My Happy Place: Switzerland, Act 1
With all respects duly afforded to the Disney empire for coining the term “the happiest place on earth”, I’m not in Anaheim or even Orlando. I am sitting in a dense alpine forest, studded with pine and larch trees, listening to a live (free) classical music concert performed by talented musicians in formal attire. The only distraction is the occasional passing of the little red train, which you hear before you see, as it glides through the woods like a cross country skier on freshly fallen snow.
How did I get here, why is this my happy place, and what should you know about Switzerland and the Swiss? These are timely questions as August 1st, the Swiss national holiday, is upon us. So I will also make sure not to end this post today without first offering you a really good option of something to make in your kitchen to honor this fine nation and its people. But before that, I want to make sure we’ve crossed our T’s and dotted our I’s as far as a fundamental grounding in Swiss-ness is concerned.
Most of us know Switzerland as that nice little neutral country in the middle of Europe which brought us watches, cheese, Heidi and Grandfather, chocolate, banks, William Tell, yodeling, St. Bernards, Ricola, the Red Cross and the National Guard. These are all worthy contributions, especially the chocolate. (And beware, Swiss Miss cocoa is an impostor.)
Here are some details you may not know. There are approximately 8.5M Swiss people living in an area of 16,000 square miles (about the size of New Hampshire and New Jersey combined). Switzerland is comprised of 26 different cantons from Appenzell to Vaud. These cantons can be compared to our own states in the US, with regional differences in terms of culture, cuisine, topography, and even dialect. There are four recognized languages spoken in this small land; the primary one is German – more specifically, a hard-to-understand throaty dialect called Schweizerdeutsch (Swiss German) – followed by French, Italian, and in the Engadine valley of the canton of Graubunden (where I call “home”), Romansch. Romansch is a Latin dialect spoken by fewer than 1% of all Swiss, but you wouldn’t know it when you are amongst the proud people of the Engadine. Interestingly enough, Romansch does have ties to the Romanian language which I will be writing about in September during a visit to Bucharest and Transylvania.
But what about the Swiss people? Generalizations can be dangerous, especially when you’re trying to portray a country with 4 national languages and multiple borders. But after more than a half century of visiting this land, and attending 2 schools in Zurich, I’ve come to find the Swiss incredibly efficient, practical, polite, honest, outdoorsy, private, time-bound, law-abiding and rules-oriented. Due to their geographical position, most are multilingual. They have high standards and IMHO, they are ingenious (which they seem to take for granted). For example, if you want to head out into those alps for a hike, you can rest assured there will be helpful signposts directing you whenever you need assistance. (Like having your own Alexa in the woods!) This will include the estimated time it should take you to reach your destination, chairlift icons when those are present, and a picture of a fork and knife to denote a place to get some good alpine grub. In addition, you’ll come upon all manner of useful information posted about the flora and fauna, the trains, glacier recession, even the personal allowance of mushrooms you may pick (2 kilos per person per day).
If the hike isn’t vigorous enough, you may find a Parcours which is an extra outdoors workout that’s actually fun. Benches are thoughtfully provided and not just at scenic vista points, though you’ll be amazed by how many of those appear. The other day as I was hiking through the forest, I came upon a clearing, complete with fireplace, table and chairs made entirely from stone, and even a heap of freshly cut wood for the taking. Little huts offering exceptional views and a delicious bowl of homemade soup, cheese plate with toothsome bread, sausage, freshly baked cake, espresso or aperitif, seem to magically appear at the moment you realize you’re actually quite hungry from all that hiking and the fresh mountain air. The concert in the forest, where I now sit and listen, provides fleece blankets on every bench for comfort and warmth (I’m looking at you, Hollywood Bowl!) and published programs tucked inside a little wooden birdhouse. Best of all, the birdhouse also has a hook on which the concertmaster hangs numbers; these refer to which piece is currently being played, so everyone can follow along. Like I said, ingenious.
I could go on and on, and I will share more about the hikes, meals, inspiration (plus lots of photos) in upcoming posts, but we have a time-sensitive topic to address.
August 1st is the Swiss national holiday, the Bundestag, or day of the union, and it’s a big deal. (Think 4th of July). 2017 marks 726 years since the original 3 cantons unified in 1291. If you think 1776 was long ago, well, we Americans are just getting started, comparatively speaking. On August 1st, celebrations will occur atop alps, in valleys, on lakes, in cities and on farms. The distinctive red and white cross flags will flap in the breeze, and at nighttime, children participate in lantern processions on the mountains. It’s a very special sight to see these lanterns illuminate the darkness as they wend their way across the hills.
As my family will attest, when I’m not actually in Switzerland on August 1st, I enthusiastically celebrate the Bundestag at my home in California. The Swiss flag is hung, the lanterns come out from storage, and meals are served on red and white cross plates with accompanying Swiss napkins. One thing to count on – I will always bake an Engadiner Nusstorte to celebrate this special day. This delectable nut cake is a local specialty of the Engadine region. It’s eaten on August 1st and all year round. The nusstorte features ingredients plentiful in this area -walnuts, honey, cream, and kirsch, a distilled cherry brandy. It’s my very favorite cake and if you know me, that’s saying a lot! In the picture you see above, you will spot 2 cakes. The one covered in dough is my traditional cake, but it’s a bit tricky to make. Thus, I’m proposing we start with my riff on that cake as it’s much simpler, gets you super close to the real thing, and even eliminates the top layer of dough, thus saving time, gluten, and calories!! The finished torte will be like a caramel walnut pie and while the Swiss would certainly appreciate your efforts at respectfully honoring their national holiday with this dessert, it would be equally at home on the Thanksgiving table – or anytime!
Thanks for coming along with me for Switzerland: Act 1. Stay tuned for stories, photos, aha moments, victuals, and more from the southeastern corner of Switzerland.
Bundestag Caramel Nut Torte
1 prepared pie crust (I prefer Trader Joe’s crust from the freezer case)
1 and 1/3 cups sugar
1 cup heavy cream, warmed
3 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons Kirsch, a distilled cherry brandy (you can substitute another type or omit but it will lose the Swiss factor)
2 and 3/4 cups coarsely chopped walnuts
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Cook the sugar over medium heat in a saucepan just until it becomes a viscous dark golden brown caramel, approximately 10 minutes. (If it starts to crystallize instead of melt early on, raise the heat a bit.) Very carefully, and wearing a potholder to prevent steam burn, first reduce heat to low and then add the warm heavy cream, stirring constantly. (The mixture will bubble up furiously, just keep stirring.) Remove from heat. Now add the honey and Kirsch until mixed in. Finally, add the walnuts to the caramel mixture, combine the whole mixture together and let cool for about 10 minutes.
While filling is cooling, place pie crust into a 10 inch tart pan with removable rim. Press any extra dough up the sides of pan. When mixture has cooled slightly, fill the pie crust with the caramel walnut mixture. Bake in the oven for 30-40 minutes. Cool and serve alone or with vanilla ice cream. And more kirsch or strong coffee!