Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Things I Love About Switzerland (Part Three)

The world's greatest foods are produced in unique geography, the great hams of Spain, the whiskey of Scotland, the spices of India, and the cheeses of the Swiss Alps. Throughout Europe, the migration of pasturing animals is known as transhumance, and each region has it's particular ceremonies. In southern Switzerland, the ritual of transhumance is at the heart of the outstanding milk used to make some of the world's finest cheeses.

In May or June, when the snows have melted and the vegetation is lush and verdant, it is time for the migration of the black cows toward their alpine pastures for the hundred days of summer. These cows are called stacha in the Swiss dialect (or herens in French), meaning "to puncture," since they must battle each other to establish the hierarchy of the herd. This festival is called the Stachfascht, and determines which cow will be the queen for the season. Then the cows are groomed and decked with flowers, adorned with exquisitely embroidered straps and bells, and paraded up the mountain. This pageant is known as the alpaufzug (inalpe in French), and is commonly depicted in artworks, and painted on walls and facades of the chalets and farmhouses of Gruyere.

The summer days are spent in the pristine alpine pastures, and the cows are numbered to identify their various owners. My friends in the canton of Der Wallis (Valais), the Treyer family, have a summer cabin in the high Alps, and they often lease their mountain pastures for grazing. The luscious milk produced during these summer days in the high Alps is very rich in butterfat and herbal nuances, and has established the worldwide reputation of Swiss cheeses. In September, as the days grow cooler on the mountain, the herd is brought down before the snows return, and the celebration of alpabzug (desalpe) begins. For their triumphant return into the valleys, the cows are often immaculately groomed for beauty pageants, and twelve foot trumpets are sounded in their honor.

Regrettably, the variety of Swiss cheeses is little known in America. Generic "Swiss cheese" is often a cheap imitation of emmantal, a firm, sweet and nutty, unsalted cheese whose famous eyes or holes are created by carbon dioxide given off by the bacterial cultures during aging. Gruyere is also quite well known, a little more firm and intense than emmantal. Fresh cheeses like quark resemble the fromage blanc of France, and the outstanding double cream Vacherin Mont D'Or is creamy, with a washed rind, wrapped in a strip of bark for structure and aroma. One of my favorites is the tete de moine, which is a semi-firm, salty and sweet cheese that is made in small cylinders, and shaved into delicate curls with a clever tool called a girolle. The ancient Schabzieger had been made since medieval times, a thousand year tradition. The curd is powdered and ground with herbs like fenugreek and ziegerklee (shepherd's shamrock) before being pressed into little three ounce cones called stockli. At this point, it is a very shelf-stable condiment to be grated over any number of dishes and casseroles.
Most Swiss cheeses are best appreciated soft and warm. The croute au fromage is a rustic lunch of sliced toast and ham smothered with melted cheese, and if you like, a fried egg. It is a deep dish version of croque monsieur. The raclette holds a special place at the Swiss table. A half wheel of cheese is heated near the fire, or under a special grill, and scraped from the rind, served with warm, boiled potatoes, pickled vegetables, a few turns of the pepper mill, and a few glasses of the local fendant.
Undoubtedly, the quintessential cheese preparation is fondue au fromage. Fondue is served over a flame in a glazed earthenware or metal casserole called a caquelon. Grated cheeses are melted with white wine, garlic and kirsch, and eaten with skewers of cubed country bread, which you dip into the molten cheese and pop in the mouth while piping hot. The cheeses used are usually a blend of two or three, gruyere and vacherin, with additions of appenzell or bagnes according to your taste. The age and ripeness of the cheese is crucial to obtain the necessary smoothness in melting.
After the cheese has been devoured, there is often a brownish orange crust of caramelized cheese on the bottom of the caquelon. This is not some dreaded dishwashing chore, but the coveted pinnacle of the fondue experience. Use the skewer to peel the crust from the pot, and enjoy the slightly chewy, deep rich caramel snack the Swiss call the religieuse. It is named after the color of a nun's handmade garments, which it resembles, or perhaps the reverence with which it is eaten.

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