Tag Archives: Switzerland

Escape from canned spaghetti: How breaking local saved the world.

I lived an involuntarily local existence for ten of the twenty or so years in Switzerland.

It is the kind of food experience mourned  by tediously delusional dreamers who have not participated in  it – with a pervading nostalgia for a photo-shopped emotional landscape of happy cows and crofts and the simple elegance and purity of an age they feel  we should never have left behind.

This was the good part: Fresh eggs from the farm, carried home in saved flour bags. Half a pig and  half a calf butchered by the local butcher and divided under his supervision to be put in the freezer.  Mache and fabulous winter salads in season, berries, stone fruit leeks and tender beans straight from the field or orchard. Fresh  pressed apple juice on frosty late summer mornings and air filtered ten gallon bottles to dispense apple juice throughout the winter.  Real veal. A fresh chicken every time we ran  one over on the road home. Otherwise on order.  Fresh cream. Wood oven baked Meringue. Bread made in a hollow of the dying coals of an oven fired at 5:00 am.. A really great still which produced Kirsch that burned with a pure blue flame. Sides of raw smoked bacon to cut off in little tiles whenever you wanted. Landjaeger, square sausages. Emmentaller. Fondue. Raclette. Venison or wild boar any time somebody ran into one on the steep road into the village. Dole wine sitting in front of a roaring fire and looking out over the snow white fields towards the black forest.

This was the rough part: Initially almost no citrus, and then at a price. Non raw milk needed to be ordered a week in advance. No avocados. Long winters. Eight or so months living on roots and cabbage.  Two to three weeks of hot, sticky canning during the season in addition to a full time job. Having to break down the calf and the pig in a cold cellar until your fingers ached and the blood stung in the scratches on  your hands. Seafood restricted to fish sticks (inland country). A local market with the worst of frozen foods. Canned beans. Canned peas. Canned asparagus. Leberkaese.  Horse flies. Tough beef.  Canned spaghetti. Tape worms (fortunately  none of them ours).  Grit and dirt in everything from leeks to peas.  The fine smell of animal and human fertilizer sprayed over snow in winter (so it would soak in gradually) and the times when some fool farmer sprayed it on ice instead, so it entered the water system. Going down to the town with old milk cans for water until the system cleared. Dead hedgehog stuck in the dryer vent for weeks. Canned milk when we couldn’t get it fresh. Raw milk that tasted of nothing but udder and barn. Cowbells at 2:00 am.

So we cheated: We crossed the border for white asparagus. We drove all the way up to Germany to get into the American PX for beef. Of course it wasn’t cheating then, because we didn’t know we should eat local. Except for smuggling everything past customs. Fortunately Swiss customs guards never looked too closely at cars with two women and either screaming or sleeping babies in the back seats, stuffed in between the boxes of Post Exchange pampers ( not yet available in Switzerland) with American beef and plunder stuffed in between.

The day Migros finally opened  a supermarket within a 30 minute drive, I joined all the women from the surrounding villages, lining up for hours to buy  Spanish oranges and Israeli avocados, lemons, $40 a pound American steak and French wines and cheese. Migros is the anathema of contemporary sustainability standards:  Seasonal be damned, big box and discount with a massive variety of everything including a full service cheese department that would put any cheese shop in the US to shame.  The supermarket had a counter of the best of European varieties that extended from the front to the back, a full butcher shop and fresh seafood. We loved it. I still love the place, as food politically incorrect as it may be.

My forty minute commute from the school where I chaired the English department passed along a frontage road by the freight rail tracks. Things in Switzerland tend to be pristine and perfect, but beside the narrow road was  an unmarked, roughhewn wood structure, like a temporary construction office, from which I had noticed people  emerging with shopping bags. When I needed milk too close to the 5:30 local shop closing time,  I decided to see if I could buy some there.

Inside the shotgun structure was whitewashed with myriad cheeses, produce, and salumi displayed at the front in upturned produce crates stacked to form a crude counter. Prosciuto and dried vines dripping wrinkled up tomatoes hung from the rafters, and oil, pasta, sweets and canned goods were stacked on simple pine shelves at the back.

The apparent owner was speaking rapid fire Italian to  three or four men in splotchy overalls, probably guest laborers from the nearby chemical plants, and a couple of older women in black, grabbing things from the shelves, measuring out olives, rice, and cornmeal into brown paper bags. She ignored me.

I stood fixed to the floor, staring at the exotic foods and not understanding a word.

In a pause I  managed to say “Scusi,” which I had heard at the butcher shop, and pointed to a cheese, holding out my hands to show the size of a piece I would like. She cut it and signaled another, apparently praising it, cut a little piece for me to taste. I took a hunk of that, too.

A man emerged from the back of the store, exchanged a few words with the woman, then turned to me  and said forcefully, “Parmiggiano Raggiano della Prima Qualita”, my first real Italian phrase, pointing to the wheel. “Very good,” he said in German. I nodded and was given a piece.  I signaled the tomatoes and then the prosciutto and was given a vine and a number of slices on waxed paper. They handed me pasta, olive oil. He kept saying “Very Good”. I kept nodding.

I was in a daze. What they proposed with hand signals,  unintelligible Italian and a the man’s Swiss German vocabulary of perhaps twenty words.  I bought. The  other customers had purchased a hundred grams of salumi or mortadella, a box of cookies and perhaps a brick of ice cream. I spent about a tenth of a month’s salary, filling the back of our tree frog  green 4cv hatchback with boxes of food. We parted friends.

Initially my husband was not pleased.  We had what I then would have best described as cold cuts for dinner with Italian cookies for dessert. He came around. The next night we had fresh pasta.

I told my neighbors and my best friend, Ruth, who grew up in Tecino, across the border from Italy.  She showed me what to do with the polenta and the tomatoes – I did not know. She went down that week, then told her friends.

I told my colleagues at work about the market. The chemistry teacher began bringing the more adventurous offerings for after class breaks. Swiss schools then were civilized, and we  had white wine and food in the two long pauses. We started an antipasti pool.

The store became more crowded. I signed up for Italian lessons.

We left local in the rear view mirror and never looked back.

In those years the Swiss didn’t think much of the Italians, the Greeks or the Spanish, probably because most of them were guest labor permitted to remain in the country as long as there were jobs the Swiss wouldn’t do. Too many Swiss thought them dirty, lazy, stupid and mostly dishonest and treated them accordingly.They called them cinquen after the card game the men played in the pubs at night, a word vaguely equivalent to WOP (which interestingly enough means “With Out Papers”) and accused them of any crime or mishap in the area. Some Swiss claimed that the Italians would dilute pure Swiss blood and Swiss culture. That may sound vaguely familiar.

I had little opinion, except that I knew from my experience with our old house manager, Leo Delvasto, who worked by day as a mechanic, that they were neither lazy nor dirty, and surely not dishonest. Leo’s wife, Marinella, had moped our stairway every time one of the high rise tenants passed, outswissing the Swiss, and lured me into their apartment to pour tiny cups of strong coffee with boxed cookies every time I passed on the stairs. I liked Marina and Leo.

There  is hardly a Swiss today who would own to ever having looked down on the Italians. The children of the grease monkeys became doctors and business men. My old neighbor Leo DelVasto has retired after owning the most prestigious Ferrari dealership in Northern Switzerland. Today everyone wants to speak, eat, and furnish their homes Italian. I think I always did.

I suspect, without denying the immigrants their due for hard work and intelligence, that  my hut of a store and others like it throughout Switzerland helped pave their way.  Pasta diplomacy. The shop, I have been told,  has since moved to the center of the town and is breathtakingly  expensive today. Well, good for them, although I would have wished it had stayed right where and just as it was, and that I could go back any time I got to Basel.  It was one of those wonderful experiences you appreciate at the moment, but perhaps not quite enough.

The Swiss Italian culinary rapprochement and the resulting endless fun of eating those wonderful,  strange foods we now all take for granted, discovering new tastes and flavors is the absolute opposite of the current locavore belief system, which places provincial prejudices above the vast offerings of the world beyond tribe, village, state or country – a silly little idea based on the false algorithm of Local = Better.

Excluding any and all distant enterprises or agriculture from commerce comes down to protectionism. Exclusively supporting your local farmer or fisherman in all fairness would implicate in the extreme that your local farmer or fisherman should not invade others’ commercial territory, Minnesota would have no oranges and Phoenix no blueberries. Whether or not that economy would function if resuscitated is a mute point, as the global economy has long crossed the Rubicon. Talk about spoilsport.

Local is not a synonym for good food and global is not an irresponsible choice. The opposite of good is inauthentic, over processed, stale, warehouse ripened, bad. Not foreign. Not imported. Not produced out of state. Everything is local somewhere.  But that’s just my opinion, and those who hold eating local a necessity won’t be influenced by it. How sad for them. We apostates will enjoy the bananas, Grana Pedano and  Epoisses they disdain. The injustice will remain that we will enjoy not only the best of what is grown here but supplement it with what the rest of the world produces. Back yard honey or maple syrup – the choice is ours. Pity the poor locavore. Viva Italia. Viva Helvetia.Viva il Mondo.

 

Leave a comment

Food a Politics: The Chick-Fil-A Dustup..

The short odds are that you know the current state of the Chick-Fil-A debate. If not, here a short recap:

On the 16th of July Chick-Fil-A president Dan Cathy stated his clear and unequivocal opposition to  same sex marriage . He did so in the Baptist press and raised a hullabaloo.

Gay Activists rose to the tossed gauntlet, The Muppets refused to sell them any toys for their children’s meals.

Politicians with a claim to family values picked up the gauntlet and slapped everyone, Sarah Palin made a celebrity appearance holding big bags of chicken and sides , while Mike Huckabee proclaimed Wednesday a National Chick-Fil-A day (Can he do that?), and the mayors of Boston, Chicago and San Francisco vowed not to let Chick-Fil-A open any restaurants in their towns. (Can they do that?)  Ironically New York’s Mayor Blumberg, a man with a proven proclivity for banning things having to do with restaurants, thinks banning Chick-Fil-A inappropriate.

I have no dog in this fight. I am straight, not particularly (at all) interested in marriage and a bit perplexed at the number of people who are. I count devout Christians and people of various gender walks among my dear friends  and never thought of same sex marriage as having any particular connection to restaurants aside from the terrific financial boost to the industry San Francisco received when Mayor Gavin Newsom declared San Francisco the first city to legalize them – you couldn’t reserve an event space for months, our hotels were full and our retailers delighted.

If I don’t understand why people who don’t have to get married are so eager (I understand the legal implications, however, and in fact, my wedding was a great party, dancing bears and all) , I sure as hell don’t get why people who are or could get married feel it their mission to stop others from doing it. For the love of God (That is the point of Christianity, isn’t it? God’s love? The quote as I remember it is, “I am an angry god”, not “I am a small minded, petty god”) if two people want to get married, let them – it’s good for the economy, there will be more happy people on earth, there will be some fabulous parties, and most of my gay friends have shown a better commitment than a lot of us in mixed gender marriages manage to keep.  Why does the religious right want people to be unhappy?

Don Cathy of course, has a right to say and think anything he wants, no matter how bombastically and sanctimoniously stupid, as long as he doesn’t scare the horses, and the public has an absolute right to vote with their feet and wallets and to express their opinions about Cathy, his church, his chicken and his values – screaming with signs outside his restaurant, if they feel so inclined. (That’s pretty much a given).

I personally think the man is a blowhard ass, I’m glad he’s not my neighbor, and if I owned stock in the company I would demand his removal from the board, then sell (although this seems to be a boost for their sales – they are not fools and playing to their audience very well).   I’ll bet so did their VP of Public Relations, Donald Perry, before the stress of the whole affair did him in.  But that’s just my opinion.

It is remarkable, as an aside on Perry’s death, that no activists, liberals and friends of couples dying to walk down the aisle haven’t made the sort of comments about Perry’s death as conservative icons of the religious right like Gene Beck, Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann have been known to do about God’s wrath causing various national tragedies. There is little question here as to who takes the high road.

For one thing, Cathy/Chick-Fil-A  donates funds (a little less than $2 million) to organizations like The Marriage & Family Legacy Fund and others, whose lobbying  efforts extend to areas well beyond  one man one woman, so two thighs, biscuits and a side of coleslaw at one of their locations may mean giving money to the enemy. Of course Citizens United has made this perfectly legal, but none the less, it’s sure disconcerting. I for one would like to know if a dime of my super-sized Coke is going to anti abortion or gender discrimination or immigration lobbies (either way) or whatever.

Since the Cathy Brothers’ billionaire status is to some extent attributed to their followers in faith, the restaurants are in effect donation machines. I can’t think of any other business..certainly on that level…that functions in this way.

On the other side of the oh-no-you-did-not coin is the rush to political correctness by Boston, San Francisco and Chicago.  It’s bone headed posturing, since Chick-Fil-A would be fools  to open in any of those cities – nobody would eat there – but the hubris of any mayor or city council barring a business based on their political views is beyond outrageous. Freedom of opinion counts for both sides.

There’s something more insidious about the Cathy’s amygdala hijack: the conversion of restaurants into political vehicles.

Once upon a halcyon time civilized eating meant avoiding religion, finance or politics during the meal. I never really observed the rule, but then I am occasionally ill mannered and not a gadzillionaire with a restaurant chain.  Cathy should have done. He crossed the Rubicon by polemicizing what ought to be civil, neutral ground, the tables we share. Breaking bread with people of different opinions civilizes us. Eating in political conclaves does the opposite.  Apart from the quality and the mean mindedness of his sentiments, dividing our tables by politics is indecent.

We should be concerned that or resigned to the fact that he may have opened Pandora’s Box – that our tables could  come to represent not only our culinary tastes but our political stripes.  That would be disastrous.

A senior member of the California Legislature recently mourned the civility of the time when  members of Congress went out for drinks or dinner together after the day’s session, and contributes the eroding of decency to the loss of that. Democrat and Republican congressmen/women in DC eat at separate dining clubs. No need to wonder why they can’t find common ground.

Ojala Mr Cathy’s self obsessed foolishness remains an isolated phenomenon. Let tire shops and newspapers and department store owners express their prejudices and beliefs, if they are dumb and crude enough to do so  – the places where we break bread need to be inclusive meeting places in which we our paths cross with people of opposed opinions.   Switzerland made a lot of money staying neutral during WWII. Let’s hope the rest of our watering  holes and eateries do likewise.

Leave a comment

Swiss Cherries

This year’s cherries are nearly compensation for San Francisco’s bleak and endless winter – plentiful, fat sweet and juicy. Vendors at the Alemany Market have so many that they pack up bags of four to five pounds of the nearly perfect fruit for $5 two hours before the stalls closed.

“I’m cherried out,” says Naomi, as she passes them up. “I can’t get enough of them, ever,” swears Lisa., “I can’t stop eating them.”

I used to live an a cherry economy. They were the life blood of my village on the slopes of the Swiss Jura. We were surrounded by orchards, where the white blossom lace covering the hillsides brought buses of Germans out the Basel city dwellers in hiking knickers and boots to hike the winding trains between the stands of trees in bloom and stop at Restaurants Kreuz or Roessli to wash down cold meat or cheese with a beer and a shot of local Kirsch.

The Kirsch came from the Schwarzbuben distillery in Nuglar, which processed the local fruit into a delicately cherry scented eau de vie that burns with a pure blue flame. It was the villages only real industry. The owners, the Morrand family, also owned the grocery store, which carried baby booties and tools in addition to a full line of respectable schnapps – the signature product of course being Kirsch – and a meager assortment of groceries.

For the farmers they brewed a stronger schnapps for the tax free liters allotted per cow.

Schwarzbuben

Cows and orchards are symbiotic. The Cows graze the hills too steep for mowing in summer and live off silage from late summer grass in winter. In return the trees are fed with the runoff from the stalls sprayed on the snow around the trunks. The two liters, well above the 90 proof commercial schnapps,  are purportedly for washing down udders. The cows, the farmers maintain, like it better than rubbing alcohol. It probably gets used for that now and then.

If you are lucky, you will be offered the good stuff straight or in Kaffee Kirsch, the Swiss equivalent of Irish coffee, in warm farmhouse kitchens smelling just a little of the adjoining stall.  The farmers prefer to drink at Kreuz or Roessil, where they sit on the warm tiled oven and grumble about the cherry crop.

Cherry farming isn’t an easy way to make a living.  Even if the blossoms don’t shoot prematurely in the treacherous warm days of February die in the ensuing freeze, the “Ice Saints”, killing frosts on the saints’ days of Pankratius, Servatius und Bonifatius in late May, can wipe out an entire crop. A thunder storm can bruise and decimate the fruit hours before harvest. Too much rain, and the cherries split or mildew. Not enough rain stunts or shrivels them. A good year producing an abundance of cherries lowers the prices.  Cherry farmers are completely content only one day a year: when the trees have been picked bare of all but a few stragglers, the square, slat wood baskets filled with perfect, sweet black cherries have been loaded on the truck and the check for the fruit is signed.

Harvesting is communal. Children, cousins, and friends climb into the crowns of twenty foot trees with deep willow baskets belted around their waists. They descend to dump the full baskets into crates, then return to the tree tops

Most summers we picked with friends, standing high on wooden ladders handed down for generations. Their round rungs pressed through the soles of our thick boots. The sticky cherry juice stung the twig scratches on our hands and signaled to wasps that we were fair game. I miss it, none the less – the smells and buzz of summer, the shade of the tree crowns, the increasing weight of the basket hanging from my belt and the feel of the hard, cool cherries in the summer heat. I can still pick cherries out of a pile with my eyes shut. My fingers see the flaws.

The health authorities cautioned seniors not to go up the ladders, because old people now and then either died of the heat or a stroke on the ladders and fell to the ground dead, or fell off the ladders, or drop off and perished on impact. It was a sort of chicken and egg question, and, in the end, it didn’t really matter which came first. Few were deterred. There are worse exits.

Cautious elders, sore footed pickers and kids with stemmed pairs hanging over their ears sort through the crates being filled for the silver flatbed cannery truck that followed the one lane road winding along the hillsides from orchard to orchard. The buyers, usually Hero A.G., demand flawless fruit with stems. A few bad pieces in a crate get the entire lot rejected.

A day of picking probably produces enough fruit to fill thirty 20lb slatwood crates. The pickers take home a basket or two plus the culls for jam, Kirschpfannkuchen (Clafoutis), Weihe, a fruit and custard tart, and cherry pound cake.

Except for the jam, the pits stay in. Otherwise the cherries bleed and make the cake soggy. Everyone expects pits and either swallows them or spits them out. Competitive distance spitting makes cherry picking more entertaining than the plum harvest.   My pastry chef friend Paul tells me that he tried real clafoutis with pits in here in San Francisco, but he gave up. Every customer complained, despite the servers’ warnings. Management had liability concerns.

For the jam I had a manual two barreled cherry picker. It sprayed everywhere, so it could only be used outside. Mostly we just ate them with the stones or stood on the edge of our porch and vied for the longest shot. I never won.

Everyone agrees that the cherries this year are magnificent. Maybe miserable winters are the secret of a perfect crop. I have four pounds in bowls around the house. I’m thinking cherry pancake, pits and all. Three or four eggs with the whites whipped a little, the yolks stiffened with a few tablespoons of flour, a little salt, a bit of milk, folded together and poured over cherries strewn on the bottom of the frying pan with plenty of melted butter, then cooked until it’s hot and sweet with dark cherry tops shining through the golden brown crust.

Leave a comment