Switzerland, with its 40 to 60 inches of annual rainfall, not only provides lush grass for the cows that produce milk for its famous cheese and chocolate, but it also has ideal conditions for growing another beloved product — mushrooms. In fact, Switzerland is the mushroom capital of the world, with 34 types of edible mushrooms, including rare and expensive truffles. In a recent tour of Switzerland, I sampled all these culinary delights, prepared the Swiss way and flavored with the herbs that grow in this region.
Shortly after arriving in Fribourg, photographer Thomas Walsh and I dine on one of Switzerland’s specialties: fondue. This is no ordinary fondue, but a sumptuous herb fondue. Our host, Sabine Moser, from the Swiss Tourism Board, explains that a Fribourg fondue, called moitié-moitié (or half-and-half), consists of half Gruyère and half a local cheese, Vacherin Fribourgeois. I spear a piece of fresh baguette with a long fondue fork, dip it into the bubbling cheeses and bite into an amazing mélange of flavors. Herbs bring out and complement the sweet, strong flavor of the cheese without overwhelming it.
The Gruyère cheese-producing district surrounds the castle of the former Counts of Gruyères, feudal lords of Savoy from the 11th to the mid-16th century. Moser describes the Vacherin as softer and more yellow than Gruyère.
Marc Berchtold, son of the owners of the family-run Walliser Spycher hotel in Riederalp, says of the area’s cheese producers: “They export the best cheese and keep the second-quality cheese here. If you want to eat a really high-quality Gruyère, you’ll find the best in the United States and other foreign countries.”
On with the Herbs
Early the next morning, Gregor Kozlowski, a doctor of botany, guides us on a tour of the University of Fribourg Botanical Garden. Kozlowski, who wrote a book on Swiss ferns, shows us a variety of wild plants that people used as food or medicine 200 years ago. He points out indigenous wild parsnips (Pastinaca sativa). “People ate these as one of the most popular vegetables, like carrots, for about 1,000 years until potatoes, introduced from the New World, replaced them,” he says. He also shows us pot marigold (Calendula officinalis), still used today in salads but now endangered in the wild; burnet (Sanguisorba minor), used in salads, as a vegetable and as a spice for wines, soups or egg dishes. Its vitamin-rich leaves taste like nutty cucumbers. Other native herbs include peppermint (Mentha ¥piperita), chicory (Cichorium intybus) and thyme (Thymus vulgaris).
Kozlowski warns us about toxic local plants, including a plant in the lily family (Colchicum autumnale) that looks like crocus. Two people who thought this was a local wild garlic (Allium ursinum) died after eating it. Crocus (Crocus sativus) grows wild as far north as the Valais. About 20 to 30 growers in Valais, Switzerland, supply saffron (from crocus stamens) for the excellent local risottos. Then we visit Francois Couplan, an ethnobotanist who can show us indigenous edible herbs. Couplan teaches seminars on wild edible plants and has written several books on edible plants including co-authoring L’Herbier Gourmand, a French book about herbs used in gourmet food. The drive to Couplan’s home launches our adventure as we follow narrower and narrower country lanes that meander through cow-flecked pastures. Our directions advise us to look for a gate past a tall hedge. After we pass a few incorrect hedges, Couplan guides us there by cell phone. Finally, he welcomes us to his home nestled amidst a wild garden and private orchard. Couplan serves us a cup of his special homemade tea — an anise-flavored mixture that includes rosebuds, wild lavender, lemon balm and mint. The anise flavoring comes from anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), which is neither anise nor a hyssop. It grows wild in the eastern United States, where it is used to flavor tea, mixed drinks and desserts.
Couplan shows us more herbs from his garden, including goutweed (Aegopodium podagraria), used in Thai cuisine; a type of stonecrop (Hylotelephium telephium), which he adds to salads; and sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata), an anise-like sweet-flavored plant that grows in the lower elevations of the pre-Alps.
After munching our way through Couplan’s garden, we visit a mushroom-growing company in Belp. Belp lies near Bern, the Swiss capital, which was founded in 1191. The Swiss like mushrooms: Of the products here, 60 percent go to Zurich and 40 percent to Bern. They forbid chemicals in mushroom cultivation and permit only fresh, sterile compost.
Nibbling on mushrooms and herbs whets our appetite for dinner at La Pinte des Mossettes in La Valsainte, about 45 minutes from Fribourg. La Pinte rates 16 out of a total possible 18 stars in the 2002 Gault-Millau Guide. Peter Mayle describes, in A Year in Provence (Vintage Books, 1991), how he depended on his Gault-Millau Guide to France, which comments in great detail on the food and wine list.
Moser tells us the drive from Fribourg to the Pinte will take about 45 minutes. But as we head up into what looks like a primeval forest where knights could emerge on their chargers, a pea-soup fog complicates the heavy rain. Driving in the dark night, with no signs, we are unable to see, much less find a restaurant. We turn around in the last village to ask for directions.
“Just ahead, about 10 minutes, on the right,” we’re told. After the long drive, in pouring rain on a narrow lane fronting a steep drop-off, I wonder how many other hardy souls will venture forth to find the restaurant tonight. As we unfurl our umbrellas after the short walk in driving rain and step into the warm glow, a clamor of voices and rattling dishes greets us. Like the French, the Swiss in this very French part of the country value good cuisine and willingly drive an hour in dismal conditions for great food. The maitre d’ guides us up narrow, winding stairs to the only empty table in the room.
The waiter offers us a choice of either of two fixed-price menus, one vegetarian and one with meat. Moser translates the fanciful French stories that accompany the menu. We order one vegetarian dinner and one with meat, with the agreement that we’ll split every dish in half so we can try both menus. After tasting my first spoonful of the pumpkin cream soup with mushroom mousse topping, part of the “Childhood in an Autumn Garden” menu, I realize this decision will entail sacrifices. But the first dish in the alternate menu makes up for it. The zucchini in phyllo dough comes with a superb homemade sauce they call ketchup — though I’ve never before eaten ketchup made from homemade bitter orange marmalade. The second course, “The Treasure Hunt,” consists of a zucchini treasure chest filled with a mixture of vegetables and tagliatelle (homemade pasta). The zucchini taste as though they were picked only a moment earlier, sweet and moist. Mint and shallots add zest to the nutty-tasting filling.
All together, it’s one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten.
A Mushroom Exhibit
The following morning we visit the Swiss Expo 2002 (Expoagricole) “Day of the Mushroom” exhibit in Murten, on the shores of Lake Murten. Peter Braun, president of the local mushroom connoisseurs club, guides us to his favorite collecting spots. Deep in the forest, orange and yellow fungi flow down the sides of rotting tree trunks and peek out from beneath ferns. We find specimen of two-tone or changing pholiota (Kuehneromycetes mutabilis) used in soups; some bay boletus (Xerocomus badius, in the same group as the highly sought-after porcini mushrooms) used for sauces and stews; and even some truffles. They’re the commoner summer truffle (Tuber eastivum), not the rare and expensive Piedmont, or white truffle (Tuber magnatum). I’ve never tasted fresh, raw truffles — these taste earthy and smoky, hinting at the delight to come in sauces. Braun explains that usually the best mushroom collecting time runs from August through the end of October. Since it’s early October, we should find more than we have, but after the cold, dry fall, mushrooms grow less profusely than usual.
Before a gondola opened up the ski area, local farmers used Riederalp as alpine pasture for their cows. Now that the gondola links Riederalp to the valley below, we can visit Alps similar to ones where the fictional Heidi lived. Some ski and climbing enthusiasts and other hardy souls now live up on the mountain year-round. Locals must haul all of their food, fuel, building materials and furnishings up on the gondola. A few electric golf carts transport visitors from the gondola to their hotels, but the locals and most visiting skiers and hikers travel by foot.
The Spycher pampers us with plump down comforters and pillows, a sauna and the first non-smoking rooms and restaurant section we’ve encountered. Behind 6-inch-thick pine doors, a wood sandwich with insulation inside, I sleep like a baby. After a quick breakfast the next morning, we hike to the Aletsch forest. The pouring rain from the night before had turned to snow overnight. This morning, the sun bursts through the clouds and burns off the valley fog. In the distance, the Matterhorn soars above the surrounding mountains. We hike up to a forest of larches and native pines (Pinus cembra), which hides four different native mushrooms and has been a protected national forest since 1933. Once we top the ridge, the immense Aletsch glacier lies spread below us. The biggest glacier in the Alps, surpassed only by glaciers in Iceland, the Aletsch glacier stretches for 14 miles with ice more than 3,000 feet deep.
After hiking through the forest and down the gulch to the lower village, we’re ready for dinner at the Restaurant Derby. The chef, Hans-Peter Meichtry, begins with nettle soup. He uses the leaves of young plants, which won’t sting. I compliment him on the mild seasoning, which allow the flavors of nettles to permeate the soup.
“I don’t use much salt or pepper,” he says. “I only use herbs and mushrooms as seasoning. If people want more salt, it’s on the table.”
Lamb in Hay, accompanied by leek potatoes and herb-filled tomatoes, follows the soup. Next we enjoy a mushroom ragout of four different mushrooms in a delicate sauce, served on a bed of fresh herb pasta. My favorite mushroom dish of the evening is the button mushrooms filled with morels wrapped in bacon. The morels provide an incomparable deep, musty flavor like nothing else in the world. Saffron sorbet completes a superb meal. We’re sorry to leave and vow to return soon to Switzerland for more of the culture, food and delicious mushrooms.
Sibylle Hechtel is a freelance writer from Colorado. She wrote about her native German cuisine in the December 2000/January 2001 issue of The Herb Companion. We’ll feature her adventures in herbs on the island of Corsica in a future issue.