9. Apr, 2015

In defense of the Swiss

“Hospitality consists in a little fire, a little food and an immense quiet.” – Ralph Waldo Emmerson.

Whenever Switzerland gets mentioned, caricatures abound. There are the secretive trolls who run numbered bank accounts for crooked foreigners. Next you have the yodelling village idiot who builds cuckoo clocks and plays the Alpine horn in his spare time. To me the most misplaced stereotype has to be the sullen hotelier in a spotless (and soulless) hotel. Whoever created this myth in the first place was probably some masochist who enjoyed schlepping luggage up narrow, creaking stairways and would describe a run-down hotel on the Left Bank as charming. He or she probably didn’t have much of a social life either – why else would someone have a problem with being allowed a large personal space?

Call me left field, but I really enjoy staying in a comfortable, well-maintained hotel where you could eat off the floor if you so wished. I also have enough friends and family not to have to go and befriend strangers when I am on holiday. And – because I work in a service industry – I prefer dealing with people who under-promise and over-deliver. Give me a reserved person who does what I want, rather than a gregarious bungler. Hence my soft spot for Swiss hotels.

Switzerland is a wonderfully diverse country. Apart from containing four discreet linguistic groups (German, French, Italian and Romanisch; each group contributing to the richness of the country’s cultural life and cuisine) the land itself is varied and full of contrasts. While much of it is alpine, with stark mountains, and forests and meadows in lower-lying areas, there are also large tracts of cultivated land with huge lakes and rivers. Within the four main cultural groups there are also numerous subcultures due to the relative geographic isolation in which various communities evolved.

Not totally unexpected in a country where entire communities lived in relative isolation until recently, and where foreigners come to store and retrieve their riches in anonymity, the Swiss are not talkative, outgoing people. They have turned quiet efficiency into an art form. They have also leveraged their multilingual national makeup; being able to serve foreign customers in Geman, French and Italian as well as English. With this broadening of media has inevitably come a dilution of spontaneity – apart from an exceptionally gifted few, it is naturally quite hard for most people to be relaxed and charming in four different languages.

Switzerland’s signature dish has to be fondue. It is often stereotyped as a retro pursuit, straight from the 60s and 70s. I beg to differ. Notwithstanding what the cool kids have to say, I honestly believe that it embodies many of the best elements of a good meal – it can be very healthy (or not), it breaks the ice by bringing people together physically, and (much like eating steamed artichokes) a bouillon fondue can actually be kilojoule-negative (i.e. one expends more energy preparing the food than is gained by eating it).

One of the most enjoyable ways of spending a cold winter’s evening with friends or family is to have an all-fondue dinner party. For starters, cook vegetables, prawns and mussels, cubes of chicken and beef and slices of sausage (we love Bockwurst) in court bouillon. Take a breather, open more full-bodied red wine and move on to a cheese and bread fondue. After another intermission, have a chocolate fondue for dessert!

As you probably know by now, I believe strongly that food and wine have a synergistic relationship. The words “Swiss” and “wine” are not commonly used in the same sentence, much like “Jewish” and “lock forward”. I went to Switzerland with very modest expectations, and was pleasantly surprised.

Next to the codes to their famous bank vaults, Switzerland’s best-kept secret has to be its excellent wines. The Swiss and the Argentines both like their local wine so much that they drink most of it themselves! Less than 1% of the country’s annual production is exported, and most Swiss wine is actually consumed within its canton of origin. My favourite white cultivar is Chasselas, with which wines in a wide variety of styles are made in the Francophone cantons, with Fendant and Vaudois particularly highly regarded. Among the reds, Merlot from the Italian-speaking Ticino region are also well worth a try while Dôle (a blend of Pinot Noir and Gamay) from Valais goes beautifully with hearty meat dishes.

Having experienced the light but sure touch of real Swiss hospitality, I agree wholeheartedly with Emmerson. A really good host provides comfort and space, and allows guests to decide how much interaction they want. True hospitality is not about grovelling or bootlicking. Nor is it about invading a guest’s personal space by trying to become his/her best friend overnight. It is about listening well; not talking well – after all, discerning tourists go on vacation to get peace and quiet. It is about being there when needed, and attending to the guests needs efficiently when necessary and then leaving them in peace. Swiss hoteliers and their staff seem to understand this well.

“Researchers have discovered that chocolate produces some of the same reactions in the brain as marijuana. The researchers have also discovered other similarities between the two, but they can’t remember what they are.” – Matt Lauer.