Wednesday, 11 December 2013 15:04

We Wish You a Merry Swissmas

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Beer, wine, bread, cheese. Beer, wine, bread, cheese.

In Basel, Switzerland, for a team of Canadian chefs who’d just competed in an international competition that only comes around every six years, it was beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Besides the traditional fondue party they’d just begun to dip into, it was Nov. 28, the last Thursday before December, and the day when the city of Basel turns on its Advent lights.
It was also the day when Switzerland’s largest Christmas market transforms the city’s atmosphere into a place more fairytale than metropolis.
Among the traders and artisans and their wares, shoppers warmed up with mulled wine, waffles, Basel Läckerli biscuits, and grilled sausages.
Nestled in the historic Old Town, next to the Cathedral, was a Christmas tree, decorated by Christmas savant, Johann Wanner.
In all the year, there probably isn’t a better time to visit the city.
At home, however, during what had to be the greyest two weeks of the year, and on a day when I nearly got run over by a Christmas parade in the mall, I was ready to pack my trunk.
Meanwhile, back at the fondue party, and having begun with a little salad to prepare their digestive tracts for the cheese to come, the chefs readied their fondue forks.
This was beginning of the best part of their trip, after all. The part that came after the year of planning and practice. After the fundraising. After the packing, the travel, the competition and critiquing. After all the tear down and clean up of the borrowed kitchen they’d occupied for most of a week. After each of the competition judges were awarded a genuine one-legged milking stool that, strapped onto the milker’s waist, would make efficient the job of visiting each a multitude of ladies in their stanchions.
Having placed among the Top 3 in the world in their category — this was their reward.
Now, with beer beginning to go to their heads, was also when the team’s coach and leader (a respected gentleman lately inaugurated into the Order of British Columbia) declared that the next person to lose their bread in the pot must buy the next round.
So, as one chef triple-skewered his cube of baguette onto his fondue fork, another lost theirs. A round of beer was bought.
And the next day, the chefs roamed the Christmas market, soaking up the country’s culture, while back at home I drove upstream against a tide of rush hour mall shoppers, trying to get downtown before the shops closed for the evening.
Within a few days, the chefs returned to Canada, and Chefhusband arrived home with packages of Swiss cookies from a bakery established in 1753. There was also an edelweiss letter opener, a snazzy pencil set for the writer in the family, along with the secret to keeping fondue from splitting in the pot.
Turns out, it’s the cornstarch and Kirsch, along with a way of whisking that stabilizes and binds the cheese before it can break.
So, while Chefhusband began to grate the cheese, I took out my pencil set, along with a new moleskin notebook (a present to myself), and began to write a few thoughts about Christmas.

Traditional Swiss Fondue

2 oz Raclette cheese, grated
8 oz Swiss cheese, grated
8 oz Gruyere cheese, grated
1 clove garlic
1 cup dry white wine
1 Tbs fresh lemon juice
3 Tbs Kirsch
1 Tbs cornstarch
pinch white pepper
pinch nutmeg
Peel and slice garlic clove in half, then rub pieces into the inside of a medium-large pot. Discard garlic. Add wine and lemon juice and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Reduce to medium-low.
Combine the three cheeses. Add mixture to pot in small amounts, whisking constantly, in a figure 8 pattern, after each addition until cheese is melted. (Note: figure 8 whisking is very important!).
In a small bowl, whisk together kirsch and cornstarch until smooth. Whist into melted cheese until smooth. Season with white pepper and nutmeg. Transfer to a warm fondue pot and serve immediately with cubes of baguette.

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