Swiss Valentine 

Romantic meals amid jagged peaks in the Alps

I had never had fondue before. At one time in my culinary past a fondue set had gone from store shelf to yard sale, pausing briefly in my possession, but I had never taken it out of the box. Maybe the universe wanted me to wait to have fondue on a Valentine's trip to Switzerland.

And so, we went to a fondue restaurant on our first night in Zermatt. This was after we spent hours walking around this narrow, carless village, the mountains so close you could lean against them, the Matterhorn glowing in the light of a full moon.

It was a charming little restaurant whose host seemed delighted beyond words that we were there; such is the hospitality of the Swiss. He ushered us to a table that had three fondue pots in its center, and explained the procedure: choose your food from the buffet, sample as many sauces as you want, cook, eat, enjoy.

We tried everything: beef, chicken, shrimp, salmon and some fish we couldn't identify. All items and all the sauces (a vast array) had little cards that identified each with Swiss precision. The few German words my grandmother taught me did us no good. We trusted to dumb luck.

Things proceed slowly when you're cooking your meal bite by bite. No wonder the Mona Lisa Restaurant in Manitou is so romantic a spot. Cook, nibble, chat, gaze. We also tried the first of what would be many bottles of local wine believing that one should sample regional wines. The ever-sensible Swiss, however, have conceded winemaking to the more capable French and Italians and put their talents into producing light white wines. We drank a lot of Fendant, the ubiquitous white made from the Chasselas grape (a grape generally eaten, not fermented), when we weren't disappointing ourselves with mediocre reds.

We had lunch one day under the shadow of the Matterhorn at the Gornergrat stop of the cog railroad that takes skiers five miles up the mountains to uncluttered slopes and infinitely long runs. A simple plate of the best Rosti hash browns with a European flair and incomparable flavor and texture and a bratwurst, a glass of Fendant, sun, snow and clear cold air: I've re-defined heaven. In subsequent days, we would have Rosti whenever we could.

We rode the Glacier Express, a lazy train that winds through mountain passes and small villages, glaciers and gorges from Zermatt to San Moritz. I would not have been surprised to see Hercule Poirot at a neighboring table during our meal in the dining car; it seemed a space and time he would have enjoyed. The meal was better than one might expect on a train: veal served with salty brown gravy (we would see this sauce many times in many meals), polenta, crisply steamed vegetables.

San Moritz is more than a hundred miles in distance and attitude from the cobblestone streets of Zermatt. We saw conspicuous consumption taken to new heights; we saw a Eurotrash girlfriend slamming the door of her boyfriend's Mercedes in a fit of pique; we saw polo played on the frozen lake; and we ate, ate, ate.

San Moritz is centrally located in the Engadine, a region whose cooking is characterized by quirky Italian, Austrian-German and Romansch influences. One of the best meals we had was in Chesa Veglia, a structure dating to 1658 and the only authentic Engadine house (that's what Chesa means in Romansch) left in San Moritz. In a cozy room under the heavy-beamed, low ceiling, we had a terrific meal of grilled trout and veal steak in morel sauce; dessert was a sweet, soupy panna cotta with berries.

We had tasted the Italian influence in the preparation of our shrimp scampi and handmade ravioli with a topping of fresh chopped tomatoes, herbs and cheese on another evening at the Trattoria, one of the restaurants at Badrutt's Palace Hotel where we stayed. The menu for once had more pasta choices than veal dishes. The wine list was vast and breathtaking: I had never seen a $3,000 bottle of wine on a wine list before (we left it there).

Our last evening meal in Switzerland was one of the best, and not just because of the food. Kronenhalle, near the River Limmat, is considered one of Zrich's best restaurants. The food is good -- I had a tangy sweet cucumber salad and a terrific goulash with spaetzle -- but the decor is better.

Original owner Hulda Zumsteg collected 20th-century paintings and hung them with a careless joie de vivre in her restaurant. Eat your pork chop under a Matisse! Glance over your dining companion's shoulder at a small Picasso, a Braque or a Mir. Diners wander around the rooms (there are two floors), mouths agape, for closer looks at the artwork. The Swiss regulars seem to take no notice of the art or the wanderers.

What will I remember of Swiss cuisine? Excellent strong coffee, sweet butter, crusty breads, soft cheese, delectable potatoes, more sausages, filets and cutlets than I generally desire, crisp vegetables and piquant salads. Nothing was particularly imaginative; all of it was exquisite. Perhaps it was the mountains, more jagged, more emphatic than anything in the Rockies. Perhaps it was the clarity of air, moonlight that lit the mountains, the stars aglitter. Perhaps it was just the season. It was Valentine's, after all.


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