5: A Few Photos

A sign of homesickness: Buying a McDonalds hamburger and taking it back to the hotel to top with fresh tomato, avocado, dijon and a whack of fresh pepper. It’s not as good as our cottage BBQ burgers with real Canadian cheddar (not available here) and sauteed onions, but it will do for a few more days.

This is Switzerland’s “Italian” tarte flambe. This traditional dish is made up of a flatbread (white-flour tortilla) base, topped with thick cream, raw onions, green-stuff, tomatoes, and cured meat. The basic tarte flambe is a tortilla base, cream and raw onions, scorched briefly over a flame.

Over a year in, and I’m still discovering little hidden cobblestone lanes in Biel/Bienne. This one leads to a private courtyard garden.

Wherever you look up in Swiss cities, you will see signs of life. Pockets of rooftop patios and gardens appear all over our town, even atop retail and business buildings.

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6: Keeping Tradition Alive or Our Last Visit With the Worst Waitress in the World

The only person I’ve met in 32 years who does not like Dave.

We’ve fallen into a Sheldon Cooper-esque pattern of doing the same thing the same night of every week.

At first we laughed at this The Big Bang Theory sitcom character’s designated hamburger night, pizza night, comic book night, and then we immediately moved to adopt it. There is no explaining this.

And so we now have Lollipop, Hamburger and Cheesecake days (Thursday, Friday and Sunday), while Saturday is reserved for our Wretched Waitress event. At Joran’s, a waterfront restaurant with the best seating to be found in Switzerland’s Mitteland lake district, is succulent beef tenderloin with red pepper sauce, exquisite pasta, fabulous local fish and the best ice cream in Switzerland.

Dave,  about 20 minutes after we had finished eating and were still waiting for the bill.

Balancing out this ‘best of’ list is a woman who may be the worst waitress in the world. We have eaten at enough restaurants in both hemispheres to hazard this assumption.

She refuses to accept our orders in English, French or even the universally accepted restaurant sign language, which is comprised of us pointing to items on the menu.

She growls at us in German, employing tones that remind us less of Hogan’s Heroes and more of those flecked Second World War newsreels.

And then she makes us wait. And wait. And wait. This happens every week, and yet we keep going back. She has become our grumbly Germanic aunt, whose company we enjoy if only because we can rely upon her uniformly dour countenance. She mystifies us.

Last week, she told me ‘no more French, only German.’

Our waitress (white top) flees into the restaurant after I wave her over.

I would like to report that my feeble attempts at German were welcomed with some coaching from her, but instead she glared at me as I dragged out my German vocabulary (five words). And then, because I was flummoxed, I sprayed out Spanish. All my friends who have been subjected to my so-called Spanish can tell you this will only make matters worse.

This week, the mere sight of us caused her to shake her head in disgust. She huffed through a punishing food-ordering spectacle, then proceeded to serve everyone else, even those who came long after us.

Dave taking a nap while waiting for our bill. Will we ever see our wretched waitress again?

While we waited to order our dessert, she engaged in a spirited and joyful conversation with two German ladies seated near us, and then when I waved to get her attention, she spun away and disappeared into the restaurant.

I wish I was exaggerating about this.

Then we waited an interminable time before we finally got up and went inside to pay our bill. She punched our numbers into the cash till, then before giving us the bill turned to pour two glasses of water, then dump them in the sink, then turn and give us the bill. I asked her if she spoke any English at all.

“Nien!” she exclaimed. She had not directly looked at us for over an hour. That is some feat when serving a meal and taking payment.  I tried to say good-bye, to let her know we’re returning to Canada. It seems wrong to not mark the occasion of our last visit by letting her know that her long period of torment is coming to a close.

That was yesterday. It is now Starbucks Sunday, and we are about to make the two-block stroll there for some cheesecake, which the staff say is specially shipped in from Pennsylvania. That is a good thing. We need a little of that good’ol American home-taste to wash away the emotional wreckage left over from Wretched Waitress day.

For those wondering why we kept going back there: In Swiss restaurants, you can get great service often, mediocre service occasionally and  bad service rarely, but service that falls within the “hostile” category is something to behold. That, and the fabulous ice cream is why we keep going back.

If you go: Skip the tarte flambe’ and order a simple ham, salami and cheese sandwich which is served on thick slabs of fresh-baked bread.

The chocolate, pistachio and banana ice cream flavors are exceptional and often served on a bed of sliced bananas or crushed pistachios. For supper, you cannot go wrong with the beef tenderloin, which the Swiss boast is pasture-fed and antibiotic/chemical-free. The restaurant specializes in fresh local strawberries, ice cream and cream desserts, but that is recommended only when the season peaks, usually in early-to-mid June.

Do not fear the wait-staff. But for this one waitress, the rest speak at least some English, are very friendly and competent. 

78: Stats-urday or What the Heck does Цюрих архитектура Mean?

This is why Dave is not allowed to shop alone.

It’s Saturday, or as I have decided to call it Staturday. In this week’s exciting world of blog stats:

  • Most page views came from Canada.
  • Least page views came from Sweden.
  • I have at least one faithful reader in Japan. Thank you, faithful reader.
  • The weirdest and fourth-highest search term that landed a reader at this site was Цюрих архитектура. I have no idea what that means.
  • At least two web searches were for Fuhlrich Restaurant in Vienna on which I wrote two reviews of two visits, one that was sublime, the other catastrophic. My reviews reflect both. I am nothing if not fair. If either of those two readers want to know whether to try out this restaurant, I say do. The food is always good, even if the service is somewhat uneven.
  • “What to say to hobo” was one search term that I can answer: Say hello, and keep walking. Hobos can be sketchy.
  • Second weird search term: Does Angelina Jolie have asthma? This site will not definitively answer that question but I will hazard a guess that she does not.
  • Whereas Paris food is usually the most popular search term of the year, it has just this week been edged out by Lucerne.
  • Hobonotes.com has 12,358 hits.
  • I like to think that I just whip these posts out in a flash, but the truth is a I am a serial-self-editor. WordPress lets me see how many times I’ve tweaked a post, and those lists show some get tinkered with as many as 20 times before I hit the publish button.
  • Even with that, I often see a gaff after publication, so I end up republishing some after corrections one to three times.
  • No one is perfect.

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.


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.

 

 

 

When Chinese Food is not Chinese

This is not Fondue Chinoise. It is just a stock photo from the web that I am using because I don't yet have a photo of the fondue in question.

The words “fondue chinoise” have appeared in numerous restaurant windows, causing us to ruminate on the multiculturalism of the Swiss.

Not only do they have four official languages, they also embrace Chinese cuisine in the form of some kind of fondue.

Turns out we were wrong about that: Daniela, our ever-helpful and apparently omniscient* front desk gal, explained that these signs appear to advertise Chinese fondue, but it is in fact a Christmas fondue of thinly sliced meats. There’s nothing Chinese about it.

This will surprise the Québécois who use exactly this term for Chinese fondue, but then they’re not here, so maybe it doesn’t matter.

This fondue is the grand culinary showcase at the Swiss’ Christmas dinner. Daniela says it is preferable to a giant turkey, because diners have to spend a lot of time cooking their meat at the table, forcing them to converse with other guests and relatives.

She did not use the word “forcing.” I did.

The prospect of staring at one’s relatives over an open flame and pot of boiling oil, each guest armed with their own 12″ two-pronged stabbing implement, seems to be exactly the type of scenario that could lead to serious injury, death and perhaps a visit from a SWAT team.

Better to have a 25-lb. turkey on the table. It’s very hard to achieve lift when trying to chuck one of those at my brothers, not that I’ve ever tried that.

______________________________________________________

* I don’t actually think Daniela is omniscient, but her manager suspects she might be owing to a recent exchange we had in his presence.

I was passing the front desk and said, “Oh Daniela, that ….” then  I ‘drew’ a little square in the air with my fingers.

Daniela said, “Of course,” and immediately made a note. Her manager demanded to know how Daniela could possibly decipher my meaning from such scant information.  We laughed him off, because he is a man and therefore not privy to the Secret Code of Women, and even lesser privy to the Secret Code of Blonds Who Everyone Else Thinks are Stupid, But Really We Communicate in Another Dimension.

Friday’s dining, part two.

Toni's Ristorante in Biel/Bienne - a winner!

THREE HOURS IN ONE RESTAURANT WAS NOT ENOUGH – FRIDAY IN BIEL/BIENNE CONTINUED …..But back to the restaurant stuff. Three hours inside a restaurant was not enough for one Friday so at about 7 p.m., Dave and I walked two blocks to Toni’s Restaurant, which sits in a white-washed ancient building on the border of Biel/Bienne’s cobblestone-laid medieval town.  We have not always had the best luck with restaurants lately, so my expectations were set to “gag.”

When we entered, we found a cocktail party on the main floor in full bore. The staff had to search for someone with some English who explained that yes, the restaurant was open (the wine-tasting event downstairs made us suspect it was booked up for a party). They led us upstairs to an empty, but utterly charming restaurant made up of a warren of small rooms (although there was one large room that could accommodate a party of 20 or more).

Empty dining rooms make us nervous that the locals know something we do not, but we pressed on. The waitress showed us into a room where she indicated we take the table of our choice, which, by the way, is what we saw her do later when other patrons arrived. Is this a Swiss custom? I do not know, but it is a nice one. We took the table overlooking the empty outdoor cafe (it was cold outside) and some nasty new construction that is sure to ruin the ambience of the old town’s borders.

But never mind about that. The menu only comes in Italian, German and French, and with the waitress’ limited command of English and our even more paltry assortment of French words, we managed to steer Dave away from ordering horse steak for dinner. When he exclaimed no to the horse, the waitress said, “It’s okay, we have bunnies to eat, too.”

I have no objection to others eating horse or bunnies (ugh), but as a childhood vegetarian, it took me something to just come around to eating beef (pork and chicken came later, fish even later in my 30s after moving to Canada’s west coast, the Mecca of seafood).

We safely ordered beef tenderloin at 43 Swiss Francs a plate. That’s about 50 bucks Canadian. Ouch. The meal came with a savoury carrot soup delivered in a tiny demi-tasse bowl and sumptuous olive bread. When the steak arrived, we were surprised to see it sitting solo on a large plate, surrounded by sautéed arugula and topped with paper-slices of parmesan, but we dug in and  my-o-my, it was the best beef we’ve had here yet.

It was a little odd that it came without the usual potato or vegetable accoutrements, however, it was a generous portion and in fact, it felt good to just enjoy the beef. It is pan-fried, not grilled or broiled, and the seasoning was subtle.

We later enjoyed a 12.75 Franc dessert of mango sorbet and hot chocolate cake with chocolate-cream filling. Words cannot do justice to the mango sorbet. It was richly laced with what must have been fresh mango, because the weight of the fruit chunks gave no indication they had ever seen the inside of a freezer. The chocolate cake was delicious, too.

We ordered just the one dessert for the two of us to share, but it turns out we could have ordered two. The portion was small, but just right for topping off a substantial steak. The restaurant gets a five-star rating in my books. Fabulous food, wonderful wait-staff, top-notch relaxed atmosphere, great layout for quiet dining, and yes, by the time we left the restaurant, it was packed. It seems the Swiss dine at a later hour that we North Americans.

If you want to read more about this restaurant, or find its locale so you can test my appraisal of its merits, click here. 

Swiss cheesecake

On the cogwheel train ride up from Lauterbrunnen valley to Wengen in Switzerland's Jungfrau region.

This place is makes me feel good about myself, mostly because I’m running into people more abrupt than me.

Saturday, Dave and I returned to Switzerland’s Interlaken region to see what was on the other side of the mountain range we had admired weeks ago and to see if we could make it to the “top of Europe,” that is “Jungfraujoch,” which stretches 3,454 m into the sky.

It’s  a mystery why Jungfrauloch is called the top of Europe when it sits in the shadow of  Jungfrau, a 4,158-metre colossus. My only reckoning is that the cogwheel train that grinds its way up this mountain only goes as high as Jungfrauloch, so it might as well be the top.  I can imagine the railworkers reaching the tip of Jungfrauloch, only to see greater heights beyond them, and in their exasperation they put in the last railway spike as a way of saying, “What taller mountain? We don’t see any higher mountains around here. This is the top of Europe and if you want to say any different, you pound a rail track to it. Until then, this is it.”

I don’t know this for sure. I am only guessing. Another mystery is why the region is called Jungfrau, which translates into young woman, or someone told us “virgin.” Perhaps it was virgin territory at one time, but now it is a playground criss-crossed by tour buses, trails, trains, gondolas and the like. Nevertheless, it is massive enough to absorb these human tracks without losing it’s grandeur.

Hildegard, hard at work. Time waits for no man, and Hildegard waits for no customer, although technically, she is a waitress, so you would think she'd wait around while we figured out our order.

We got off the train in Wengen and stopped in at the Crystal Cafe Bar, a place that looked and felt eerily like Hideaway Tavern in Redditt, Ontario, which is run by a robust family of Icelandic extraction.

Hideaway no longer functions as tavern, although the family is still there and they still run hunting and fishing excursions, as well as rent cabins. We half expected to see them when we stepped inside Crystal Cafe’s honey-beadboard wood interior with plain, sensible furnishings. I am not making up Hideaway Tavern, which is now known as Hideaway Outfitters. Click on Hideaway to check it out.

The operator, an older woman who looked as though she might have just topped the mountain herself that morning and would do it again at the slightest suggestion came to our table. Let’s call her Hildegard.  I asked for a croissant and Hildegard said, “No croissants! All gone!”

Okay. So I asked about danishes and she said, “No!”

A little abrupt, but not in a rude way. I suddenly realized I was staring at a person who had taken my level of abruptness and doubled it up. She was to me, as I am to most Canadians, that is, just a little sharp. It was refreshing. After all, I am in some oblique way related to these quasi-Germanic tribes. Obviously, the plain-spoken gene is dominant.  Hildegard tried to escape then, but we hailed her back and managed to put in an order.

Cheese cake in theory; quiche in fact. Lousy cheesecake. Good quiche.

We watched her work other tables and she had the same manner, which roughly went along the lines of  “what do you want?” and if the customers didn’t know what they wanted right away, she wasn’t about to coach them along. She would just leave while they sorted out their problems on their own. She had enough work to do without babysitting customers.

Dave ordered a grilled ham sandwich, which was good, and I ordered cheesecake. Cheesecake is not exactly recommended for lunch in accordance with the Canada Food Guide, but it is loaded with protein and I am ever curious as to the form cheesecake takes in other countries.

As a side-note, about 28 years ago Dave and I sublet our townhouse to a Swiss family. The wife invited me over for cheesecake one afternoon, and what with her being Swiss, and this being a cheese-laced dessert, I expected great things. What a disappointment. It was the worse cheesecake I had ever had. I think she was from the German side of Switzerland and so did not brook any nonsense that would dilute the cake’s cheesy character, such as by adding whipping cream, eggs or sugar.

We were surprised by the dimensions of the ketchup packet. We think it says, "If you don't like your lunch, just spray it with this."

But no mind. After a 28-year interval, I was ready to try another Swiss cheesecake.

Hildegard returned with two small cheesecakes with scorched black tops. This made me feel at home and I silently blessed Hildegard for correctly reading me as a person familiar with burnt offerings.

As cheesecakes go, these were infinitely worse than my last Swiss cheesecake. In fact, they were not cheesecake at all, but quiche. Very cheesy quiche. And, as such, were excellent. It was exactly the right thing before trying a mountain hike.

Tomorrow: Heading up the mountain.

The things you bring back home

This is not the prettiest photo. It was taken on the sly in the grocery store where I have been scolded for photographing the goods before. This tiny container that fits in my hand cost 4.10 francs, which is way to much to pay for anything that has margarine in it.

In every international move, we have packed along some of the comforts of home, and in every move back home, we pack along some of the discovered comforts of life abroad.

In this instance, I’m bringing back a spice called Cafe de Paris, which I’m hoping is the genuine spice and herb mixture for Cafe de Paris sauce.

You might think that this is French, not Swiss, but you would be wrong about that. The Swiss, like Canadians and Americans, pride themselves on adopting the best from other countries, and that extends to names, even if the sauce was first concocted and served in Geneva. The Swiss have a knack for marketing, and they correctly detected  Cafe de Geneva would fail to rise to the elevated notes of this delicious sauce.

It is incomprehensible that France lets Switzerland get away this, especially as that while the Swiss take the French name, they give nothing back, keeping the ingredients a trade secret. This explains all those French invasions on Swiss villages back in the 1400-1600’s.

We first learned of Cafe’ de Paris sauce at a restaurant in Montreux. Recommended by the waiter, it came in a scoop nestled in a small gravy boat with my steak dinner.

Is this the transportable good stuff? My summer cottage guests will test it.

It was a pale green, not a very inspiring colour  and despite being listed on the menu as a sauce, it came in solid form.  It had the consistency of  a heavy mousse.

One nibble and I, too, believed sauce could be a solid, powder or vapour. It didn’t matter. Cafe de Paris was beyond delicious.

When I thanked the waiter and asked him what heavenly plateau of cuisine I had just ascended, he waved it away as a mash of minced parsley, butter and a little garlic. Clever waiter. He’s in on the secret, too, and was not about to share.

Several publications have claimed to unlock the secret to this sauce, but the Swiss just shake their heads and say, “Nope, not it.”

Since then, I have been in pursuit of Cafe de Paris. I have discovered a spice of that name listing 15 ingredients, some of which look like something the Swiss would make up.*

Dollops of Cafe de Paris are sold in stores in tiny egg-carton-like form, but one of their ingredients is margarine, proving that the Swiss are still being secretive. Margarine as a base is an abomination, every good cook knows this and even us poor ones are well-aware of it.

*Here are the spice ingredients. Some are easy to figure out – basil, tarragon, pepper, but a few are beyond my resources.  Help me if you can:

German: salz, paprika (ungarn), knoblauch (agypten), petersilie, basilikum, schnittlauch, estragon, zwiebein, pfeffer, liebstockel, majoran, andere krauter und gewurze, pflanzl, fett (gedampft), lauch, karotten.

French: sel, paprica (Hongrie), ail (Egypte), persil, basilic, ciboulette, estragon, oignon, poivre, liveche, marjolaine, autres herbes et epices (curse the Swiss for using this catch-all phrase), graisse veg (vaporissee), poireau, carottes.

Warning: Cafe de Paris sauce is loaded with almost 600 calories in a single serving size, which is about the size of half-an-egg. This, too, is a miracle – to pack so many calories into a dollop that can be taken in one swallow.

Eat on the street at Au Grill’on

Photo captures male diner's facial expression as he absorbs yet another insult from his haughty French waiter. He revels in the satisfaction of knowing he is paying for the best arrogance France can deliver.

Dave and I arrived in a famished state at Au Grill’on, a corner cafe that wraps around  Rue JDV Proudhon and Rue Francois Louis-Bersot in Besançon’s old quarter.

As is our custom, we first whetted our appetite by scrutinizing the menus and clientele of about 12 restaurants beforehand, deeming each one unsuitable, until we arrived at Au Grill’on too tired and hungry to care about the quality of food or service. This was France, after all, where there is no bad food, theoretically speaking.

We parked ourselves at a table at the point of the corner to enjoy a commanding view of the pedestrian-fashion show going up and down both streets.  I stepped away to discreetly take a few photos of said fashion-show and when I returned Dave was seated at a new table.

The waiter, a young man who when he first appeared wore an expression so disinterested that it took a few minutes for us to conclude he was not a loitering Dylanesque artiste, had moved Dave to another table hemmed in on one side by what appeared to be a trash bin and on the other by an ad board.

Dave, being of English stock, did not realize the waiter was asserting dominance. I, having a good measure of pre-Revolutionary French blood, appreciated the artistry woven into this insult and drew my sword, figuratively speaking.

I moved us to another table. True, it was worse than the one the waiter chose, but there was no time to quibble. Dave, seeing he was but a pawn in our power-struggle, sighed and took up his newly assigned post. I wonder if we had kept on like that for 20 minutes or so how many tables we could have made Dave sit at. I would guess at least five.  He is a very good sport.

The view from our table.

The waiter, seeing he had a rogue diner on his hands swept by our table as though we did not exist, a sort of shot-across-the-bow move, then returned to our table and assumed a bored posture – his weight thrown to one side, shoulders slack, chest cratered inward and head slightly tilted as though falling asleep. I managed a few French words at which his eyes flickered with hostility.

Some say that everyone under 25 in Europe has a working knowledge of English, but the waiter gave no recognition of our English and even less of our French. We would have done just as well in Hungarian, even though neither of us speak it.

The waiter communicated in one-syllable words so low that they could have signaled a digestive complaint, but he toyed with our hopes by allowing a slight intonation of language into his grunts. He was a good-looking kid, but he somehow transformed his eyelids into shadowy hoods and his lip curled slightly upward while the rest of his facial features took on a gargoyle-like profile.

The view on the other side of the street - sure the avenue is jammed with tables and pedestrians, but why not drive a sports car through it? We've seen this in Switzerland and France - owning a sports car is apparently a license to drive anywhere, any time, any way at all.

You have to hand it to the boy. He should not be in some provincial backwater, but instead be waiting on tables in Paris where he could contribute to France’s international reputation for waiter-haughtiness.  We were delighted to finally get our money’s worth in cuisine culture.

Even though we communicated our order caveman-style, that is,  by pointing on the menu, le garcon brought me something somewhat different – and more expensive – than what I had ordered. He correctly detected Dave’s likability and first brought him his exact order – chicken breast, which came sans bone and skin in a  mallet-flattened filet along with a square of delicious scalloped potato.

Hopefully no waiter-spit is in here. This tasted a lot better than it looked, although I could not detect any garlic. The waiter must have reported my misdemeanors to the chef!

Then he brought my steak, which I had ordered, topped with what appeared to be giant raisins, which I had not ordered. I would have put up a fight about this, but I am still waiting for the day that a European waiter brings me the correct order, so I just picked up my knife and started hacking at it only to see my plate transform into a murder scene, complete with red blood pouring out into the beige-coloured sauce (a nice complementary colour scheme, by the way).

The waiter was winning.

I sent the plate back to the kitchen where for all I know the entire staff gathered around to spit on it.

When the steak returned, it was still rare, but it no longer flinched under the fork. It was perfectly tender, a good piece of meat, and although a little lacking in the usual hint of garlic for which French chefs are famous, it still was delicious.

The waiter, as is almost always the case with European waiters, had exacted his revenge by making sure I did not escape the region without dining on the local delicacy, morilles mushrooms, which is the name for the raisin-like globules atop the steak. It is hard to hate a waiter so wise.

The morilles added nearly 10 dollars (Cd) to the price, but were worth the freaky experience of having their raisin-ribbed surface tickle the inside of my mouth. Did I say it was freaky? It’s worth saying twice.

Sadly, their flavour is weak as compared to more common mushroom varieties.

Despite our waiter’s lofty ways, he was very quick with bringing the food, and I’m fairly certain he did not spit in it, although with all that sauce and crumpled morilles, who can say for sure?

Out of 10, with 10 being the top:

Service: 4

Cultural service experience: 10

Food:  Chicken:  10  Steak: 8

Price: $12 for the chicken, $24 for the steak.

Ambiance:  8

Eating like Europeans

A rarity in Europe: Water served automatically. Usually it must be ordered and it costs as much as any other beverage.

We stumbled into a delicious find while visiting Appenzell, a village in the Alpstein limestone range, near Mount Santis  in Switzerland’s Northeast corner.

We arrived off the tram from Kronberg hungry, as we always are after an invigorating ride over the rails, so finding a restaurant was foremost in our minds. There are different ways to find restaurants, and we have developed our own methodology. We check our favorite travel guide-book – Rick Steves’ Switzerland, then wander the cobblestone streets in a confused manner as though we don’t have a guidebook at all, all while staring at the guidebook’s map, then at the buildings.

Lokal takes its gelato seriously. Mmmmmm .... gelato.

As though foreordained, a shop catches my eye and Dave, trying to hold to our original gastronomic purposes, waits outside to study the map/guidebook while I peruse the store shelves where I always find everything is much too expensive. It is true, I am cheap, but when I find a pair of shoes that sell for $267 while I am wearing the same make for which I paid $110, I am none too impressed. Shopkeepers perceive this and pretend to speak no English. Either that or they are insulted by my harmless questions about their retail ethics.

By the time I exit the store (or stores), our hunger reaches the fussy level, our pace increases, my interest in shopping diminishes and our path takes on a pinball trajectory, that is to say, we hurry from one Rick Steves-recommended restaurant to another, finding some minor flaw with each one that sends us on our way again.

We go through about a half-dozen restaurants in this manner, judging them by the shallowest, yet truest of means: The customers at the outside cafe look sick of each other’s company and there is no food in front of them, suggesting a long wait and tardy service; a funny smell comes out of the kitchen; the posted menu is only in German, stoking our fear that we will accidentally dine on horse or rabbit meat; the place is empty; the low lighting through amber glass windows prohibits suitable scrutiny of the food and the list goes on.

We look for places populated by locals on the grounds that they are the best judges of a restaurant’s fare, so it may be that a bistro we came across named “Lokal” twigged a subliminal familiarity, predisposing us to looking favorably on it, and then we found a mention of it in our guidebook, where Rick Steves labels Lokal’s offerings as the opposite of Swiss fare. That seemed like an endorsement to us fearers of horse meat, so in we went.

At this point, we were starving and a little glassy eyed, which the server may have recognized because she spent a lot of time explaining the menu to us, which was very kind, however, it prolonged the ordering process and we weakened even further. Eventually, I ordered a crepe filled with banana gelato, which shows just how vulnerable we had become.

Dave using the classical pointing method to order his lunch. He has no idea what he is pointing at.

Dave pointed out sandwich fillers from the display case in such a random manner that by the time we sat down he could only identify his sandwich contents by their colours – “red things,” “green stringy things.” If there was horse meat in it, we would not have known because we are unfamiliar with the colour of cooked horse meat (when raw it has a burgundy tone not often seen in beef).

So we sat down and accepted our fate, only to find that it was all good. Lokal happens to specialize in its focaccia bread, and it was superlative, soft and not too chewy as is too often the case with North American focaccias. The preserved tomatoes and peppers were lightly seasoned and bit back just enough to tease the tongue.

The crepe was perfect, although I did feel weird having a frozen dessert wrapped inside a hot crepe. Maybe this exists elsewhere but I don’t think I’ve ever ordered it. This is the beauty of being a fussy eater – I’m easily impressed and look on old staples as crazy new concoctions.

We took on the attitude of Europeans who when they take a table are practically leasing it. We ate everything, then jumped up and ordered some more, lounged, ate more, enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere along with other loafing diners as though we were hanging around in our mothers’ kitchens. The two women servers – who may have been proprietors, they looked that engaged in their work – were pleasant and helpful, unobtrusive, but ready to deliver more goodies at the slightest sign of hunger pangs.

The gelato is made in-house of local dairy and “Alpstein” water, which pours down from the limestone Santi Mountain  – and is without any artificial dyes. I sampled the chocolate, walnut and banana. The chocolate was fabulous, but I am a chocolate addict so am rarely disappointed. The banana gelato was strikingly intense; the walnut gelato was unique, subtle, and very very good. In all, Lokal offered about 16-20 varieties and if I lived there, I would have tried them all.

Check out the restaurant’s (German only) website here or enter Lokal Appenzell into Google and click on “translate this page.” I give this understated eatery the thumbs up. Sandwich: 8 out of 10. Gelato: 10 out of 10 (yes, a 10!). Crepe – undecided. It wasn’t really filling as a lunch item, but it was delicious. Price: $37 for a continuous stream of food for two, very reasonable for Switzerland.

Montreux

The wet walk between Chateau de Chillon and Montreux, along Lake Geneva.

Bus or boat will take visitors from Chateau Chillon to Montreux, but why bother when a world-famous “Swiss Riviera” promenade waits just outside the castle drawbridge?

Whether we actually voiced such a lucid question is a mystery even to us, as a cleaving wind and pelting rainfall drowned out our conversation. Despite the storm, we decided to walk. The word “decided” is loosely applied here.

A mansion overlooking Lake Geneva on the riviera promenade toward Montreux. Why do the Swiss call this is a "riviera" when it is on a lake?

Part of the problem lies in the “Well, we’re here, why not do it?” syndrome that besets Dave and I in all our ventures.  It eclipses all cognitive thought, which means that we rarely decide anything. Dave knows this, and he uses it to his advantage as was seen when he got me onto the Gondola-Ride-From-Hades up a mountainside. I put my foot down, declaring that said foot was staying within reach of the ground no matter what, but Dave slyly coaxed me into walking near the gondola, hence I ended up on it, because of the dreaded “Well, we’re here …” travel tic.  I wish there was a cure for this.

A sign outside the château claimed the walk to Montreux was 45 minutes, which might be correct, if you’re going at a good clip and not leaning into gale-force winds while keeping a watchful eye on Lake Geneva for signs of rogue waves that might sweep you away to the French side of this massive body of water, all while keeping your ear tuned to the tree branches above for the sound of cracking limbs that might break off and grind your body into the quaint promenade pavement where the Swiss might mistakenly leave you on the assumption that you are some form of modern art. The Swiss do love statues.

Even in the storm, the promenade is worth the walk – it starts out narrow with an uneven surface and rather ordinary hedging, but quickly opens up to a wide mall flanked with mansions on one side and a trim botanical garden on the water side. My guess is that this walk is packed on a sunny day, but with the storm in full voice, Dave and I found ourselves alone but for the occasional daring youth biking past and one very wealthy looking man walking his golden retriever, who gave us a friendly (by Swiss standards) hello, probably on the thinking he might see us at “the club” later, because who else would volunteer for this walk but a well-heeled and eccentric local?

Even the public bathrooms have a stately look in Montreux.

By the time we found ourselves alongside the wharf from which we had started our day’s journey, we had walked a total of 5.5 miles weighted down with rain-soaked clothing (the distance includes tramping through Chillon castle) and were ready for some real food. We stepped up to the restaurant La Metropole, also oddly signed “Caesars” by the wharf, where we had earlier seen a rather elite-looking crowd noshing away at tantalizing dishes. If the rich eat here, we thought, the food must be reasonably good.

As we folded our badly abused umbrellas, a very French-looking waiter rushed out from the restaurant and motioned us towards one of the outdoor cafe tables, even though the weather was still rather exciting. A glance through the windows told the story – the interior showed off elaborately set tables, sparkling wine glasses, perfectly starched tablecloths, while the reflection in the glass informed us of how poorly equipped we were for such surroundings, my hair whipped into a Medusa fright, Dave’s tanned face now bearing the weather-worn visage of a salty sea-captain. We humbly took our place outdoors, just like the dogs we appeared to be.

We counted out our children’s inheritance and figured there was just enough to pay off one’s law school debt and enjoy a steak lunch at this establishment, so we braved it. I am not exaggerating when I say “braved it.” We had an earlier unpleasant encounter with Swiss beef, an experience that surprised us both as the Swiss enjoy a cultural association to beef that is perhaps unparalleled worldwide, except in those countries where the cow is looked on as a deity. Consider the widely known Swiss cheese and Swiss chocolate, and the less-famous Swiss fighting cows (a true phenomenon according to guide books), and so forth.

The delicious "Steak de boueffe" grilled to "medium" at Montreux's "La Metropole" restaurant, which also has the sign "Caesar's" above it. We think the dual-name is a byproduct of multilingualism.

I passed up the $45 filet mignon, on the grounds that no one can grill a tenderloin better than my husband and it was unlikely the chefs would let him into the kitchen, and opted for the $35 steak lunch. Dave, still mindful of  our children’s inheritance, wisely ordered a sandwich. We then settled in with our lattes to wait the requisite four hours for the meal to show up. Imagine our surprise when our waiter swept up with our dishes before I had worked a quarter-way down the cup.

The waiter had taken matters in hand and ordered the steak doneness to medium, which meant that it still quivered on the plate, and chose as its companion, a Cafe de Paris sauce. There are waiters whose instincts are unfathomably correct. This man was one of them.

The meat was perfect, tender, and seasoned just so. The Cafe de Paris, which appeared in a dollop of green aspic in a gravy boat carried the steak’s seasoning from wonderful to beyond-heavenly. Our waiter waved away any notion the sauce was extraordinary. “Just parsley, garlic, butter and (indecipherable spice name),” he said. The grilled vegetables were cooked to perfection, lightly buttered, the red-leaf salad was crisp, and the roasted potatoes, which came in a separate bowl, were as good as potatoes can get, which is just to say that no one recognizes a truly great potato dish, yet one only makes note when it is done wrong. This was done right.

A pricy meal, but very enjoyable with excellent professional service overlooking Lake Geneva. It was a perfect end to our blustery walk, and restored our sensibilities and bravado so that we were able to march up Montreux’s steep slopes to enjoy its 16th-century quarter.

What do you think? Does our waiter look French? I think he does and he had a decidedly French accent.

The requisite pose with Freddie Mercury statue.

Say Cheese

How do the Swiss get those holes in their cheese?

Woke up to a smelly apartment this morning. Cheese must have snuck out of the fridge while we were asleep.

Swiss cheese here is not very much like Swiss cheese anywhere outside of Switzerland. In North America, it has a polite nip in its flavour. Over here, it stinks so bad that we are forced to limit the number of times we open the fridge door, just to preserve the air quality in our place. This is a true fact.

It seems heretical to say, but I am having trouble believing in Swiss cheese per se, just as I am deeply suspicious of my mother’s pre-1961 claims about Santa Claus.

For one thing, I have yet to locate a single block of cheese in any of the local stores with the name “Swiss” on it. The only names I recognize are Brie, Camembert, Feta and Emmental.

Note to editors: Yes, I capitalize all cheese names out of respect for any food made up of 70 per cent or more fat. Canadian Press Style Guide be darned.

Instead, the labels on cheeses here change every three days and read in long Franco-Germanic hieroglyphics like Kaltbach Holengereift  affine en grotte Kraftig-Wurzig intensement corse, which I believe translates into:  Right off the Cow’s Back while it hollered and it’s a fine although gross cheese nothing like Kraft, with an intense coarseness.

I’m suspicious of any grocer who claims to carry 983 varieties of cheese, as Swiss grocers make it appear with their vast dairy aisles. Now, having sampled their wares for over a month, I am ready to make the expert assertion that they only have one cheese, but sell it in various states of decay, and what appear to be name brands are actually warning stickers reading: Essenauf Eigene Gefahr and Acht Monate Vorbei Sein Verfallsdatum. *

This is the wonderful thing about the German language: It makes even the simplest things sound complex. It is how they came to master engineering and technology the world over.

In the meantime, I staggered toward the fridge this morning, facecloth pressed firmly over my nose and mouth to prevent inhaling more deadly cheese spores, declaring my intent to save us by disposing of the cheese.

Dave, Scottish by blood, would not hear of throwing out something we paid an exorbitant amount of money for, and declared he would eat the remainder – a sizeable pie-sized piece. Good man. Fell on his sword. **

*Translation: “Eat at your own risk,” and “Eight months past expiry.”

** I meant to write about the absence of Cheddar from Swiss shops, but got side-tracked. This is what cheese-spore-laden air will do to a person.

Dining on the Champs

Our exceedingly snotty French waiter at the Cafe de Musee, who may have been right to hold the butter on my croissant order.

Paris’s Champs Elysees, home of Louis Vuitton, Sepphora and Swarovski flagship stores, is an avenue that prides itself on excising as much capital from tourists as possible.

Fiscally speaking, we are diametrically opposed to this, so we would not have been surprised if when we first stepped onto the Champs, a black hole had torn open and swallowed up the whole of France. Seriously, we are that cheap.

But even the cheap have to eat, especially after the grueling march down the Champs that is filled with one amazing scene after another – and all of these being of towering women teetering on five-inch stilettos, their upright state only ensured by keeping their designer shopping bags equally weighted.

We stumbled from one sidewalk cafe to another, holding back our gasps at the posted menu prices of 50-Euro ($70 Cdn.) prices.

Fois gras? Or Klik?

We settled on the L’Alsace restaurant, which boasted a steal-of-a-deal tourist special at about $20/person. It seemed too good to be true and we braced ourselves to be fed horse or goat meat. Inside, the waiters waved their menus and delivered subtle scowls at any suggestion we were of such low-class as to dine on so humble a meal as their lunch special, but we happily took our place at the bottom of Pari’s culinary totem pole and ordered the special anyway.

Dave had the mashed duck liver, more appealingly tagged Pate’ de Foie Gras, which arrived looking like it had been sliced right out of a can of Klik. Were the French punishing us for our fiscal frugality? Mais non! It turned out the pate’ was quite good.
I had the sautéed goat cheese, which was a meal in itself. It came folded in phyllo, lightly turned in a pan of butter with a splash of sweet sauce – delicious. The main course – roast chicken breast on rice was plain in appearance, but tender and nicely seasoned. For the poor-man’s dinner on the sidewalks of the Champs Elysees, it was pretty good.

Goat cheese, along with an understated green salad.

On or off the Champs, Parisian cafes are a delight, although sometimes the scene of cultural clashes. 

This is because European waiters are not only the bringers-of-food; they are also the guardians of cuisine culture.

At lunch outside Napoleon’s tomb, I ordered a croissant “avec buerre,” causing our waiter’s nostrils to flare and his brow to furrow.  He corrected my faux pas by bringing only the croissant. Having dueled with European waiters on points of dining etiquette before (eg. never order coffee at the beginning of a meal in Spain), I shrugged and ate the croissant sans butter.

It was just as well. It was gossamer-light, free of the slippery butter texture of its North American cousins, not that there’s anything wrong with buttery croissants.

At another cafe, a compliment on the quiche earned an introduction to the chef who painstakingly described how to repeat the feat.
I am now armed with his secret recipe, but it’s in French, and only scribbled into my memory, so our guests will have to be satisfied with the quiche recipe we got from our neighbour Dan (the insurance man who wore a suit while he built our garden shed, but that is another story).
The frugal can find food in Paris without hitting a McDonalds (yes, McDonalds is in Paris – but not on the Champs – and I regret we didn’t give it a go, because we’ve seen curiously culturally altered McDonalds at other places).
Average expenditure per person per day: $80-$100. Could we go cheaper? Yes, we always can.
Apologies: WordPress is exhibiting some formatting problems. My apologies for the paragraph-jams.