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Switzerland: The Food. My God, the Food.

French food? Mais oui. Italian? Buongiorno! Spanish tapas? Si! Swiss cooking? Um…what? It just doesn’t sound right, does it? If you’ve only focused on chocolate and fondue though, you’ve been missing out. Swiss food is the ultimate comfort food and man is it ever comforting: comforting to the tune of fifteen additional pounds in my first year on Swiss soil.

There are the cream sauces, used on cutlets and, my favorite artery-clogging example, whole hardboiled eggs. There are the breads: soft, braided white-bread zopf on Sundays and nussgipfeli (croissants wrapped around tasty, tasty ground up nuts and sugariness). There are the endless cookies and the herbs-and-croutons cup o’ soup, the rosti, the rosti with cheese, the rosti with bacon. The raclette. And, oh my Lord, the cheese. Bring me all the cheeses. ALL of them.

The first thing on my list when I land in Zurich is Migros, the grocery store chain. Say, “Grüzi,” to the family and then off to Migros. Unfortunately for our vacation plans, R had to come back to San Francisco for business three days into our time in Switzerland. Fortunately for our autumn, that meant he could schlep back a duffle of culinary goodies that we then didn’t have to take along on the Italian leg of the trip. (It also meant that we could reload that same duffle when we passed through Zurich on our way home a week and a half later. How sweet is that? Pretty sweet, that’s how sweet.)

So here’s what you should try while you’re there, plus some tips to getting Swiss goodness on this side of the Atlantic (or the Pacific, if you’re really disoriented and into flying the wrong way round).

  1. Kuche

    The VICTORY of the trip: kuche (if you’re in Bern) or wähe (if you’re in Zurich). Kuche is a fruit tart with a firm custard-like filling that’s made in a flat bottomed, wide quiche pan. The fruit is usually fresh, the custard filling not very sweet, and the crust approximately like a quiche’s but covered with a thin layer of ground hazelnuts. (If you want it sweeter, you can serve it with a little whipped cream. A very little.) I love it and have loved it since I first had it as a teenager.

    However, I’ve never been able to find a recipe in the States and even if I had, I doubt I would’ve tried it because it involves dough. Let’s be clear: dough and I have a long and unhappy history punctuated by embarrassment and disaster. (For me, that is. The dough just sits there all smug.) It sticks. I add flour. It stops sticking. I stop adding flour. It ends up tough as nails. It took me three years to produce a decent biscuit, I won’t even try bread, and pie crusts make me cry.

    Times they are a’changing though, people. With the aid of a Xerox machine (for the recipe, not the dough), Migros’ pre-packaged pastry (smuggled), and a Cuisinart (for pulverizing hazelnuts), I am the proud owner of a kuche of my very own, served in the photo on my grandmother’s china with a cup of afternoon tea.

    It turns out that the recipe is so absurdly simple that no one even bothers to publish it in real cookbooks. R’s cousin Tanja found it for me in her Home Ec textbook from high school and it has all of five ingredients (besides the dough). Cut-up fruit (apricots are my favorite), the hazelnuts, milk, an egg, and a little sugar. Yeah, I’m an idiot, but now I’m a self-satisfied, fruit-filled idiot.

  2. Amaretti

    Another wild success from this trip. I got hooked on the Swiss, chewy version of these almond cookies while visiting Tessin, the Italian canton in the south. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I would spend the next ten years purchasing and swearing at the super-hard, not-at-all-like-what-I-wanted version offered by Italian restaurants and stores in New York and San Francisco before giving up on ever finding what I was looking for again.

    Lo and behold, as I was waiting for my train to Milan at the Zurich station, I happened to dawdle by a farmer’s market vendor selling breads and pastries. Next to the linzertorte lay a few craggy cookies powdered lightly with sugar and labeled as amaretti. I braced for disappointment and handed over a few francs. I needn’t have (braced, that is, not paid. It’s Switzerland: you always have to pay.) Ah, the chewy taste of sweet success! I’m back, baby!

    It turns out, after further research and discussion, that these amaretti are, after all, a different animal than the hard as rocks Italian cookie. Nice of them to name them differently, don’t you think? Jerks.

    Another trip to Migros and I scored three different versions of my (re)new(ed) best friend which I’ve worked my way through at an alarming pace since we got back. I got some small square ones, 20 to a bag, that are OK, still soft but without the slightly crunchy exterior layer. The layered ones in the photo are ridiculously good but might put you in sugar shock: the middle layer is an inch of soft milk chocolate laced with liqueur. The closest to the homemade are the same cookie (same photo) without the chocolate and I would eat them until I threw up except I only bought one pack so I had to ration them. They’re gone now, so I might have to start experimenting with recipes off the internet. Good thing I just joined that gym down the hill.

  3. Meringues

    Aside from chocolate, I always bring back meringue cookies, usually the ones with their little bottoms dipped in chocolate, but this trip, Tanja converted me to a straight-up meringue lover. Put them (or just one, if you’ve gotten or made the large ones) in the bottom of a bowl, cover them with whipped cream and throw on a bunch of berries. You’re welcome.

    I know I could’ve been eating this all along if I bothered to make meringues, which I know how to do, but meringues take so long to bake I just can’t take it.

    (Reading all of the above, I do seem to have issues with patience and preparation in the kitchen, don’t I? I’ll have to have a long think about that as soon as the sugar-induced hyperactivity wears off.)

  4. Spätzle

    Spätzle, translated charmingly as “little sparrows” is a kind of tiny dumplingy tastiness. Again, something I could make myself, but I prefer to rely on Migros’ vacuum-packed goodness that is at the ready in my cupboard whenever I need my fix. I’ve bought the dried spätzle available in supermarkets here, but it’s not quite right, dry instead of moist and a general disappointment.

    If you live in San Francisco, hit Suppenkuche in Hayes Valley for the original and order the Jägerschnitzel in Champignonsoße mit Spätzle und grünem Salat. It’s what spätzle should be: soft, yummy and covered with a creamy mushroom sauce.

  5. Rösti

    Rösti is R’s preferred side dish: grated potatoes fried as a pancake and flipped so both top and bottom are brown and crispy. (I make a mess of the flipping bit, so R handles that. Can you tell I’m not much of a cook?) Yet again, not so hard to make at home, but that would require forethought, patience and a lot of grating, none of which sound good to me, so packs of plain rösti, cheese rösti and rösti with bacon bits come back with us.

  6. Pastetli

    I can’t begin to explain to you how rich pastetli are and how much you need to make some.

    Here’s what they are: puff pastry shells filled with mushroom cream sauce with little kügeli, or balls, of what they claim to be veal. (I know I shouldn’t eat veal, but I console myself that little Swiss cows have much happier lives than American calves who are treated abominably and whose farmers must, I fear, have black hearts.) I say “claim” because the little meat balls are the consistency of bratwurst, not regular meat. Those meat balls are the missing link. I’ve found the pastry shells in the freezer section of the grocery store courtesy of Pepperidge Farm, so I’m set there, and I can make a mushroom sauce by adding milk to roux, but the meat escapes me.

    In Switzerland, you can buy packages of the fleisch kügeli to add to your sauce and come at it that way or, of course, you can rely on Migros 100% and buy their packets of pastetenfullung as I have and horde them for comforting dinners at the end of your very worst days. I’ll keep you posted if I sort out the meat component and figure out how to make my own.

So we’re sorted for now on the Swiss food front, but I might need to start an import/export ring to keep the supply lines properly open. Or learn to cook, I guess , which somehow seems harder.

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European Tour 2009: What Worked

The tour included business and theater in London (humid, grey), a wedding in Switzerland (formal), a couple of sweltering days in Milan, holiday with family in Venice, a little down time in Zurich, a lot of time in flight, a couple days on trains, and short trips on trams and boats. That’s a lot of different climates and even more transitions from flats to hotels and back and forth between countries.

Across all that, there were a few things that stood out as being incredibly handy to have and made the trip’s insane logistics so much easier to manage.

The Best Bag Ever (especially on the road): Marghera Convertible

I, like most of you, have spent an undisclosed portion of my adult life seeking the perfect bag. Luckily for both of us, I’ve found it. Aside from its excellent green-ness which works for day and night, the features I love the most are its ability to switch from a handled bag to a shoulder bag (it folds over) and to contain my laptop without betraying its presence.

To be fair, that laptop is a Mac Air (which, incidentally, I love like my unconceived children), so its weight doesn’t put a strain on the bag’s leather shoulder strap and its unusually slim form allows it to slide horizontally into a bag like this that wouldn’t accommodate either its Apple bretheren or any other standard size laptops. Don’t look at this as a draback though: this is your opportunity to justify both a new computer and a new bag.

When not housing your ‘puter, the capacity is generous enough to hold small purchases in addition to the usual wallet, iPhone, keys and assorted cousins. Two flat outside pockets are exactly the size of your airline ticket and one small one inside will hold your passport.

Where to get it: Sundance Catalog. Currently on sale for $250.

iPhone

R talked me into an iPhone the day before we left the country, mainly so I could make international calls and send text messages in Europe without buying a just-for-international phone with a different phone number everybody then has to remember. I was ambivalent. Did I really want to get worked up about something so many people are already worked up about? Wouldn’t it be more fair to the coolness marketplace to get worked up about something more obscure? And wouldn’t I look cooler if I did that second one instead?

Also, I liked my little Blackberry Pearl and the consistency of Verizon. Why move to something bigger with AT&T’s terrible coverage?

Because it’s pocket-sized awesomeness, that’s why.

Really, though, the main thing was having a phone and text messaging which meant we could split up for the afternoon and still coordinate keys, dinner, and so on. I don’t know what we’d have done without it.

Where to get it: Apple.

iPhone App: Hi Converter

It converts things. Correction: it converts EVERYTHING. Do you want to know how many hectares are in a bunder? How many ngarns are in a square angstrom? Did you know there was such a thing as a square light year? The area converter can help. When you’re done there, the distance converter will turn your miles into gnat’s eyes (.00000007761). You can do electric current and digital image resolution conversions in your spare time.

Aside from its clear entertainment value, it will also convert your euros into dollars based on today’s exchange rate, your size at Bloomingdale’s into your size at Harrod’s, and 40 Celsius into a more comprehensibly crispy 104 Fahrenheit.

Where to get it: App Store.

iPhone App: Collins Italian-English Dictionary

Since I speak German and a chunk of Spanish and can get by in French, I’ve been arrogantly cruising around Europe for quite a while without having to feel like a complete tourist. Those days came to a jarring end at the Italian border. Enter the iPhone (again).

Of all the dictionaries I tried, the $25 Collins was the best. It covers a lot of ground: direct translations, peripheral usage, colloquialisms and common (or, in the best cases, not at all common) phrases.

$25 is a lot for an app and I know no one wants to pay more than 99 cents, but the frustration of looking up a word and finding no results repeatedly on other apps gets old fast. You spent $1200 to get to Italy, you can spare another $25 to pull up with, “L’ho gettato nel water,” to explain the whereabouts of your passport/hairbrush/traveler’s checks. (Translates to, “I threw it in the toilet,” by the way.)

Where to get it: App Store

Hideo Wakamatsu 20″ Viewer Trolley

The day after we got back from Barcelona in June, I biked over to the Hideo Wakamatsu store to check out superlight international carry-on sized luggage. I biked home with a silver 6.5 lb., 20″ Viewer Trolley hanging from my handlebars.

Why the post-trip rush? Because you have to seize the moment when your shoulder still hurts from schlepping a non-rolling bag and your ego still smarts from looking like a hands-full-of-stuff schmuck, and solve your problem.

My problem is that we have a bunch of stuff – some of it heavy – that I won’t check. R’s 35mm camera, my jewelry, things I’ll want on the plane (sweater, megaphone, another sweater, snacks) and essential clothing (an extra T-shirt and undies, plus whatever we would die without if they lost our luggage, like a swimsuit if we’re going to be beach or my dress for the wedding we’re attending). That pile of stuff always ends up being more than I want to carry in a shoulder bag, but I don’t want to drag around an actual suitcase with all the rest of my non-essential stuff too. (Besides, most American 22″ roll-on suitcases are too heavy, once packed, to meet international flight restrictions.) What to do? Until last month, I chose “suffer” rather than add another suitcase to the mix.

That was the wrong choice. The Viewer kicks ass. It’s super light for getting in and out of bins, and its four wheels allow you to roll it next to you with your computer bag on top. It’s like walking a very quiet, rectangular pet. Your hands are free, your shoulder is relaxed, and you look like the seasoned traveler you actually are.

Quick warning: the lovely matte finish on the bag will mark, so brace yourself for that before you check it (if you ever decide you need to, that is). I haven’t checked it yet myself, so I’ve no idea how well it holds up to airline abuse, but it’s done beautifully inside planes, trams, and trains.

Where to get it: Currently out of stock at the eponymous shop but available – albeit inaccurately described as having two wheels and not four – at Flight 001.

Business Class

Traveling in business class (or above) is the way to go. I know there is no one (except possibly this jerk) who is in favor of the turn that air travel has taken in the last ten years. These days, the coach cabin on a long-haul flight looks more and more like the back of a Central American chicken truck. Between the the addition of bad things (longer lines and delays, ineffective security, fees for everything) and the elimination of good things (space, food, customer service), there’s pretty much nothing positive to say about flying except that you will get where you’re going not dead (mostly).

R travels for work, which rots but has a significant up side: he accumulates crazy numbers of miles and little stacks of upgrade certificates. We use the former to get me where he’s already going and the latter to get us there, occasionally, in business class. I don’t need warmed nuts and real china, but the quiet and the space bring the airborne experience back from the brink of catatonia into the land of, “I might not maim someone first thing when I get off the plane.”

Where to get it: Get a job where you a.) travel a lot (our way), b.) make a lot of money or c.) can commit a lot of untraceable financial fraud.

Bulletins from Abroad – Christmas

I have come to Switzerland to meet my boyfriend’s extended family. His mother is the eldest of six, nearly all of their collective offspring living in and around Zurich, meaning, they’re all here. By odd coincidence unconnected to my boyfriend, I lived in Switzerland, first as a student and then as a ‘non-resident worker’ which describes well the draconian conditions of the job I had at the sinister train station cafe does not cover the glamour of living abroad and frequenting hyper-hip clubs until five in the morning (when I had to be back at work). Unexpectedly, I also learned the language.

One of Switzerland?s quirks is its German. The Swiss, being a stubborn bunch (and lovable, I hasten to stress), held onto the original German language when the rest of the German world decided one century long ago to standardize on what we now know as High German (or Hochdeutsch). As invariably happens with languages, the two – high German and Swiss dialect – have grown ever farther apart and Swiss German is no longer meaningfully comprehensible to any other German. It is also not a written language, despite the quaint efforts of a handful of misguided authors. All of this is very handy for the Swiss, not just in that they can discuss those around them pretty much anywhere else in the world without fear of being understood but also because it reinforces their apartness, their clarity of history, currency and business, unpolluted by immigrants, wars and foreign or even general influence.

This is not to say that Switzerland is a tiny Brigadoon, floating apart in the center of Europe. It is very much part of Europe and recognizably so, but, like Europe?s other countries of any size, it has elusive but distinct national characteristics of which the language is likely the most prominent example. It;s not an easy language and there’s really no official way to learn it. The process is additionally complicated by the regional dialects which vary both by accent and their employment of entirely different words for the same items. Also, everyone speaks high German (the language of the educational system) and nearly everyone speaks English, further obliterating in foreigners any need or desire to learn dialect. Needless to say, learning it is a daunting and usually fruitless enterprise. Not learning it however leaves a subtle gap between you and assimilation.

How then did I, a young unassimilated student, happen to pick up Swiss German when, say, my boyfriend’s father has not yet picked it up after 40 years of marriage to his Swiss wife? I worked with children. I had no idea that taking that babysitting job for three small Swiss girls would result in such a long-lasting advantage. The three-year-old, the only verbal one of the three, spoke only dialect and French. I spoke no French, so dialect it was. It has been commonly noted that children are without fear. It is less common to note that they lack shame, which provides a great platform for learning things from them. So there we are: I speak Swiss German and, fourteen years later, find myself in Switzerland with my Swiss boyfriend, speaking this uncommon language with his multitude of relatives. How very handy and, apparently, impressive. I am the Christmas novelty. Fear me. I am the Nutcracker.