51: Switzerland famous for meringues? Who knew?

From The Swiss Bakery Online

One of our sons wed last summer and the other is wedding this, and so my time in Europe has been a training exercise in pastry-avoidance so as to not appear as a chiffon-draped water buffalo at either event.

Now, staring down my failed campaign (not in the avoiding of pastries, that I have done admirably well, but in the avoidance of the said ungulate’s dimensions), and with only 51 days left to go, it seems time to lift the pastry moratorium and give Switzerland’s bakers a run.

I started today by tasting a meringue, on the recommendation of a local Swiss who tells me this country is famous for its meringues. Not in North America, they are not, I wanted to tell her, but as a guest in her lovely country, who am I to mess with its meringue mythology?

Meringues come in a variety of shapes and sizes, from the apple-sized powder puff to the pop-in-your-mouth cookie. They are sometimes bowl-shaped to allow for fruit and whipping cream in its cavity – a laudable idea, but one that could blanket the meringue’s real merits, so I opted for the plain cookie version (this is not the soft foamy meringue that tops North America’s lemon meringue pies).

They are a two-ingredient concoction – sugar and powdered egg – but not just any egg, a European egg. What is the difference between a European and a North American egg? Not a thing, as far as I can tell, except that European eggs are unrefrigerated, which may be why my husband is still in bed reeling from the Mother of All Food Poisonings.

Meringues are low in calories – only 100 calories in 25 grams or four pieces in the bag I picked up at the local store. They taste exactly as you might expect from a  sugar and egg white combination whipped into a froth and hardened in a slow oven (90 minutes or more at 200 F), that is, they taste like an airy teaspoon of sugar. Inside the exterior sheath that is a white thin crispy layer,  their bisque-hued innards have the texture of stiff foam with a slightly yielding spongy centre.

Here’s a recipe and video-guide on baking meringues. This recipe includes cream of tartar and vanilla, but the Swiss version only has the  egg whites and fine sugar. It is a fine addition to a dessert dish, but its unlikely it will ever overshadow chocolate as the Swiss export of glory.

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96: Mulling around in Mulhouse, France

He was a big Frenchman in a wrinkled militia-styled jacket, shaved head and stubble-shadowed jaw. As we threaded through the medieval square’s cafe’s tables, he blocked David’s way, smiled and said something in French.

Dave tried to turn the rugged and somewhat aggressive panhandler away, but before things could get worse, and by worse I mean us not getting a table, I jumped in and told the man we prefer to sit in the sun.

Our French maitre'd did not look so scary once he took off his scrappy jacket and shed the shades, but he still has a bar-bouncer physique. We dared not leave any food on our plate, lest we insult him or his establishment's chefs.

This is the problem with not speaking the local language – all a person has to draw on are appearances and my beloved thought the man was about to demand his wallet, although in a very engaging and musical way because after all, this was France, the land that we cannot stop loving no matter how many times it offends our sensibilities.

The rough-cut maitre’d somehow blended coquettish charm with a bullish demeanor. Don’t ask me how. It is a mystery. After delivering us to our table au soleil, we watched him marshall the area with a militaristic machismo. When a motorcyclist parked his bike in a spot deemed inappropriate, the maitre’d took on the appearance of a gendarme. It was impressive.

The funny thing in France is that they all seem to have a good understanding of English, but they refuse to speak it. And while they are famous for being snotty on this point, our experience is that they are quite gracious. In fact, the only place where the French have gotten uppity with me over language is in Canada, which is ironic given what an old-French pioneering family I come from.

But enough rambling. Our Swiss watchmaking town is only 100 km away from France, so given that by this time next year we will be 100 km away from Vancouver or Chemainus, we decided to take the opportunity to visit the French.

Mulhouse's Rothus Museum has some cool Neolithic skeletal stuff in it (some in orange ochre soil, excavated from local tombs). Small towns in France and Switzerland all seem to have their own tiny museums with really amazing collections, the likes of which would be unthinkable in comparably sized Canadian cities. How do the Europeans do it?

Mulhouse is famous for its many museums, some of which focus on specialties that would never occur to anyone else as collectible items of interest. There are museums for textiles, railroads, cars, electricity (yes, electricity), art, artifacts, history and that killer of all museums, a museum of wallpaper. It’s a pity that I loathe museums with such intensity that my entire objective in visiting Mulhouse was to avoid all of them.

It was not possible. We accidentally stumbled into one that appeared to be a tourist office-combination-hotel in Mulhouse’s central square. Once inside, the suave French smiled and charmed us into visiting their museum in the upper stories of the building, which happened to have the unbeatable attraction of free admission.

It turned out to be a lovely place to spend 30 minutes, which is the outside limit of my attention span. As we asked for directions out of the building, a burly French guide took us to another room where he opened the window and pointed the way to the Musee’ des Beaux Arts, extracting from us a promise to visit there next, but which we never did.

I feel bad about that, but if we did not make the promise, we ran the risk of insulting our French hosts, and yet, if we kept the promise, I might have dunked my head in a bucket of water just to avoid the prospect of more of my life lost to museum-trolling.

Tomorrow: More on Mulhouse and the wonders of France’s relationship with sugar, butter and chocolate

Dave reckons medieval key chains must have required a lot of muscle.

 

 

 

Second stops in the small spots of Switzerland.

Just another quiet church music rehearsal.

Switzerland has any number of sites worth seeing a second time, and one of those is Solothurn, where for the second time we stumbled into the Jesuit Church (Jesuitkirche) on the main drag and for the second time, happened into a music rehearsal. Do I detect an echo? (click here to hear what we heard and to see the camera pan over the ceiling frescoes)

Architectural detail in frescoe-jewelled High Baroque architecture found in Solothurn's Jesuitkirch, built in the late 1600s. We had showed up in the Spring and walked in on a colourful folk-gospel rehearsal featuring a female soloist whose voice matched the High Baroque building’s rising arches and columns. This time, we got a “horse of a different colour” with a choral and classical music performance, just for us and a few others drafted in off the street to enjoy the moment. It’s times like these that we have to suspect God loves to show off the good stuff.

Switzerland has a little of everything, including Christian martyrs that the Romans beheaded in the 3rd century, and who are remembered in statuary at St. Ursen Kathdrale. As is usually the case, the Romans did not mind the Christians worshipping God, they were just peeved the Christians refused to acknowledge Rome's deities, demonstrating that what ticked off people then, ticks them off still.

I grew up in a university district with some fairly interesting friends who came from families of broad talents and skills, among them, a few professional symphony musicians.  Maybe my music tastes were crafted during those impromptu violin and piano concertinas that served as intermissions from discussions on international politics, biochemistry and the mental dysfunctions of our track coach. Ever since, my ear has preferred the roughshod uncut take on a musical piece, something like Susan Boyle’s first run at “I dreamed a dream” on Britain’s Got Talent in 2009. The heart and giftedness in her uncoached version of that song tops any of her later polished productions.

Which is to say, if you go to Solothurn, or any Swiss town for that matter, be sure to step into the churches and see what’s going on there. Odds are, there will be nothing but grand architecture and maybe the sale of souvenirs, but it seems that in Solothurn, the odds might be excellent that you will see something that you will never forget. Church music, living room jam sessions, rehearsals in unexpected places, these are the things that make memories that will go with us for years to come.

Oh yes, and chocolate. Chocolate makes memories, too. Speaking of which, Solothurn is home to a number of chocolateries, where visitors can idle the afternoon away comparing, cooing and slipping into chocolate comas. Not a bad way to pass the hours.

Other things to see:

    • St. Ur or St. Urses or St. Ursen Kathdrale on a sunnier day

      Kunstmuseum – A small art gallery with big art history, including work by Picasso, Cezanne and other masters. This vibrant museum also hosts modern art exhibits that are as good as anything to be seen in major cities.

    • St. Ursen Kathdrale – This church has been closed to the public, we believe due to renovations (remember our language limitations), but you can still enjoy its exterior, as well as a 250-stair climb up its bell tower for fabulous views. Note: Do not attempt this if you have a family history of heart disease. Click here for a description of the vertical march and to see our sunny-day visit to Solothurn in the Spring.
    • Altes Zeughaus – Weapons museum that we are sure is lovely, but we were too cheap to pay admission, so we offer no appraisal on its merits.
    • Rathaus – An appropriately named office building for the municipal government. In keeping with the foot-dragging policies of municipal governments everywhere, this building was constructed over a period of 235 years. Think of that next time you go to your town hall asking for street lights on your block.
    • Fortified walls, towers and gates – Stroll through the old-town to see remnants of these structures left over from the 1600s.

Chocolate Champions

German chocolatier working at his craft.

Mercy is called for when judging chocolates, because all chocolate is good, aside from some hideous holiday-related confections that seem to be made primarily of wax and some brown food colouring poured into bunny and poultry moulds.

If you grew up in the United States or Canada, you will know of which chocolate brand I speak, but because I am a trained journalist and therefore familiar with the laws and statutes under which I could be sued, although unsuccessfully, because I know I’m dead right about this, I am not going to reveal the manufacturer who may or may not be based in Mississauga, Ontario.

So, to all the chocolate manufacturers of all nationalities who did not win my The World, Nay The Universe Best Chocolate Ever competition, don’t feel bad, and if you do feel bad, eat chocolate. It ups your serotonin levels, leading to a feeling of well-being. And while you’re feeling so good about yourself, maybe you can concoct a better chocolate recipe for the next time I’m in your country.

And the winner is: Leysieffer of Germany, with Canada a close second.

Leysieffer’s every chocolate is a revelational experience  from their champagne white chocolates to their mocha truffles and onward. It’s the sort of chocolate that can make a person rethink their life goals. They have even redeemed orange-cream chocolates, a flavour to which many chocolate-makers add too much sugar.

Leysieffer had some tough competition in the form of Canada’s Chocolat de Chocolaterie’s caramel-filled chocolates, which by themselves are better than anything Leysieffer has to offer, but when taking each chocolatier’s ‘menu’ as a whole, Leysieffer has the broadest selection, all of which are very good indeed. At Chocolat de Chocolaterie, anyone not a big fan of caramel will still come away happy with the other offerings, but not quite as much as if they had jumped on a plane and headed to Germany, or maybe just gone online and ordered some at Leysieffer’s website.

The French, whose Paris and Besançon chocolates were sampled, will also be very ticked off to learn that not only are the Germans amazing with chocolate, they also make the best croissants on the continent. Possibly, they stole a few French secrets during the Second World War, showing that the real reason Germany invaded France was not in a bid for global domination, but to grab their recipes. But let’s not mention The War.

Judging criteria included texture, taste, body and flavour mixes.

The runner-up is Canada, with Chocolat de Chocolaterie* at 703 Fort Street in Victoria, British Columbia serving the best chocolate in that nation, with their buttery caramel chocolates melting so blissfully in the mouth that it is not safe to operate a vehicle while enjoying them. Even people who do not like me become fast friends when I feed them Chocolat’s caramel-filled chocolates.

Sorry Quebec, but Chocolat de Chocolaterie is Canada’s best, after a three-decade-long, coast-to-coast taste-testing tour. Quebec can take consolation that they had the best cheesecake in Canada, found at Dunn’s Famous restaurant in Montreal. To be truthful, though, that part of the taste-testing tour took place at the beginning of the tour in 1981, so things might have changed since then. **

Switzerland is a natural home to fabulous chocolates, but testing the products of numerous independent chocolate shops in countless Swiss villages, as well as giving their top name brands a fair test (Merkur, Cailler, Lindt), nothing could be found to carry the same fine balance of sweet against cocoa on a bed of creamy fats.

Further testing of Swiss product is ongoing.

It should be said that even though Switzerland did not obliterate the Germans in this contest, Swiss chocolate is still mighty fine, and there is no question that the widening distribution of their homegrown brand, Lindt, has upped the chocolate experience of North Americans who up to recent times were making do with some rather diluted product.

I won’t name names. Remember, I am avoiding a lawsuit.***

*Canada owes its second-place finishing solely to Chocolat de Chocolaterie. Its chocolate are better than any we’ve found in Switzerland, however, Swiss chocolatiers beat all other Canadian chocolates.

**France and Quebec can still claim a moral victory, because I suspect the owner/operator of Chocolate de Chocolaterie is actually French. I don’t know this for sure.

*** In my last post, I promised to reveal a never-before realized source of unbelievable chocolate. Here it is: The Church of Jesus Christ – Latter Day Saints in the little town of Kenora, Ontario, Canada. Yes, the Mormons. They’re not just good at choral singing. This church at one time had a women’s fundraising group that produced boxes of homemade chocolates that could make a Baptist rethink their views on Mormon theology.

Luscious Lucerne

Saturday we took the 90-minute train ride east to Lucerne, past lush, meticulously kept pastures, rolling hills, quaint farms with cows lolling about, a trip made sweeter because we now have our Swiss Rail resident half-price cards.

It looks like a great deal, bringing the price for  two return tickets down to $78. We were pretty pleased with that until we realized that we were travelling only 48 miles – what the heck? That’s like a $1.50 a mile.

Swiss comedians? Or the Swiss version of a chain gang (ie. not breaking rocks, just colouring on them).

We arrived in Lucerne to discover the city in the throes of an international comedy festival called “Fumetto” – at least, that was the explanation we got for the men in orange suits studiously scratching a chalk path into one of the cobblestone squares, which didn’t look funny at all, but I’m sure something hilarious was about to happen. We had our doubts, because orange suits are prison gear back in the U.S., so we were suspicious this was the Swiss version of a prison-work program.

We checked out a kitchen store where laundry bags sold for $99 and shoe stores, at one of which I found a pair of  loafers priced at $269… others were priced higher, but my brain could not compute such numbers well enough to recall them now.

Lucerne is, after all, Switzerland’s Monaco, and the well-heeled were in ostentatious abundance from stylish couples strolling the lakeside promenade to high-end sports cars inching through narrow cobblestone streets that until their arrival, we thought were pedestrian-only. Maybe the rules are different for those driving Bugattis and Lamborghinis.

Even the McDonalds restaurant was high-end with vintage ceiling tiles, orange cube leather seating and a McCafe pastry bar. Ooo la la! It was a beautiful city. I’ll let the photos speak for it. Click on photos to get a larger version.

At a swank chocolate shop called Merkor - I think it translates into "No chocolate under $40"

About half of the chocolate in Merkor's main showcase, and I do mean "showcase." The word "display" just doesn't quite make it.

Lucerne's waterfront. Not so bad.

The inside of Lucerne's Jesuit Church. Very white. Very bright.

Lucerne. Very pretty.

Lunch for the uber-rich - also, where they are on display for gawkers like us.

 

Many of Lucerne's Old Town buildings sport frescos (murals) - this one depicts the city's Mardi Gras celebrations.

A wall mural depicting the building's former street level cafe-owners in Mardi Gras celebrations.

Lucerne has two homeless men. We found them both. It's noteworthy that this man's wardrobe included a colour (red/orange pepper) that matched many park benches, and that is also favored among the rich (see other photos). Even Lucerne's homeless fall under the dictates of fashion.

The photo quality is not very good, but this stylish 8-10-year-old girl's pic is worth posting - we saw fashion-conscious kiddies everywhere. What is this? France?

A woman parading her control over her husband on Lucerne's Promenade - his attire matches hers right down to his shoes. Somebody help this guy.

View over Lucerne Lake with the Alps in the background. This body of water is also called Vierwaldstattersee. Yes, it is.