Today’s Switzerland: Chasselas and Appenzeller Cheese

By Sarah Jaquay

Switzerland has long been connected with chocolate, cheese and watches, but the narrow concept of Switzerland as a land of ski resorts and fondue-focused restaurants is passé. Cognoscenti know it’s now a desirable year-round destination offering first-rate viticulture and culinary experiences. And there’s no better time to sample their superb local wines and cuisine than during the harvest.

This country of 8 million is diverse, with four official languages: German, French, Italian and Romansh (descended from spoken Latin). While pungent cheeses, chocolates and crispy cakes of golden-brown potato rösti are worth sampling throughout Switzerland’s 26 cantons, you can find countless other delicacies in which to indulge. The bilingual town of Fribourg in western Switzerland is a capital place to dine. This lush region yields fresh produce, perch and trout dishes as well as crisp wines from the nearby vineyards of Vully, where the Celts planted vines near Lake Morat. Ever since, Vully, one of Switzerland’s smallest wine-growing areas, has produced specialty wines such as Freiburger, Traminer and Riesling Sylvaner. The region also is known for Chasselas (a full, fruity but dry white table wine) and Pinot Noir.

Fribourg boasts 11 Michelin-rated restaurants.  Some of the more renowned include: Café Hotel de Ville, Grand Pont La Tour Rouge and Auberge aux 4 Vents—an eclectic country inn where occupants of one room can bathe in a tub that literally glides outdoors on a track, above their lovely gardens! The inn is just a few minutes from the heart of Fribourg.  The Auberge’s Chef Emmanuel Gremaud serves Swiss cuisine with an inventive twist.  When the fribourgeois are in the mood for bistro food, they gather at Café du Midi. Guests can’t go wrong ordering fondue moitié-moitié (a combination of Le Gruyère AOP and Vacherin fribourgeois AOP cheeses), fondue aux truffles or herbes. The Café is vibrant, family-friendly and the servers look like they stepped right out of the children’s classic Heidi.

Western Switzerland is sprinkled with picturesque lakes surrounded by vineyards. Cruising on Lake Murten is a pleasant day trip from Fribourg. Before boarding, have lunch at Restaurant des Bains, one of the nicest eateries in Murten. It has commanding water views and specializes in lake fish such as perch or zander (pike). After fish with herbed, mashed potatoes, a seasonal salad of tomato, basil and pine nuts and complemented by a dry Chasselas, get ready for cruise views of sloped vineyards bursting with grape clumps cascading down to the shores of Lake Murten. Save room for Nidelkuchen, a scrumptious cream tart that’s sold exclusively at the Aebersold Bakery in Murten.

In northeastern Switzerland, the village of Appenzell is a must-stop for cheese-wizzes who know there’s more to Swiss fromage than the holey kind and Gruyère. It’s an archetypal village with almost as many cows as people. Appenzell mainly attracts locals, so it’s rather an undiscovered gem. Whether eating siedewurst (a mild sausage), dishes made with Appenzeller cheese or noshing on biber–a doughy dessert made with honey and almond filling–Appenzell is a place to relax and observe the rhythm of the seasons.
Every spring they stage a parade of cows when herdsmen move their cattle up the mountains for summer grazing; then in late August or September, they drive their livestock back through town. This reporter was fortunate enough to witness the running of the cows as they returned to their farms.  The only sounds louder than cowbells and clattering hooves were people shouting, “The cows are coming!”

The canton of Graubünden produces some of Switzerland’s finest wines. Even the conquering Romans loved the wine from the Bündner Herrschaft (Graubünden’s Rhine Valley). Their prized Pinot Noir, however, did not become prevalent until the 17th century. Graubünden’s major city is Chur, a bustling town of 35,000 located on the Rhine River. Visitors may ride a gondola up a nearby mountain and learn to play the alphorn, the musical instrument popularized in Ricola commercials. Once used as a communication and warning system from mountain to mountain, it’s a great way to blow off steam (through the lips) and make music.

For those who cherish Heidi, a visit to Heididorf is worth the short train ride from Chur to Maienfeld. It’s the recreated village where the little girl stayed when she wasn’t at “grandfather’s cabin.” Afterwards, visit Domaine Donatsch in nearby Malans, one of the leading wineries in Switzerland.

This is what oenophiles live for: a top European winery that makes exquisite wines and has a lovely tasting room. Tip: Swiss wineries don’t export much, so purchase what you like on the spot.

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