It has snow-capped mountains and limpid lakes and well-scrubbed, prosperous cities. Its people speak French, German, Italian and Romansch -- a regional language reminiscent of Latin -- and many make a living herding goats or managing banks.
With all this diversity going for it, how could anyone imagine that Switzerland's cuisine is limited to Swiss cheese, chocolate and fondue?
The misconceptions may be on the way out this summer, when the Alpine nation celebrates its 700th birthday. As all proper birthday parties include food, we may soon be getting acquainted with the variety of Swiss cuisine. And various it is: This tiny country has freely borrowed from the traditions of its European neighbors, but has a long tradition of independence, neutrality and cold winters, which have put a singular stamp on its cooking.
In the summer of 1291, representatives of Schwyz, Uri and Unterwald, three communities near Lake Lucerne, formed an alliance to resist the rule of the Hapsburg dynasty. In August of that year, a declaration of independence was signed and sealed. When our own founding fathers drafted the U.S. Constitution, they were reportedly inspired by the federalist system of Switzerland, one of the few democratic republics then in existence.
The momentous events, celebrated on Aug. 1, naturally spawned a national hero: William Tell. While many historians don't believe the medieval rebel -- who defied the Austrian overlords and was forced to shoot an apple off his son's head -- actually existed, his legend is a rallying point for this summer's festivities.
When Werner R. Kunz, the Swiss-born managing director of the Harbor Court Hotel, celebrates his homeland's septicentennial, however, he appeals not to his customers' sense of history but to their sense of taste. Mr. Kunz and his hotel have launched a summer celebration of Switzerland and its culinary traditions, featuring, among other activities, an Alpine afternoon tea, "cellar-master" dinners with gourmet Swiss cuisine, a Swiss wine tasting and a cooking demonstration.
The celebration was kicked off in June with a Swiss food extravaganza at the hotel, produced by Hans Hauser, commercial attache at the Embassy of Switzerland; chef Michael Rork; Swiss-products importer Albert Uster; caterer Adi Rehm; and several Swiss-based businesses. Featured, of course, were a cheese display -- there are dozens of types of "Swiss cheese," not just one -- chocolate desserts and fondue. While "the Swiss national dish" has numerous variants, the fondue most Americans know is a molten mixture of well-aged Emmentaler (the Swiss cheese, also called "Switzerland Swiss" to distinguish it from generic holey cheeses), dry white wine and sometimes kirsch or brandy.
The party also spotlighted specialties from Switzerland's 26 cantons, among them chalet soup from Fribourg, trout mousse from Jura, lamb stew Benichon style, stuffed cabbage from Neuchatel, a variety of sausages and the rosti -- Swiss hash-browns -- eaten in the country's German-speaking regions.
"This is the real regional cooking," Mr. Kunz explains. "It still exists, but some of these items you don't see on menus anymore. When we study culinary art, we are into the French cuisine."
Mr. Kunz did, indeed, study culinary art.
"I grew up in my parents' restaurant," says the hotelier, who was raised in Zurich. "It's traditional in Switzerland to step into your parents trade." His father's family, he explains, were restaurateurs, winemakers and sausage-makers, and his mother's family was in the hotel trade.
He went to culinary school, then apprenticed under a master chef, until he decided he preferred management. "I knew early in life that I wanted to wear a tie," he jokes.
Although Mr. Kunz did not join their ranks, Switzerland has produced its share of culinary giants. Cesar Ritz, the grand hotelier whose name is synonymous with haute cuisine, was the son of a Swiss shepherd. Other notable Swiss-born chefs include Willi Elsener, acclaimed head chef at the Dorchester Hotel in London, and Henry Haller, former White House chef. While none of these men made their mark whipping up the filling stews and fondues of their homeland, it's not hard to imagine that they were stirred to a love of good food by its wealth of excellent produce, including fish from crystal-pure lakes and streams, and incomparable dairy products.
Not only is most haute restaurant cooking French, Mr. Kunz says, but even the everyday cooking of the Swiss is "a modified French cuisine." But other countries have had a profound influence, too. The southern, Italian-speaking canton of Ticino, for instance, has a pronounced Latin character; you are more likely to find polenta or risotto than fried potatoes here, and minestrone rather than the cheesy, creamy soups enjoyed farther north. Swiss cuisine also flaunts its German influences in its love for sausages, cabbage, hearty game and pork dishes, spiced cakes and strudel pastries.
All of these influences can be sampled at a critically acclaimed Washington restaurant, Les Trois Visages de la Suisse, which will celebrate its own birthday -- its first -- in September. (The name translates to "The Three Faces of Switzerland," and the restaurant will adopt the English version this month.)
"We represent the three regions of Switzerland, and we've hired six chefs from Switzerland to make it as authentic as possible," says Debbie Lindenmeyer, who owns the restaurant with her husband Martin Lindenmeyer, a native of Basel.
There are two separate sections to the restaurant, she explains. In the elegant and expensive "white-tablecloth" dining room, decorated with Swiss paintings and her husband's family portraits, the dinners are inspired by classic gourmet French, German and Italian cooking, but make use of indigenous Swiss products. The casual, moderately priced Grotto, on the other hand, spotlights rustic Swiss cooking, including fondue, air-dried beef and spaetzli with mountain cheese.
Health-watchers will note that Swiss dishes are on the heavy side, and tend to be high in fat. Blame this on the Swiss climate and terrain; mountain folk need substantial, calorie-packed dinners to keep themselves warm through rugged winters.
Not all Swiss cooking is a coronary nightmare, though. "Summer is salad time in Switzerland," Mr. Kunz says. "A lot of salads, and a lot of fruits."
Another summer staple, he explains, is muesli, the healthful mixture of oats, nuts and fruit.
"Muesli is not only a breakfast item. When the fresh fruits come in it's like a treat -- 'Let's make a fresh muesli tonight,' " Mr. Kunz says. "It's the main course, with fresh baked bread and butter, and cafe au lait. That would be a summer dinner for a typical Swiss family."
"I think a lot of people think of Swiss food as being very heavy, which is no good for today's society," says Mrs. Lindenmeyer of Les Trois Visages. "We just redid the menu and added some lean sauces and more grilled food to try to overcome that image."
The Lindenmeyers' restaurant has also pioneered the use of the "bruzzlistai" (sizzling stone), a slab of granite heated to 600 degrees on which steaks, chops or fish are cooked. While this is not a brand-new idea -- Swiss shepherds traditionally cooked their meals on hot rocks, she says -- it is currently very popular in Switzerland, because it is a totally fat-free method of cooking.
Don't expect too much innovation from the tradition-revering Swiss, though. While there are a few avant-garde chefs making waves, most of his country's favorite recipes just may be 700 years old themselves, according to Mr. Kunz.
"The strange part about Switzerland is that it doesn't change," he says. "It's so traditional. Here you have to constantly modify and change. If you don't change your menu three times a year, people will think, 'What's the matter with him?' There it's just the opposite. 'Don't you dare change!' "
Trout with green grapes
This recipe, translated from the metric, is from "Culinary Art and Traditions of Switzerland," published in honor of Switzerland's septicentennial by Nestle. The book, which is available in English-, French- and German-language editions, is sold at the Harbor Court Hotel. The recipe is from the canton of Vaud, a winemaking region, and a wine from Vaud is recommended.
3 1/2 ounces firm green grapes
4 tablespoons shallots, chopped
4 tablespoons butter
4 fresh whole trout, cleaned, or 8 trout fillets
salt and pepper, to taste
1 3/4 cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons beurre manie (see note)
3/4 cup cream
juice of 1/2 lemon
chopped chives, to taste
Seed the grapes if necessary; reserve.
Sweat the shallots in the butter, do not let them brown.
Season the trout with salt and pepper and place on top of the shallots. Add the white wine and poach for 8 to 10 minutes.
Take out the trout and remove the top skin between the head and tail. Place the trout in an earthenware dish.
L Reduce the cooking liquid and thicken with the beurre manie.
Add the cream and gently cook for a few minutes.
Adjust the seasoning and add the lemon juice.
Coat the trout with the sauce, sprinkle with the chopped chives and the reheated grapes.
Note: Beurre manie (kneaded butter) is softened butter that has been mixed with an equal amount of flour. It is used in classic French cuisine to thicken sauces and stews.
The potato cake called rosti or roesti is a popular specialty of Switzerland's German-speaking cantons. There are numerous regional variants, some involving cheese, or apples, or egg. This version was adapted from "Larousse Gastronomique."
1 3/4 pound potatoes
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup diced raw bacon
4 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons chopped onions
Cook potatoes in their skins and refrigerate overnight.
Peel and grate (or finely slice) the potatoes. Add salt and bacon.
Melt lard or butter in a frying pan. Cook onions until softened and golden. Add the potatoes, turning them several times. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently. If potatoes seem a little dry, cover the pan; if they start to disintegrate, leave uncovered. When they are cooked and draw together in the pan, raise the heat until a golden crust forms underneath.
F: Turn the cake out onto a plate, with the crust upward.
If you have an herb garden, you might want to try this soup from Basel. The recipe was adapted from "Culinary Art and Traditions of Switzerland."
1 cup fresh spinach, shredded
2 tablespoons chervil, chopped roughly
10 fresh mint leaves, shredded
3.5 ounces onions, finely sliced
1 sprig marjoram
1/2 stick butter
2 tablespoons flour
5 cups beef stock
salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste
croutons, sauteed in butter
5 egg yolks
parsley, chopped, for garnish
Sweat the spinach, chervil, mint, onions and marjoram in the butter without letting them brown.
Mix in the flour and remove from heat to cool.
Add the stock. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg and cook for 15 minutes.
When serving, use very hot soup bowls. Put a few croutons in each, pour in the soup and place an egg yolk in each bowl without stirring.
-! Garnish with chopped parsley.
Serves four as a main course.
Swiss custom decrees that a woman who loses her bread in the fondue pot must kiss the nearest man. If a man fumbles his bread, he buys the next round of drinks. This recipe is from the Switzerland Cheese Association.
1 pound Swiss cheese (Emmentaler)
1 rounded tablespoon flour
2 loaves crusty Italian or French bread
1 clove garlic
1 1/2 cups dry white wine
1 tablespoon lemon juice
pepper and nutmeg to taste
Grate, shred or (if using slices) finely dice the cheese. (This can be done in advance, and the cheese stored in a tightly closed plastic bag in the refrigerator.) Dredge cheese with flour.
Cut bread into 1-inch cubes. Cubes should have crust on one side.
Rub inside of fondue pot with the garlic clove. Place pot on the stove. Add wine. Heat over medium flame until wine is hot but not boiling, then add lemon juice.
Add handfuls of the cheese, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon until the cheese is melted and the mixture has the appearance of a light, creamy sauce. Add pepper and nutmeg to taste. Bring mixture to a boil, then remove pot from the stove and place on a lighted burner on top of the table. Adjust the burner flame so the fondue continues bubbling very lightly.
Spear a long-handled fork through the soft part of the bread, securing prongs on crust. Dunk the bread morsel to the bottom of the pot and stir well. Remove the fork from the cheese and twist it over the pot.