Swiss cuisine: cheese, chocolate and beyond

| April 20, 2014 | 0 Comments
Margaret’s Raspberry Toblerone Cheesecake

Margaret’s Raspberry Toblerone Cheesecake

Switzerland has existed for centuries as a small, compact, alpine country nestled amongst France, Germany, Austria and Italy. As Ambassador Ulrich Lehner notes: Originally Switzerland was a poor country of farmers who were employed as soldiers beyond their borders by foreign powers. The Vatican’s Swiss guard was one such force and remains the only one dating from that era.
Indeed, Switzerland was known as a farming nation, specializing in milk and dairy products, especially cheeses, but where, in time, the cultivation of sufficient quantities of wheat could not meet the needs of its growing population. The Swiss resisted accepting the potato, despite its 15th-Century introduction to Europe from South America by the Spanish. Only in the 18th Century did a series of relatively cold, wet periods and resulting famines brutally illustrate the always-present risks of relying singularly on grain crops as a staple. The potato quickly gained widespread popularity that, to this day, is critical when discussing Swiss cuisine.

The girolle is a hand-operated device that scrapes the cheese off in fancy delicate  rosettes.

The girolle is a hand-operated device that scrapes the cheese off in fancy delicate
rosettes.

Traditional Swiss cuisine is not known for its delicacy, but rather its somewhat plain dishes made with simple ingredients. Dairy products are part of virtually every recipe. Cheese and potatoes predominate, often in unusual combinations with meat.
Adding to its uniqueness, Swiss cuisine also bears significant testimony to the regional influences of its neighbours, manifested in a trio of French cuisine in the west, Italian to the south and German in the north and east of Switzerland. This migration of influences makes perfect sense. For centuries, Swiss cheese has been sold in markets in northern Italy. In exchange, the Swiss were able to acquire Italian products such as rice and pasta, which were difficult for the Swiss to produce themselves.
There is, however, a variety of rice cultivated in Ticino, located in south eastern Switzerland, which boasts the most northerly point of global rice production. In contrast to the waterlogged fields of Asian rice cultivation, the Ticino variety grows in dry conditions in the Maggia Delta and is used to make risotto. But a truly Swiss version of saffron risotto is made with the only saffron grown in the country — from Mund, in the canton of Valais, and ranked among the best in the world.
Foods commonly associated with Switzerland include cheese, fine chocolate and muesli. Ambassador Lehner explains: “Historically, cheese, one of Switzerland’s few exports, was nourishing food for armies.” Today, among hundreds of Swiss cheeses, Emmental, Gruyere, Appenzeller and Vacherin may be the most familiar and widely consumed, but many others claim a long and interesting history. For example, “Tête de Moine” (monk’s head) has been produced by monks at the Belletay Monastery in Jura since 1136. It is a fresh milk cheese, matured on spruce wood pallets for at least three months. In 1982, it witnessed a type of renaissance with the invention of the “girolle,” a hand-operated device that artistically scrapes the cheese off in fancy delicate rosettes often presented with fresh fruit.
Fondue and raclette, both originally regional dishes, rank as the most popular of cheese dishes. The ambassador refers to them as being “very social” dishes usually reserved for cold weather entertaining with friends. Fondue consists of melted cheese (50 percent Vacherin and 50 percent  Gruyere), white wine, cornstarch (to achieve the correct consistency), garlic and spices, and is presented in a ceramic pot placed over a gentle flame. Cubes of bread speared onto long-handled forks are dipped into the melted cheese. A couple of glasses of dry white wine or tea ease digestion.
Raclette is melted cheese, poured next to steamed potatoes, seasoned with pepper and then eaten with pickles and small onions. Traditionally, a whole raclette cheese was cut in half and placed on its side on a plank over an open fire. As the cheese melted, that portion was cut off. Today, for larger gatherings, half of a raclette wheel is placed on a metal frame and exposed to direct heat. As the cheese melts, individual portions are scraped off. Many Swiss homes also possess small electric ovens with little square pans they use to melt individual portions of cheese, thus “allowing diners to eat at their own rhythm,” explains the ambassador.
Another traditional Swiss food is rosti, made with grated raw potatoes or leftover cooked ones. Whether they prefer their rosti fried or oven-baked with crispy surfaces, fans of this dish extend far beyond Switzerland (for example, in North America, hash browns are a variation of rosti). In Switzerland, rosti appears on menus in both high-end and modest restaurants, be it served with veal, sausages or fried eggs. Zürcher geschnetzeltes — strips of veal with mushrooms and onions in a cream sauce served with rosti — is a local specialty in the Zurich region, but versions under different names are found in other parts of the country.
Rosti was originally a breakfast food before Dr. Maximilian Bircher-Benner, an early advocate of organic medicine and unprocessed foods, created the nutritious “Birchermuesli” or muesli, which now appears on breakfast tables worldwide.
Also popular is aelplermagronen (alpine herdsman’s macaroni), a frugal one-dish meal incorporating ingredients generally on hand in herdsmen’s alpine cottages — Italian macaroni (exchanged for cheese), potatoes, onions, bits of bacon and cheese. Traditionally, it is served with apple sauce. Another alpine specialty is air-dried beef (“bunderfleisch”or “viande sechée du Valais”), a favourite appetizer when serving fondue or raclette. For winter survival in the remote alpine valleys of  Graubunden (eastern Switzerland) and Valais (south central Switzerland), locals rub lean beef with salt and alpine herbs, then dry it at below-freezing temperatures in the fresh mountain air.
There are many other traditional Swiss dishes: meat pies (“pastetli”), hot pots, stews, casseroles, sauerkraut and sausages — every region has its own variety of the latter (among them, sauerkraut and tongue sausages). Veal, beef and pork are popular as are game (particularly rabbit, venison and quail) and fish (trout, perch, pike and Arctic char). Yes, a substantial population of “Arctic”/alpine char (or in French “omble”) exists in Lake Zug, in central Switzerland between Lucerne and Zurich, probably stranded there by the Ice Age. During spawning in mid-November, the stomach of the male char turns a deep fluorescent red. Accepted as a form of currency until the late Middle Ages, char remains an exotic specialty today.
Without a doubt, the Swiss take great pride in their chocolate. Chocolate had already become a fashionable drink in the late 17th Century, but it wasn’t until 1819 that Switzerland opened its first chocolate factory. It has enjoyed a reputation for top-quality chocolate products ever since. The Swiss adore chocolate, with the French speakers preferring dark chocolate, while the German speakers favour milk chocolate. The world-famous Swiss Matterhorn Mountain-shaped triangular bar, Toblerone, was created in 1908. Tobler was the chocolate-maker and “torrone” is Spanish for nougat, which is dispersed throughout the bar.
Of course, the Swiss are renowned for their wonderful pastries, desserts and meringues. Highly revered are their nut cakes, the Aargau carrot cake, a broad selection of Christmas cookies (from cinnamon to anise) and so much more. For my take on their cuisine, try my “Raspberry Toblerone cheesecake.” Bon appétit, Guten appetit, Buon appetito!

Raspberry Toblerone Cheesecake

Makes 8 small individual cheesecakes

½ cup (125 mL) crushed dark chocolate wafer cookies
2 2/3 tbsp (40 mL) unsalted butter, melted
1/3 cup (80 mL) icing sugar
3 tbsp (45 mL) heavy cream (35 percent fat)
½ tsp (3 mL) vanilla extract (preferably clear)
1 bar (3 ½ oz or 100 g) Toblerone (milk or dark chocolate)
½ oz (15 g) very dark chocolate, finely chopped
1 pkg (8 oz or 225 g) cream cheese (regular or low calorie), room temperature
1 tbsp (15 mL) seedless raspberry jam

Garnish
24 small fresh raspberries
Stems of fresh lavender or mint (optional)
1 cup (250 mL) whipped cream

1. With plastic wrap, completely line (bottom and sides leaving an overhanging portion) 8 small ramekin dishes* (size: 1/4 cup or 60 mL).
2. Crush (rather finely) chocolate wafers and place in a bowl. Drizzle with melted butter and combine thoroughly.
3. Divide wafer mixture among the ramekin dishes and press firmly into the base. (Tip: Use a shot glass with a flat bottom to assist in this task.)
4. Coarsely chop Toblerone bar, put into a microwave-proof bowl and place in a microwave oven at medium-low heat until very soft (about 1½ minutes). Remove from oven, stir until completely melted and smooth. Add the finely chopped dark chocolate; stir until completely melted, smooth and well blended.
5. With an electric mixer, beat cream cheese in a medium-sized bowl for 2 minutes until light and smooth. Add icing sugar and vanilla; beat for another minute.
6. Add melted chocolate and beat until very well blended.
7. Add 1½ tbsp (23mL) of chocolate mixture to each ramekin dish; insert 1/3 tsp (2 mL) of seedless raspberry jam into centre (of the mixture) of each and top equally with remaining chocolate mixture. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until set (at least 4 hours). Allow cheesecake to rest at room temperature for 30 minutes before serving.
8. To serve, remove the cheesecakes from ramekin dishes with the aid of the overhanging plastic wrap. Peel away plastic wrap. Garnish each mini cheesecake with 3 fresh raspberries and, if desired, fresh herbs. Pass whipped cream at the table.

* Alternative: Use mini-cheesecake pans with removable bottoms. In this case, as an alternative to the plastic wrap lining, simply fit a plastic ribbon (available at cake decorating stores or bakeries that make mousse cakes) around the inside of each cup.

Margaret Dickenson wrote the award-winning cookbook, Margaret’s Table — Easy Cooking & Inspiring Entertaining
(www.margaretstable.ca).

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Category: Delights

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Margaret Dickenson wrote the awardwinning cookbook, Margaret’s Table — Easy Cooking & Inspiring Entertaining (www.margaretstable.ca).

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