81: Cobble Gobble: Is China invading Europe one cobblestone at a time?

This cobblestone in Geneva may have been relaid (sett) in modern times, but it is a good example of the use of water-polished eclectic riverstone.

Our little town of Biel has a medieval district laced in cobblestone lanes that slope into the foot of the Jura Mountains.

This gap-toothed cobblestoned street in Bratislava is pretty old and dilapidated, but you can see by the squared edges that these are still quarried stones and are therefore relatively modern.

Not all is as it seems. The cobblestones are not genuine from the Middle Ages as is the village. They are in fact the same black-basalt-coloured cobblestone granite pavers you can have laid in your driveway.

We’ve seen these types of pavers throughout Switzerland, France, Italy, Slovakia, Germany and Austria. They are a menace, in that in some places they are creeping in over ancient cobblestone streets because they provide a smoother surface. Nonetheless, they are still preferred over asphalt, which is what you will find in the charming cultural centre of Basel’s old-town. Shame.

Authentic cobblestone streets can still be found: Bratislava has the most beautiful uneven cobblestone surfaces, which unfortunately I cannot find in my photo-files, dang!  The only photo I can find is of a 1800s “sett” street. Setts hail from the era when squared and quarried stone became more available and towns started replacing local riverbed stone with the flatter setts.

Even impoverished Bratislava is upgrading, so the old rounded riverbed stones that are of varying sizes and colours are on the way out. They are understandably not the easiest to traverse, rendered as they are into miniature hillocks by the pressures of time, the substrata and, of course, the weight of traffic.

Cobblestone in Biel/Bienne's historic quarter. The lack of uniformity in each stone's size suggests these are not from China.

It is perhaps a testament to Europe that its historic districts are far from static museum pieces. They are well-traversed, so its roadways are best if upgraded so that people don’t trip on every other step.

Solothurn, Switzerland is also home to genuine cobblestone, as are any number of tiny Swiss villages. The cobblestones date back to the 15th Century, and were usually taken from local riverbeds, hence each area’s stone roads are a stamp of the region’s individuality. I love the more recently added black paving stones, but they are the same anywhere you go in Europe or North America. I would have imagined they all come from Northern Ontario where black granite is in abundance, but more likely these streets are from China. Check out this supplier.

According to Wikipedia – a not necessarily reliable source of information by the way – some cobblestone roads have heritage-designation and are protected, but I could not get a single government office to verify that.

European cobblestone is not necessarily in danger. It can be purchased where else but the U.S. Here is one California, supplier who will happily ship it to you anywhere you like – maybe even back to Europe.

The grey 'path' along this Solothurn, Switzerland street is relatively new. If you look at the raw umber-toned stones in the courtyard and roadway, you will see they are of an older vintage The absence of uniformity in the street stone's sizes, colours and their rounded edges suggest they are much older and possibly drawn from nearby riverbeds (River Aar).

Here's a closer look. Given the flatness of this cobblestone surface, it appears that it could be a relaid "sett" from the 1800s, but it also could be the original locally drawn riverstones.

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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.