has grown into a magnificent Baroque abbey, shimmering with stuccowork, carved confessionals overlooked by pudgy cherubs, and not one but three organs that proclaim its grandeur. Next door rises a library from the Ninth Century—also a gorgeous UNESCO Heritage Site—housing the grandest collection of handwritten manuscripts in the world.

Across the cobbles of the Old Town stands St. Lawrence, the Protestant stronghold. To keep the two faiths from intermingling, a huge wall was built down the center of town in 1560, and there it stood for 250 years. But the monks may have had the better marketing plan. Whenever St. Lawrence’s bells called Lutherans to worship, the holy brothers would lure them their way by handing out free beer.

Textiles, and their fancy embroidery, is what put bread on the table of St. Gallen’s merchants. Their houses, in the half-timbered medieval style, all sport second-story aurioles—aka bay windows—whose carvings of exotica, pineapples to camels, proclaim the one-uppmanship of their owners (“foreign to you, buster, but hey: I’ve heard of Africa”).

St. Gallen is a living museum, too, with houses of the sombre Middle Ages, the refined Renaissance, and the sleek Art Deco standing side by side. To take that to the edge, in 2006, the town’s Open Living Room debuted—a plaza red-carpeted with tongue-in-cheek “rooms.” And Spain’s Calatrava, the archtect of the moment, has erected a futuristic bus stop, seaming the past with the future.

The food does the same. A lunch at Restaurant Schlossli—member of the Culinarium group, which showcases local products—was architected with a Calatravan air: veal tartare paired with smoked trout as starter, followed by veal crusted in cheese paired with nutmeg-scented polenta, climaxing in a dessert trio of semifreddo, apple mousse, and intense plum sorbet. The Romans first made wine here. Today, it’s Pinot Noir that reigns.

But fine doesn’t have to be fancy. Another Culinarium member, Marktplatz, creates tremors with St. Gallen’s famous bratwurst (mustard is a no-no—like adding a moustache to the Mona Lisa), paired with rosti potatoes (hashed browns gone to heaven).

The next night’s casual dinner at Fondue Biezli delivered that artform in two varieties: cheese and beef, which we cooked in bubbling bouillon. Well, three versions: also a chcolate fondue in which to dandle chunks of fruit.

Brats demand beer, you say? So do I, and it’s off to Kornhaus Brewery in Rorschach, not far away, where you can make your own (under expert guidance), or cut to the chase and sample their half-dozen fine varieties.

Then, time to hit the rails (a Swiss Pass makes it easy) to Schaffhausen, another fairytale medieval town, with a stop along the way at Appenzell to check out the cheese. Talk about beginner’s luck! This was the morning—first Tuesday in October—of the annual parade of cows home from the mountain for the winter. Forget the bulls of Pamplona: The cows of Appenzell, bells clanking, jostle through the street, prodded by their cute-as-all-get-out herders in yellow trousers, flower crowns atop their hats, and a single earring with minicowbell dangling near their sideburns. Later, sounds of singing floated from a bierstube, where the young gents yodeled in harmony.

At Appenzall’s Demonstration Dairy, we watched as milk turned to cheese, then lunched on the richest mac and cheese ever to hit my palate, aside a hefty link of wurst and dessert of chestnut vermicelli—pretend “noodles” of tasty chestnut mousse.

Rivaling Catholic St. Gallen in eye candy of the architectural sort, Schaffhausen adheres to Luther and his Reformation. Poised at a bend in the Rhine River, where trading made it rich, in a bout of conspicuous consumption, burghers added lavish aurioles (bay windows) to their medieval half-timbered houses—the better to spy on goings-on in the street, as well as show off their deep pockets. Others painted the whole facade in storytelling frescoes. Grand fountains decorate the former marketplaces, now domain of coffeehouses, boutiques, and open air cafés, guarded by gaunt stone towers of the wall that once girdled the town.

Nearby, the turbulent Rheinfalls is the largest waterfall in all Europe, but beyond, it smooths out for kayaks to laze their way to farms like Bolderhof, raising organic everything, from veggies to cattle. In fact—here’s a first—cow-trekking is on offer. Hop aboard Bossy for a trail ride, and later, try your hand at milking, before lunching on homegrown glories like veal with spaetzle and scads of fresh veggies, served with wine from the neighbor’s vineyard.

On the rails again, my book remained unopened. Instead, eyes were glued to nature’s beauty pagaent, as we raced south to Lugano, trading “guten tag” for “buon giorno” in Italian-speaking Switzerland.

Brawny mountains cascade into Lugano’s famed lakeshore, scalloped with promenades. Life asssumes a Mediterranean glow here, just 45 minutes from Milan: la dolce vita distilled through an orderly, sedating lens. Here, I’m instructed with a laugh, “visitors from Zurich are considered foreigners.” (Bonus: Swiss francs are far kinder to an American pocketbook than Italian euros.)

Shoppers licked gelato, as they scanned the windows of Louis Vuitton on the pedestrian mall, punctuated by chestrut roasters, flower stalls, and shops garlanded with sausages. Ultramodern sculptures adorn grassy boulevards, but inside the sombre facade of churches like Sta. Maria degli Angeli, the walls are burnished with frescoes 500 years old, painted by the star pupil of Da Vinci, whose Last Supper he also recreated here.

Edible art is the forte at Hotel Principe Leopoldo, whose chef refines the Italian table with his specialty, risotto—tonight, flavored with an elegant sea bass sauce. Foie gras with pear jam preceded it, and turbot with artichokes, tomatoes, and olives came next, boosted by sips of the region’s distinctive red and white Merlots.

The only thing better than the view at Villa Sassa is what proceeds from its own kitchen, where folks can dine on everyday miracles like garganelli pasta tossed with with mushrooms and arugula, then local pike-perch paired with Mediterranian veggies, and dessert fashioned of figs in Port paired with pistachio gelato.

Exploring culinary finds in the surrounding hillsides keeps the taste buds tingling. After a hike on the Chestnut Path, one of many themed wooded trails, I was more than ready for lunch at Il Castagna—“the chestnut”—earning its name with taglietelle spun of chestnut flour, outshone only by a risotto mined with hazelnuts and Gorgonzola. Then, prosciutto and the season’s fresh figs, matched with white Merlot, to usher me into heaven. Merlot is the grape of choice at nearby Tambornini Winery—“making wine with passion since 1944”—including red, white, and rose Merlot, plus a stunning sparkler crafted from Pinot Noir. The winery offers guestrooms with grand view of the rolling vineyards. Don’t think I wasn’t tempted.

But promise of dinner in one of Lugano’s “grotto” cafés prevailed. Grotto Morchino, a typically earthy, rustic grotto, succeeds with simple regional eats: minestrone, then a trio of entrées served family-style—stewed rabbit with risotto, braised beef atop polenta, and pork shank paired with potatoes—followed by chestnut roulade, and a sip of the local grappa, flavored with walnuts, nugmeg, and vanilla. Red-corn polenta, this time, was the star of the menu at Locanda del Ghitello, set in a woodsy park aside a mill, where, for centuries, that corn was ground.

OK, I didn’t spend every minute eating. I also hopped a train to Bellinzona to watch others do it—well, shop, anyway, at its flamboyant Saturday market. The sweet little town also boasts three UNESCO-cited castles from the Middle Ages, where folks are free to roam.

I roamed, that evening, to a final feast—this time at Motto del Gallo, a warren of 15th-Century houses dressed in antiques, where an elegant kitchen produces a pâté of venison and gamebird. Next, the house’s homemade pasta kicks in: Choose noodle “bonbons” filled with suckling pig and porcini; squid ink tagliolini with vegetables and basil; or noodles flavored with cranberries (!) tossed with baby shrimp. Then, a melange of turbot and red mullet in Merlot, spangled with pomegranate seeds—or go for the café’s namesake young rooster, baked in pumpkin flour with whiskey, sided with an apple soufflé. A finale of fig gelato brought me to my knees.

Eventually I rose to face reality, such as a plane to catch. But I’ll be back.

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