2: Swiss Surprise

Yawn. Another mountain.

Swiss cheese, fondue, chocolate, watches: These are some of the things we expected of Switzerland. It turns out, there’s a bit more than that.

Start with the spring produce: Switzerland is perched just atop Italy and is only a few hours away by train to the Mediterranean, so that should have clued us into its fresh fruit and vegetable market. The produce here is crunchy and fresh.

We did not expect to see cyclists up on the  mountainside Kleine Scheidegg trail, but there they were, introducing us to another Swiss national oddity – adventurousness bordering on recklessness. They brought the Red Cross to the world, making us think they are a cautious accident-adverse people. They are not. Their idea of safety does not follow a prevention-protocol, which makes sense – it is how they got so good at responding to disasters. They make so many of their own to start with, offering them plenty of training opportunities.

I had no idea that Switzerland has a keen wine industry. South-facing sloped farmland ribbed in vineyards surrounds our town and with French vineyards a stone-throw over the border, it makes sense that the industrious Swiss would get in on the act. As to why it never occurred to us that Switzerland is a wine-producing country: Some joke that it is because the French export their wine, while the Swiss drink all theirs themselves.

There is skiing, of course, but the Swiss are also passionate mountain-climbers, hikers and bicyclists. They love sports. Confusing us even further, they are also proliferate smokers. We cannot understand this.

They are conservative in their conduct, yet they also voted to build a facility for prostitutes to operate their business in Zürich.

There’s more. I knew chocolates heralded from this mountainous land, but so too does CaranDache watercolour pencils and crayons – the funky metal-tinned colours my sister-in-law used to paint clown faces on ours boys when they were young.

Racial and immigration issues headline frequently in Swiss news as the country, like the rest of Europe, copes with the flood of Albanian Muslims that pushed north in the wake of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, as well as Tamils and other far-flung political refugees who fled to Switzerland because of its liberal amnesty program. As Canadians, we are accustomed to hearing about immigration issues, but we had no idea that step-for-step, Switzerland has the same national debate going on that we do.

They love festivals, and they are crazy about music. It’s not just yodeling that tickles their ears: I have never seen such a large concentration of accordion players anywhere. They beat out the Americans when it comes to marching bands – they have them all over the place, some in costume and organized, while others who look like they decided to take their band practice out of the garage and on to the street, just for fun. The quality of music played by buskers here is outstanding. I am sorry to say it, but most of them would put Victoria buskers to shame.

What surprises us the most, however, is that such a geographically small place has such a globally large footprint – from the Red Cross to the United Nations to its international market for banking, pharmaceuticals (Roche, Novartis), watches, Swiss Army knives and more. They are a stunningly successful people who from so little have made so much.

But back to chocolate, more chocolate businesses than Lindt call this place home. So, too, does Toblerone, Frey, Nestle, Cailler, Camille Bloch, Favarger and more – it explains why despite the occasional scandal, Switzerland’s brand continues untarnished. After all, who can stay mad with a place so packed with chocolate?

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84: Unesco heritage status for Swiss Fondue?

Fondue served at waterfront cafe on Lac Neuchatel, Switzerland. Yummy.

In Swilderland news of 2011 it was announced that Unesco is looking into conferring special heritage status on Switzerland’s cheese fondues.

I like to think I keep on top of important world news, so I’m banging my head against the wall at having missed this. Switzerland’s keepers of culture at the Federal Culture Office are worried about disappearing traditions, rituals and practices, hence the hoped-for special designation for this cheese dish.

Fondue is not a shoe-in for the Unesco list. Switzerland’s cantons produced something like 380 proposed items for status, which oddly, they are keeping secret, except for two cantons who went public with their lists. The culture doctors have spent the last year winnowing through the items and are expected to announce their abbreviated document of 150 items very soon, that will then go through another paring-down to an unidentified number that will be forwarded onto Unesco for consideration.

The puzzlement over cheese fondue making the list is this. On a 300-metre stroll through town, I pass almost as many restaurant signs boasting fondue as I do street lamps, which is to say: A lot. Chocolate made the list as well, and again, there is so much chocolate here that it is all I can do to keep myself from sliding into a chocolate coma.

Perhaps there is more to Unesco-designation than culture.  An online Swiss news publication, Swiss Info, quoted Pius Knüsel, director of the Swiss Arts Council as saying, “They are seeking recognition first and only secondly financial support.” Aha. Money. Is it possible Unesco will subsidize fondue-consumption?

About the time fondue got onto the proposed-protection list last spring, we were dining on this endangered dish at a cafe on the shores of Lac Neuchatel and that is when fondue’s peril became evident. For a humble pot of melted Corgemont cheese, a plate of bread cubes, two forks, a pot and a flame that had to be relit several times, we paid about 60 Swiss Francs. That was, notably, the last time we chowed down on cheese-and-bread chunks. Maybe fondue is endangered after all.

And so, if fondue does make the list, and if Unesco wants to cut us a check so we can dine out more on this tasty treat, we are prepared to accept their offer.

On an unrelated note: It snowed today. We pretended the flakes were seedlings from the trees, but we fooled no one.