Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Things I Love About Switzerland (Part Two)

Swiss Craftsmanship

I don't think most Americans are aware of the high level of craftsmanship that seems to flow through the veins of the Swiss people. For those who have ever known any Amish folks may have an idea of what I'm talking about, since the Amish are of Swiss origin. I'm referring to people who have been using skills from the seventeenth century to make their way in the world. This may not sound terribly romantic to those of us deeply entrenched in our modern gadgetry...but any craftsman would appreciate the skill of making a barn from a six-foot sawblade and a wood plane, or fixing the wheel of a horsedrawn carriage. I grew up in Missouri, so maybe I had more exposure to the Amish community than some, but as a kid, I thought their way of life was pretty cool.

Over the Easter holiday, I was preparing dinner at my friend's home in the Swiss Canton of Valais. They have a fairly modern kitchen, but my eyes lit up at the sight of their mandolin. I always appreciate seeing kitchen gadgets, since a good gadget can make my life so much easier. This was a charming tool made of three pieces of wood, an adjustable blade, and no glue whatsoever. It's a lot like a wood plane, upside down, with a notch in the front leg to wedge against the counter, and a finger hole for ease of moving or hanging. The simplicity of the design and the building materials was a marvel for me, and it was the tool I used more than anything else except the stove.

Of course, there are other designs for the mandolin. The French model (Matfer) shown is all stainless steel, also with an adjustable blade, and can be folded for storage after use. That's nice enough, except that it's heavy and quite expensive. Then there is the plastic Japanese model (Benriner) that has dominated the professional market because it is small and cheap. It also has an adjustable blade, but the plastic parts tend to bend and perform unevenly with sustained usage. So, if you have the space, for the best performance and the most charm, I recommend the Swiss model.

Cool Tools Modernized

One of my favorite things about cooking in another country is finding these special tools. Yes, their mandolin is cool, but I'd used mandolins before. I was pretty excited to see one of their many specialized waffle irons. This dandy is an electric appliance that makes a pressed cookie like something between a tuile and a Belgian Waffle. The Swiss call these treats bricelets or brezeli, and they can be made either savory or sweet. While they are warm, they can be shaped like a tuile, light and crunchy! You can shape cones or cigars, make tile shapes or just leave them flat. The original waffle irons were pattern-engraved cast-iron plates on the end of long iron handles, so they could be warmed in the fire.

You pour the batter into the press and close it. The batter cooks very quickly, and stays crisp as long as they are dry. I wanted to use them as a kind of tartine covered with sweetened ricotta, poached rhubarb and mandarins, not a traditional preparation, but tasty nonetheless.

The Swiss Betty Crocker

If there is one cookbook author that is universally recognized in Switzerland, it is Betty Bossi. She has collected and published extensive recipes from across the country. Taken as a whole, her works are much like a Swiss Joy of Cooking. I found a nice bricelet recipe, but perused another hour through the culinary repertoire.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Things I Love About Switzerland (Part One)

Foraging in the Alpes

Several years ago, I was working at a small chalet in Switzerland. As the Spring snow began to melt, the chef would take me into the wooded hillsides to gather young shoots he called "l'ail des ours," or bear's garlic. As the name indicates, this is one of the first foods of the bear's coming out of hibernation. I had never heard of them before. They were very fragrant, and patches were abundant. We would gather large bags full of the leaves and make them into pureed sauces or pestos with a flavor and aroma of leeks and green garlic.
On a recent visit to Switzerland this Easter, I saw them again at the farmer's market in Zug. This beautiful lake town is in the German-speaking region, where the plants are called "baerlauch," or bear's leek. What I did not know of until then was the two toxic look-alikes of baerlauch, the herbstzeitlose (colchicum autumnale), and maiglockchen (convallaria majalis). I thought about how carefree I used to gather them with my chef. He didn't seem too concerned about the toxic imposters.
Every year, as the season approaches, newspapers and televisions show pictures of the three plants to minimize the annual incidents of food poisoning. If this sounds unfamiliar to most American cooks and foragers, it is because the bear's leek, ramsons (allium ursinium) as they are known in English, do not grow in North America. Instead, we have ramps (allium tricoccum), whose name comes from its European cousin. Ramps have fewer leaves and a handsomely developed bulb. To my palate, the flavor of ramson is more like wild garlic, whereas a ramp tastes more like a wild spring onion. The ramps pictured below are the first of the season. As time goes on, the bulb near the roots becomes more pronounced.
Both plants offer an early taste of spring in these fresh, green and fragrant plants. It is a fleeting harvest with a season of usually less than a month. In Switzerland, we were canning ramson sauces to extend the season into summer. We'll be pickling ramps in the next few weeks. Unfortunately, my foraging friends and I have finally accepted the fact that ramps do not grow in this part of the country. What we have comes to us from the Great Lakes and the Appalachians, but we'll enjoy whatever they send our way. We often yearn for distant flavors, and the memories that come with them.