When the opportunity presents itself to go to the country of absolutely yummy chocolates and melted oozing cheese, I can only be expected to jump up and down in joy. Hence the three day trip to Switzerland, where I have not only been able to experience the pleasures that Geneva offers, but also, thanks to dear friends who have taken it upon themselves to show me the many wonders of cheese, a trip to the town that gives its name to one of the world’s greatest cheeses, Gruyeres.
As my other half attended a conference of international affairs, I found myself diving into a culinary feast.
On my first morning in Geneva, a trip to Halle de Rive, where Genevans do their weekly cheese, charcuterie, and fish shopping was the first stop.
On display, tens of fresh or slightly mature goat’s and ewe’s milk cheeses (the end of summer’s the best time for them, as the milk from the summer alpine pastures is potent with floral aromas), young hard Brebis, the Swiss counterparts of French Ossau-Iraty and Napoleon. I really wanted to buy and bring home to London some of the Brebis aux truffes, a semi-hard young ewe’s milk with truffle shavings, but in the end decided to buy and eat on the spot the Brie aux truffes. The Brie sliced through the middle, smeared with creme fraiche with truffle shaving, and put back together again. It was wonderful. The bloomy rind of the brie was supple, very slightly sour, the pate soft, creamy, mushroomy, and the smell of truffles infusing with the sensations experienced by the tastebuds.
Next stop, a glass or two of Rose from Gamay at La Clemence, sitting in the middle of Geneva’s old town, at Place du Bourg-de-Four. As the weather was in the low twenties, sunny, and without a single cloud, we sat outside, very French bistro style, and people watched, as my dear friend, now a Genevan herself, and I reminisced about old college days.
Chocolaterie Micheli, a tiny boutique chocolaterie that looks like a little chocolate box itself was our last culinary stop of the day. It is quite wonderful that Genevans have their trusted chocolate shops to go to. They stay loyal to the Chocolateries, and the shops in return return the favour by scrumptuous little chocolates. The shopkeeper has a book of each loyal customer’s name, as well as specifications on their preferred chocolates to fill the boxes. As my friend’s family is not too fond of truffles, our box included chocolate covered oranges, and pineapples, as well as Kirsch chocolates, which have also been my favourite as a kid. I am still devouring them in London, and can in all honesty say that they may be the best chocolates I have had in my life.
From the time my partner and I had decided to take the trip to Geneva, one word popped up in my mind every time the trip was mentioned. Fondue! As a slightly obsessed person whose first cooking experience consisted of melting cheese at the age of seven, the idea of a pungent mix of cheeses melting in front of me as I dip my bread/ cornichons/ boiled potatoes, or just dipping my fork in and wrapping melted cheese around the fork and popping it onto my tongue is quite exciting, to say the least. So, as we had serious non-culinary obligations on our first night, the second night had to involve this. And so, we went to Les Armures.
One of the most well-known fondue spots in Geneva, Les Armures sits right by the cannons at the Old Town. As the weather was still pleasant, and we would be completely soaked in the smell of Gruyere inside the restaurant, we opted for a table outside. The fondue would warm us up.
The most eaten type of fondue in Switzerland is called moitie-moitie, half-half, as both Gruyere and Vacherin (a semi-hard Gruyere type of cheese, a bit more pungent, not to be confused with the soft Mont d’Or) are used in the recipe. When you speak to Genevans about the fondue in Les Armures, you hear that it is a bit heavy. There’s a reason for that. In classic fondue recipes, the cheese is mixed with white wine, and melted. Les Armures, in addition to the wine, also puts Cognac in theirs. And not just a tiny bit. Their fondue not only makes you happy, but relaxes all your muscles!
We decided to accompany the fondue with a Pinot Noir, from the Valais, Hurlevent Pinto Noir 2007, by Les Fils de Charles Favre Sion. It was a bit earthy, sour, and young, not dark and spicy, not in colour nor in taste. Next time, I might choose something else.
As you near the end of the fondue, the cheese starts sticking to the bottom of the pan and gets harder. To eat it, you really have to scrape the pan. The taste is a bit burnt, heavy with the smell of alcohol, but crispy, and potent. This part is called “Le Religieux”, the religious. There are multiple explanations that we’ve been afforded as to the name, this is the one I remember. As fondue is a creation of, just like many cheese recipes, of monks and nuns in abbeys, as a product of religious men and women, it is called so. If anyone knows otherwise, please let me know.
I will admit, we did not only eat moitie-moitie. There was also raclette, and escargots a l’ail, juicy ,supple little things with the wonderful whiff of garlic and butter. At the end, we were quite satisfied, as well as, there’s no other way to say this, full to the brim. I had been told by my Genevan friend that there was a selection of digestifs that could help, so when we asked our maitre d’ if we could have some Genepi, we were told they had something better, Chartreuse! With a brutal 55% alcoholic content, and the smell of Alpine herbs, the chartreuse entered our stomachs, and burnt all the cheese away!
The next day has been one of the best days of my life. A day trip to Gruyeres, about an hour and a half away from Geneva by car was what awaited me. We had already made reservations at Le Chalet, one of the numerous restaurants lining up the cobbled main street of Gruyeres’ old town.
The drive to Gruyeres is scenic, to say the least, passing through apple groves, and vineyards surrounding the Lac Leman, the majestic Alps extending to our right. And Gruyeres itself sits in the middle of a fairy tale landscape. The old castle looms on the hilltop, with its Rapunzelesque tower overlooking the mountains and the valley, extremely green , extremely crisp, with the September sun brightening every detail, exposing every crevice. I fell in love.
I fell in love again when the fondue arrived in the terrace of Le Chalet. Once again moitie-moitie, this fondue was different to the one at Les Armures. It was less alcoholic yes, but there was also something else. The cheese was perhaps younger, but more floral, and denser. Perhaps also because the air was crisper, and the pastures that gave the particular, wonderful taste to the Gruyeres surrounded us, taking our gastronomic experience further. We had carafes of house vin jaune with the fondue, water was not allowed, as it messes up digestion in the stomach.
After the fondue came Nespressos. Apparently Switzerland is the country of Nespresso. This is where the brand first took off, and it seems the Swiss have embraced it as their own. The twist here is, coffee is served with a tiny wooden pot with a bit of double creme fraiche. You can either pour it into the coffee, or spoon it off.
The dessert that came after was the cherry on top. I had in fact been challenged by my friends to see if I could eat their traditional dessert after my fondue, and in true Cheesist style, I took it upon myself to do so. And, it was seriously pretty easy. No matter how much I may eat, I’ll always have a bit of space saved in my stomach for something sweet.
And so came the meringue, and the fresh raspberries, and the “Creme Double de la Gruyere.” The Swiss, with utmost concentration, prepared the dish to their exact liking. The meringue was smashed into pieces, the raspberries placed on top, and the Creme slowly poured over to give way to sweetness heaven.
We shared, but I could’ve eaten it all myself.
On our way back to Geneva, clouds took over the Swiss skyline. It gave me solace, as I wasn’t really ready to leave the sunny skies potent with the smell of Gruyeres without a second glance.