18: The Lists

Switzerland has reawakened my love of shutters. They are everywhere, they are beautiful. I want some.

I have a friend who loves lists. I find it freaky, because I thought I was the only list-amaniac on the planet. Now I know there are more listers out there, probably all walking at an awkward angle (listing to the right or left).

My listing-friend blogged her 2011 year-in-review lists, which made me laugh until my eyes watered. I won’t say that I laughed until I cried, because I have four brothers and if they sense weakness in me, they will go in for the kill.

I have so many lists, the favorite one being: What cottage projects should we do this summer? At this point, many men will recognize that last sentence was in code. It really means: What cottage projects should he do this summer?

Switzerland’s House of Parliament, centre of government in Bern.

He, being my hubby Dave, does not like this list.

I also have lists of things I want to do – he does not like this list either because it includes interior house-painting projects. I am only five-feet tall, so Dave knows this means he will come home one day to find that I have painted any number of rooms, but only up to my highest reaching point. He is on the hook for all painting projects above the 6.5-foot mark.

I’m thinking of this because today I announced that after eight years of owning our latest house, I just last week figured out what colour I want to paint the bathroom. Dave knows this means he is going to be painting the top 2-3 feet of  wall space. I don’ t know why this bothers him. After all, I do the larger part (if he got to write in this blog, this is where he would point out that I sometimes leave the trim and fiddly painting parts for him to do) (good thing he doesn’t have the password to this blog).

But enough about that.

In the spirit of listing, here’s a list of things I like best about Switzerland.

  1. Chocolate: Lots and lots of chocolate.
  2. Medieval towns: Somehow medieval towns do not seem to have been bombed out in either of the world wars. I could be wrong about this, but if I’m right, it shows that even in war, there is a civil regard for architectural beauty. On the other hand, there are many signs of re-construction, so I probably am wrong.
  3. Restaurants in parks: For some reason, Victoria, the city where we live most of the time, equates eateries in parks with fecal/nuclear/toxic environmental contamination. People who hold those views should visit Europe, which has perfected the eating-in-the-parking experience into the sublime. A dining establishment or ice cream stand does not represent the end of the world as we know it.
  4. Canals: Instead of stormwater drain systems, the Swiss have open canals, fenced in charming wrought-iron, filled with swans, ducks and other waterfowl and lined with trees. I cannot think of a single reason Canadian cities don’t follow suit (hello, Ottawa). Think of the fun ice-skating trails winding through the cities this would create (hello Winnipeg).
  5. The Swiss: Switzerland’s jerk-to-nice-person ratio is about one jerk for every 150 nice people. That is a stunningly good ratio.

Something else I don’t like about Switzerland/Europe:   A lax attitude toward refrigerated meats and eggs, not to mention warmer dairy cases than would ever pass muster in North America. I know the meats in this photo are cured, but that is not enough for me.

Here is a list of things I like least about Switzerland.

  1. Chocolate: There’s entirely too much of it, and it is everywhere. How am I supposed to get into a bathing suit this summer when chocolates can be found in the meat, produce, dairy, bakery, pharmacy, cookie  and beverage aisles, not to mention at aisle-ends and check-outs.  Even after I go past the check-out at our closest grocery store (which is in the basement of a downtown building), at the top of the escalator is – what else but another kiosk of Lindt chocolate.
  2. Medieval town maps: Medieval towns seem to predate the concept of grid-based urban planning, so the roadways go along in charming little forest-path patterns, which is absolutely wonderful for photography, but not so great when trying to find one’s way through what is effectively a cobblestone maze. I wish the maps were better, as well as the street signs.
  3. Restaurants: Restaurants here are pricey. How pricey? A colleague of Dave’s recently spent two weeks in London, returning to Switzerland to declare London restaurants very cheap. Seriously? Who else emerges from a London eatery calling it a bargain but someone acclimatized to the high cost of dining out in Switzerland? That’s how expensive Swiss restaurants are.
  4. Canal litter: As a former parks commissioner, I know there is no amount of structural design that will completely thwart ne’er-do-wells, but I think Switzerland could raise its canal fences from about 3.5 feet to a higher level to reduce stolen-bicycle-littering (yes, this is where missing bikes show up). It also would keep kids from leaping over the rail, although no Swiss child would do that. They are born sensible.
  5. The Swiss: I love the Swiss, I do, but I am suspicious that their tolerance for prostitution, narcotics and public drunkenness stretches a tad too far.
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42: Nuclear Nixed

Switzerland already uses solar power the old-fashioned way – with clotheslines. This rooftop clothesline is in the city core.

Switzerland derives 40 per cent of its electric power from six nuclear reactors* – all of which are slated for shutdown by 2030 as decided in a recent plebiscite. That gives the Swiss 18 years to figure out where to make up that considerable energy shortfall, and so they are looking into amping up their hydro-electric options.

A Swiss neighbourhood of row houses has multiple dedicated spaces for communal clotheslines. As a fan of sun-dried linens, I love this.

We tend to think of the frugal Swiss as energy-efficient what with their affection for public transport, train travel and these confounded greyish lightbulbs, but they’re not. On a global scale, they are 21st out of 217 countries in electricity consumption on a per capita basis. Canada is #4. Yes, we beat the Swiss in the hockey world championships this year and now they must deal with this added humiliation.

Before environmentalists jump on Canada for this, the reference point is for electrical consumption only, and that Canada is such a high consumer is related to its world-class hydro-electric infrastructure. Energy consumption correlates to national development, stability, industrialization and affluence, with the world’s saddest nations consuming the least power. I am waiting for David Suzuki to stand up and applaud Somalia for its “green” economy.

In the meantime, expect the Swiss to come up with something inventive to cope with their energy diet. They know how to make the most out of very little. They turned a landlocked, mountainous scrap of land into a world economic leader by selling things that can fit in your pocket: Drugs, watches and chocolate. ***

* Swiss media sources sometimes report the number of reactors at seven. The European Nuclear Society reports only five.

** Pharmaceuticals, not illegal drugs. This isn’t Mexico.

*** There is more to it than these three, of course. There’s also Swiss banking, cheese, ski resorts and the Red Cross. For such a small place, this country has a huge cultural footprint.

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.

Chocolate Supremacy in Surprising Places

The best hot chocolate ever. If you know the recipe for Slovakian hot chocolate, please share!

German chocolate, Dutch chocolate, Swiss Chocolate and the top-of-the-world fabulous chocolate caramels served up at the little-heralded Chocolat shop at 703 Fort Street in Victoria, British Columbia – these are few of my favorite things.

After swooning to the wonders of German chocolate, I was not expecting to find anything comparable in Europe, much less Slovakia, but it turns out I was wrong about that.

Seated in the snug Cukraren na Korze in Bratislava’s historic district, we devoured the best chocolate ever. I use the word “devoured,” but it could just as easily be said that we sipped on it. The chocolate was a hot chocolate beverage topped in genuine whipped cream, and while many have used the term “you could stand a spoon up in it,” only as a descriptive for richness, Cukraren’s hot chocolate really can support a spoon.

It raises the question: Is it hot chocolate? Or pudding? I don’t know. I don’t care. I just love it. I’ve been trying to figure out the recipe all this month, but so far it eludes me.

My father was Slovakian by birth, and he went to school in Bratislava, but of all the great food he put on the table, he never produced a cup of hot chocolate like this. I think he knew I had a weakness, and that bringing Bratislava’s hot chocolate too early into my life could lead to things, like not being to find a bathroom scale able to register my weight.

If you go to Bratislava, you’ll find Cukraren (with more accents and strange squiggles on its signage that my keyboard will allow) on Michalska, just a few doors down from St. Michael’s Gate and across from these ugly gargoyles. I don’t remember what the hot chocolate costs, but I didn’t particularly care after tasting it.

 

 

This little guy obviously wants more hot chocolate.

 

Unlauded Swiss Chocolatier Gives the Germans a Run for the Title

Looking down from the ride up in the funicular at Biel.

Inside of the span of 24 hours, we weathered a windstorm that pushed over giant trees, rain that fed the canal waters to the point where we mused about what would happen if the water spilled its banks, and then snowfall.

We almost felt as though we were back on the Canadian prairies.

All this lousy weather meant that we were honour-bound to head outside (really, we were – click here to see why).  We hit the Jura Mountains for a hike, powered by the greatest food combination known to the modern Euro-world: Knoblauchbrot. It is a half-loaf of French bread (or, should we say Swiss bread?) saturated with butter, garlic and herbs. We’re not sure of the recipe, but my guess is a half-pound of butter goes into every serving.

Then we took a funicular ride up the mountains north of our town. Yes, I said we were going hiking, but it’s steep up them thar hills, so we ride up and hike down. It was at the steeply pitched village of Evilard where we discovered a chocolate maker who just may have bumped Germany off its pedestal as best-chocolatier.

We found the chocolates at Lanz Baclerei Konditorei  (a pastry and bakery establishment) in an unassuming corner of what appeared to be a white plaster apartment building, its chief decorative element being a rolled-up orange and brown awning.  The shop gal assured us the chocolates in their display case were all made in the shop. Having discovered a true family/boutique chocolaterie, I was not about to miss out on an impromptu taste-test.

Note to the wise: When the Swiss label their liquor chocolates, they mean it. It’s not just liquor-flavoured, it’s a quarter-shot of booze in every bite. Adjust consumption levels accordingly.

We bypassed the serious liquor chocolates and had truffles instead. Their ranking: Fabulous. Maybe even better than the German chocolates but in the interest of judicial impartiality and rigour, I would have to go back to Germany for further testing. It would only be right.

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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.