Before Covid I had not been to Switzerland; well not exactly anyway. I’d flown in and out of Zurich airport a few times and hired cars to drive to either Germany’s Black Forest region or to cross over into Austria to spend time working in Vorarlberg.
My sole experience of actually standing on Swiss soil outside of the airport had been at a couple of petrol stations when refilling the car prior to returning it and a one-time stop at a large motorway service station. On that occasion, a colleague and I decided to stop for a bite to eat on the way back to the airport as there was a Mcdonald’s. I headed off to the toilet and my colleague headed for the food counter.
On returning from the loo, the first thing I saw, and to this day it still makes me laugh, was the look on my colleague’s face! It was as if the blood had drained from him, “Have you seen the price of a McDonald’s”? he cried. He was holding a cup of coffee, “even that has just cost me a week’s salary.”
This was my first eye-opening realisation that Switzerland is a rather madly expensive country. I guess it shouldn’t have been a surprise given its reputation it has for being so, but I had never been there, so it didn’t mean much to me. My colleague and I both laughed and thanked the Gods that we didn’t have to spend a lot of time working there as we would have had to live on crisps all week. I didn’t give the place a lot more thought for a few years.
Switzerland had never been on my radar as a place of interest – I don’t ski and I’m not a millionaire. I wasn’t involved in it in a work capacity and my personal preference for hotter climes meant it was always going to be an unlikely holiday destination. However, about 4 years ago I became the sales team member responsible for liaising with our Swiss representative. This was a job that didn’t require visiting the country itself. That was until we found ourselves delivering courses to a rather exciting and niche market there.
We started working with a Vocational College in Bern that wanted to offer gastronomy-based courses to their apprentice chefs’ groups. The students, already in work and attending college once a week, were being offered a 4-day study break to work with us on a fabulous new programme. ‘English in Action for Chefs’ includes time in the classroom developing the trainee’s ability to use the language of their trade in English, menu planning in English and practical kitchen time cooking the prepared menu, a couple of local establishment visits, and an evening meal make it a wonderful few days.
Before I began my current role with English in Action, I had been an English Language teacher. Before that, I had been a chef. I studied for 2 years, worked in the industry, run my own catering business, and then left that world to move into education. However, I kept a very healthy interest in all things food and gastronomy related, which made me the ideal person to teach these courses.
So, in October of 2021 as travel restrictions were tentatively lifted, and all kinds of documentation were still required to justify flying to another country, I embarked upon my first overseas trip since the lockdown of March 2020.
I had to get permission from the Swiss government to travel; I had to install an app that allowed me to enter restaurants; I needed proof of vaccination to check into my hotel, but I was on my way. It made me mindful, and still does really, of the hoops that so many people in the less free world must jump through to leave their country and enter another.
I arrived at Gatwick airport for an early flight, something I had done some five hundred times previously over the years in my role at English in Action. Airports are busy places in the early mornings, cheap flights ensured that they were swarming with thousands of people on their way to endless destinations. We had reached a point where flights were literally like shuttle busses to fields on the outskirts of every one of Europe’s smaller cities, as well as the world’s major airports. Airports were not fun!
However, on this day I felt like it must have felt in the very early days of commercial aviation. An airport with only a smattering of people tentatively heading off on what would have only been essential business. It was an eerie, yet wonderfully spacious terminal. I didn’t have to queue for a coffee, I could sit where I wanted without having to shoehorn myself in between two dishevelled and tired looking strangers. I didn’t have to ask anyone to move their bag off the only available seat so that I could sit down. There were no screaming kids!
I loved it! I felt special and privileged to be wandering this vast, brightly lit space-age arena with only a handful of other humans and I hoped it would always continue to be this way.
I arrived in Zurich and once again found myself in a deserted terminal. I breezed through customs. There was no queuing with the world’s non-EU preference treatment travellers, which is now a regular part of my travel experience.
I collected my bags and headed seamlessly out of the airport and straight into the train terminal where I bought a coffee! ….. I laughed at the price when I remembered my colleague of a few years ago, and almost enjoyed paying £6 for a 3cm deep cup of mud.
On the punctual and immaculately clean train that glided silently and smoothly on its 90-minute journey to Bern, which was to be my base for the next 12 days, I sat watching the Swiss countryside roll by. I began thinking about what I actually knew about the country that I would be spending quite a bit of time in going forward.
I started where we all start I guess when we don’t know much about a place, with the stereotypes, the things that first come to mind when thinking of a country. Here were mine, and in no particular order they were:
6. Roger Federer!
8. Weren’t there four languages spoken here? Was the 4th some kind of Gypsy thing?
I concluded that basically, I was a heathen with no real knowledge of the country!
I had enough basic conversational gambits if needed, but not the first idea of its culture or its differences from its neighbours, its politics, its geography, its gastronomy, and more importantly its people. I had a relatively blank canvas that I could begin to fill in and that excited me.
My first observations in Bern confirmed some of my initial stereotypical ideas, all in the best possible way. Arriving by train over the Aare River, to this glorious, almost fable-like-looking town cast across the valley where the river runs, with snow-topped mountains in the distance was almost dreamlike. Everything runs beautifully; trains, trams, and buses all seem to flow endlessly, and they are ALWAYS on time. It has stunning olive stone-coloured, medieval architecture that is also perfectly balanced with contemporary modernity. It maintains its old soul whilst offering the best of the modern world in a tasteful and discreet manner. It’s calm, efficient, respectful, tranquil yet vibrant. It has everything that at my age of life I look for in a town/city. I fell in love!
I was further blessed by finding myself working with a school/group of teachers who epitomise what it means to be a teacher. Many of them were industry professionals in the world of gastronomy who have come back to teaching to train the next generation of Swiss chefs. It’s a national thing, a kind of scene/club all of its own. Everyone knows everyone, restaurants and the present-day great chefs take on apprentices and then send them to college one day a week to be tutored in the theory of their trade by other great chefs. Some will travel and make their names overseas, but many will take on the mantle of the lifeblood of the Swiss eating culture and continue to ensure that Swiss cuisine keeps its place on the world’s stage.
It has been fascinating to observe the teamwork, comradery and cooperation, the passion of all those involved in this educational sector that seamlessly feeds into the world of work. As a trained chef and teacher, I feel as if I have found a kind of soul home within it. I have been embraced by them all, become a part-time member of their team in some respects, and for English in Action, to be involved in such a project and to assist in some small way in the continuing evolution of the Swiss gastronomy project, is an honour. It’s been one of the best experiences of my working life.
I have been treated to some of the best meals I have ever eaten, in multiple-star or 16-18 Gault & Millau point restaurants, had amazing home-cooked meals by top chefs and sommeliers alike, and discovered the rich depth of cuisine there is in Switzerland, as well as sampling the huge variety of great wines and, of course, the cheese!!! They do chocolate too, yes, I know, but I’m not mad about chocolate!
If there are 2 things I love in this world, after my wife, of course, it is wine and cheese! And Switzerland does not disappoint on either front. Overshadowed certainly by its French neighbours and maybe even Germany and Austria when it comes to world recognition of wines, this small collection of cantons, which functions more as the federal United States of the Swiss nation than a mountain kingdom, has a huge variety of white and red wine that is as tasty and noteworthy as any of its regional competitors. You’ll pay through the nose for it, but it most definitely should be explored and enjoyed by any wine lover.
When it comes to cheese I wouldn’t even waste time comparing world cheeses, I love all sorts of cheese. It’s just worth noting that here they do some seriously good cheese! It’s a way of life. I mean, any nation that has two national dishes which require you to just melt cheese down in a tabletop pot on a camping stove and dunk bread in it, or melt it under a tabletop grill and dollop it on potatoes and eat it with pickles, gets my vote. That’s a proper cheese-loving country. It’s heaven for me. I love a cheese sandwich, a cheese board is my preferred dessert. I’ll eat anything gratinated till the cows come home. Mac and cheese – yes, please! But Fondue and Raclette are Premier League cheese eating and I can’t get enough of it.
You will find shops dedicated to fondue and raclette cheese, endless mixes of different types of fondue, and dozens of differently flavoured raclette cheeses. Supermarkets and department stores are adorned with all the gear and paraphernalia associated with it too, and I’m a sucker for it.
We now own 2 fondue sets, a raclette grill, a potato bag for keeping the spuds warm and endless different forks for either cheese or meat fondue. We have little glasses that look like mini fondue pots for kirsch, which one can dunk bread in before the cheese, or just simply drink alongside one’s cheese-fest. I have a freezer full of different fondue cheese mixes, raclette cheeses and regional Swiss sausages for the raclette grill …….am I boring you? I could go on!! 😊
So, here I am now, having seen quite a bit of Switzerland over the last few years, from Basel to Zurich and the lakes around it, Interlaken to Lucerne via the rolling hills of the Emmental. I still have much to discover, but slowly my initial stereotypical assertions are being replaced with a better understanding of this fascinatingly complex and diverse small nation. Stereotypes are not always a bad thing – much of what I said initially is still valid, it’s just that now I am beginning to see what those ideas are really based on, and what truths lie behind the simple notions first thrown out.
Switzerland is mountainous, yes. Yet it also has lush valleys for wine production and rolling, rich pastureland for the production of cheese and dairy products.
Despite its reputation for conservatism and neutrality, which hasn’t always been well viewed, when seen through the prism of its multicultural population and the fragile balance of maintaining its national identity it is easier to understand why. As I mentioned earlier, Switzerland is a federal country. Each ‘canton’ has considerable autonomy and a very strong regional identity. It’s a good example of how ethnically diverse peoples within a country can work together to promote not only a strong sense of regional belonging but a fierce commitment to their national identity too. Tolerance and respect figure highly in that equation.
German, French, Italian and Romansh are spoken within Switzerland’s borders. Many towns consider themselves bilingual towns. It’s a melting pot of those 3 cultures in mentality, culture and cuisine, yet it is very distinctly its own brand of all of them. I discovered that Romansh has nothing to do with gypsies either! It has its root in old Latin and is a form of dialect that is a remnant of the days of Roman occupation. It’s only spoken by around 30,000 people in the canton of Graubünden.
Swiss cuisine is an eclectic mix of French/southern German/Austrian and Italian, with the famous Rosti (a type of hashbrown) sitting alongside Fondue and Raclette as the national dishes. There is a very high culture in ‘a la carte’ dining, and it is not unusual to be paying hundreds of francs for a meal, especially if you accompany that with a bottle of wine. A burger in a restaurant could likely cost you €30, so not a lot comes cheap to the table.
I’ve learnt that Ice-Hockey is equally the national sport alongside football and that wrestling is a thing too, with thousands attending to watch at a 3-day long festival where amateur wrestlers fight to become the King of wrestling! Roger Federer doesn’t get much of a mention!
Most of all though I have found that I very much like the Swiss people; well, certainly those that I have met, for sure, and one can only speak as one finds. They are calm, yet subtly passionate people, they are sharp-witted and far less conservative than I had imagined, especially the younger generation. They are extremely generous, and kind, and I have come to consider some of those that I have had the privilege of working with, as good friends.
My next trip to Switzerland will be in August of this year where I will be teaching the first course at another gastronomy school in Zurich and the time can’t go by quickly enough. I very much look forward to getting back to what has fast become one of my favourite places to be.
I’ll also be low on cheese by then, so it really will be about time 😊