Winter Ephemera

IMG_4334Winter brings with it many things that pass with the season. Here in Basel, we enjoy Zermatt Bacara, a fabulous fondue restaurant that makes its appearance at the beginning of November and stays until the end of March. Those in the know request reservations at the beginning of October because, yes, the fondue is that good.

Each year the entire restaurant is assembled at the beginning of the season and disassembled at the end of the season. The first time we ate there, we looked around in disbelief. How could something so solid looking, so cozy and so warm, be temporary? But it is, down to the ball chains dangling from the the lamps and the deer skulls and old-time photos on the walls. While I have not witnessed it, I have no doubt the building is assembled and disassembled with absolute Swiss efficiency and fits very neatly into a container or two.

The menu seems to stay the same from year to year, so maybe they even pack those away to use again too!

Further afield, we checked out, or into, another temporary winter phenomenon this year, the Ice Hotel.

IMG_3149 Located in Jukkasjärvi, Sweden, the Ice Hotel is constructed each year from the River Thorn. The ice, 5000 tons of it, is harvested in deep winter, stored through the summer and shaped and sculpted in the late fall. The ice is used for ornament, sculptural details and yes, the beds. The hotel’s Art Suites are, literally, works of art and change each year. Hundreds of artists from around the world submit designs for them; just a handful are chosen. The hotel also features more basic rooms of three standard designs, all magical in their own way. The hotel’s superstructure is created of “snice”, a combination of super cold snow and ice blasted over a temporary frame. Inside, it appears white. The ice, on the other hand is crystal clear, and shimmers. If you look closely, in some of the large blocks you can find the occasional bubble or leaf caught within.

The Ice Hotel offers both cold and warm rooms but the cold ones are the ones to see and ooh and ah over. Our night there was definitely a cool experience, in both senses of the word.

This year the hotel is open until 12 April. After that, it is left to melt and return from whence it came, the River Thorne.

If you go
Zermatt Bacara
The Ice Hotel

Gorgeous Gingerbread

Switzerland is home to many fine confectionary products. One crunchy—as opposed to creamy—treat comes from Kambly, a cookie company. Tucked in the small village of Trubschachen, the factory, like many in Switzerland, offers tours and programs for the public. We recently ventured there to make gingerbread houses.

IMG_3861 When we arrived, the workspace was laid out with large trays and bowls of tools. Each cookie sheet has a laminated template covered by a sheet of baking paper. There were five in our group and two other families, for a total of twelve. Our head cookie chef was was Patricia Zimmerman, who demonstrated for us. We were each brought a sheet of rolled gingerbread. Using a series of heavy duty metal templates, we cut out base, roof, gables, a door and a chimney. There was a bit of extra dough so I also cut out some extra doodad decoration using the various shaped cookie cutters. There was also enough dough to sample! Nicely spiced and flavourful!

IMG_3863We placed the pieces on the tray, in their correct places of course, removed the template and put them in the oven. (I would love to have an oven like that in my kitchen!)

While they baked, we worked on marzipan ornaments, Patricia demonstrating. Her hands fluidly produced perfectly round balls that were quickly assembled into a witch’s body and shoes. A fourth ball became her head, then she quickly acquired a crooked nose, complete with wart, and eyes. Needless to say, when it was our turn, we were a bit less skilled but nonetheless we all created something respectable. We branched out a bit beyond witches, with teddy bear (complete with bow tie), snowman, penguin, musicians, and an elf.

Patricia had obviously done this a few hundred times before. She would simply pluck, pluck at the marzipan to take a ball in each hand and Voila! produce a pair of eyeballs, then pluck, pluck again, fingers working while talking all the while and Voila!, a pair of perflectly matched pupils to pop on the eyes.

IMG_6191Armed with piping bags of delicious icing (we checked!), we commenced assembly. Piping icing onto the edges of the gables and section of roof took mere minutes; we then added the other roof piece. It created quite a stable structure – a credit no doubt to its Swiss design.  We then set the house on the base and were ready to embellish.

Patricia demonstrated varoius techniques with icing, how to mount decoration etc and then let us at it. We had a selection of cake deco items—stars, snowflakes, knobby balls, Smarties to incorporate into the finished look.When finished, we each received a special clear plastic carrier for our houses (They’d obviously done this before!)

Our creative juices depleted, we explored the factory’s retail area. The shelves were stocked with large bags of cookies—samples right alongside so you could be extra sure that what you were buying was as delicious as it looked.

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Happy bakers

Our ace gingerbread team

A Little Clove Goes a Long Way

I have four jars of ground cloves in my cupboard. Contrary to what that quanity indicates, I use very little and so, apparently, does everyone else.

I have a jar or two of whole cloves too! Photo: Wikipedia

Three of the four jars I inherited. People moving to the US are often suprised to learn they cannot send food products of any sort in their shipping container. Much to their chagrin, their carefully curated collection of wine, olive oils, and herbs and spices cannot accompany them. Many a foodie friend has generously (?) given me the remnants of their pantries and spice cabinets. With each donation, it seems, I acquire yet another jar of ground cloves.

I’m therefore on a mission to use more cloves. I’ve started adding a little dash to what I’m cooking: cumin and cloves to the chicken for burritos, a dash in cranberry muffins, etc. But at this rate, it will still take me years to get through more than one jar.

If you have any recipes that use cloves, please let me know. Particularly if you have one that calls for more than 1/4 teaspoon at a time!

A Plethora of Pumpkins

I often feel like the ibis in Roy Owen’s wonderful story, The Ibis and the Egret, which he so kindly gave my daughter when she was born. In it, with the arrival of each season, the bird declares that to be his favorite season. For these past few weeks, autumn has been my favorite season.

pumpkin wagon at MathishofThe rain held off nicely through October and the leaves were golden as our Wednesday Walkers group headed out to the surrounding hills each week. Best of all, however, was the arrival of pumpkins and squash and their appearance on the menu.

Given the size of Switzerland, we are very close to our food, and with fields and farms abutting the city boundaries, eating locally is a matter of course.  The famous Mathis Brändelistal-Hof farm overflows at this time of year. At their stands are more varieties of squash than you can count on both hands and both feet! I vowed this year to expand my horizons and try some new varieties. I have recipes for butternut squash lasagna, and delicata squash to be served six ways, waiting, and have already tried this delicious recipe for butternut squash recommended by a friend.

As pumpkins appear in the fields, seasonal pumpkin products begin to appear in the grocery store as well. My favourite are the Cappelletti alla zucca, orange pockets filled with ricotta and pumpkin, and the Bergkürbis-Ravioli, filled wth kurbis (pumpkin) and ricotta from the mountains. Both types of pasta are simply delicious doused with sage and pepper in melted butter. Fellow hikers recommended using finely chopped walnuts and parmesan, and that was tasty too. Now I have two ways to enjoy my favourite flavors of the season.

As pumpkin season passes, it will start getting cold enough to fire up the fondue pot. Another wonderful Swiss treat to look forward to!

Falling for the Fair

One of Basel’s most traditional events is the Herbstmesse, the fall fair. By traditional, I mean it’s been around for a long time,  in this case well over 500 years. Five hundred and forty-three, in fact.

According to the City of Basel website, “On 11 July 1471, at the Imperial Diet in Regensburg, Emperor Friedrich III granted the Mayor of Basel, Hannsen von Berenfels, the right to hold the Basel Autumn fair «in perpetuity». It starts 14 days before St. Martin’s day.”

The first day of the fair is traditionally the Saturday before the 30th of October. The fair’s opening is signalled by the Fair Bell of the Church of Saint Martin at exactly 12 o’clock.  This being Switzerland, exactly 12 o’clock means it is rung at exacly 12 o’clock!

Not ones to miss the oportunity to keep a tradition going, we popped by on Sunday. It was a glorious, warm fall day, so all the more reason to go. The fair now spreads through several locations in the city, but we limited ourselves to two:  Petersplatz and Barfusserplatz. Barfusserplatz is mostly rides and food vendors, but at Petersplatz, it is indeed a market fair, with booths selling all sorts of gifts and goods and, best of all, yummy treats.

sweet treats at Basel's Herbstmesse“Do I have marshmallow on my nose?”, asked my daughter after sampling a delightfully fluffy, coconut and chocolate covered, sugary confection. (Yes, she did). The raclette grills were out in force, as were the many stalls offering traditional Mandelbrot (almond bread, much like gingerbread), carmelized nuts, creamy caramels, and chocolate covered fruits. A few new traditions have snuck in over the years: Jeffrey’s has been offering Malaysian treats for a good ten years or so, and now there is a Chinese food hall as well. But Bratwurst stands and sweets stands still predominate.

I have no idea what 18th century and earlier amusement rides looked liked, but the modern Herbstmesse has variations on all the standard rides of today: Frog Hopper, Giant Swings, Pirate Ship, Mousetrap. The crowning glory is, however, the ferris wheel.  It’s always  a fun moment to notice when the ferris wheel appears on the horizon, bit by bit as it is assembled. I was watching for it this year, but it surprised me by appearing fully formed one day last week. It rises high above the Munster and is visible from far away. The views from the top, on a clear day, are spectacular.

The fair lasts two weeks, and then the great wheel will be dismantled, to appear next year and mark the 544th edition of the Herbstmesse.

Basel Ferris Wheel

Photo ©Christian Rüfli Used with Permission

August Abundance

As the pall of September rain falls upon us, I am reminded that just last week we were hiking in the sunshine, and the week before that as well. laden with pearsOur Wednesday walks often take us out through and above pastures, and that day was no exception. Towards the end of the walk as we passed through fields we could see the trees laden with fruit. There were apple trees, pear trees, and plum trees. This being Switzerland, there were, of course, also some cows grazing in the background.

We passed a little stand with plums for sale. Many of the farmers here put their goods out on the honor system. It makes you feel as though you have come across some golden treasure; you never know what you will find. Sometimes there are jams, or local wines, but usually just freshly picked fruit or vegetables. That day it was plums, the small “prune” sort. I had always wanted to try making one of the traditional fruit tarts with custard, and the price – at 2.50 chf a kilo – was more than right, so into the backpack they went.

We nibbled on the plums all week – never quite got around to making the tart. Perhaps next year…

Traditional Cookies

Today is the first day of school and, as is tradition, there will be homemade chocolate chip cookies ready for the first after-school snack of the year. I have been making chocolate chip cookies for years. As a child I made them using half a bag of chips to make each bag stretch further. As I got older, CCC’s, as we called them, were key in celebrations with friends. Over time, I adapted recipes to come up with one of my own and now, I am happy to say, I am internationally known for my cookies — in certain communities in Basel and Hong Kong anyway.

cookies!As I moved I have had to adapt the recipe slightly to accommodate different ovens and different ingredients in different countries. It took me a long time initally to figure out why the recipe I’d used for years created cookies that tasted good, they were different in both tastse and texture.  Turns out, the water content of Croatian butter was to blame. Now when I change countires, and therefore butter, I adjust the amount of oatmeal to reach the batter consistency I like.

At first I would import bags of Toll House Morsels and ask people to bring them when they came to visit. Then someone introduced me to Baker’s chocolate chunks, and I had friends bring those. In Hong Kong I could buy Guittard 60% chips (yum!). I recently learned that the Toll House morsels have ingredients in them I don’t want to be eating (not to mention they’re made by Nestle) so I have switched entirely to the local Schokoladewrüfeli, tiny cubes of a delicious, dark chocolate.

Brown sugar is another challenge and bringing it back with me is still the easiest solution. I understand that in France it’s possible to buy it, so that will take some investigating. Guess I will have to check out a boulangerie or two while sourcing my brown sugar!

Z is for Zopf

One of the things Switzerland has in abundance is bread, in addition to, you know, mountains, cheese, chocolate, and banks…. As in most of Europe, bread is a staple part of the diet and while you can find cello-wrapped “toast” bread, the vast majority of the bread is made fresh daily and slipped into paper wrappers. You can pop into a corner bakery or any grocery store to pick some up. The huge variety means not every type of bread is made everywhere, every day. Each region of Switzerland has its own bread specialties.

Zopf ready for French toastZopf, for example, is traditionally a Sunday bread, and it’s one of my favorites. It’s a bread made with flour, milk and butter and formed in a braid. (Zopf mean “braid”.) It has a deliciously dense texture and a slightly sweet taste.

The recipes I’ve seen for it call for white flour but the stores sell a Zopfmehl, which I take to be very refined, very white and undoubtedly devoid of nutirtional value. At our local Coop, freshly made zopf is available Thursdays and Saturdays. Which makes for fabulous French toast come Sunday morning.

Say Cheese!

It would be hard to spend time in Switzerland and not explore the cheese on offer. The country is proud of its dairy traditions and makes them accessible to all. From the dairy case at the smallest grocery shop to mountain top restaurants, cheese, wonderful cheese, is everywhere.

The town of Gruyères is not far from Basel and though we’ve eaten plenty of Gruyère, we had not yet been there. With a recent visitor in tow, we corrected that oversight!

The town is best known for two things: Château de Gruyère, perched on the hill within the town itself, and La Maison du Gruyère, just outside the town in the valley. At La Maison du Gruyère is a show dairy, where you can learn all about the classic Swiss cheese (which is NOT the Swiss Cheese found in American deli counters) and see how it’s made.

maturing wheels of cheeseWe purchased our tickets and were promptly rewarded with, you guessed it, cheese! Each sample pack  contained portions of cheese aged six months, eight months and ten months. There is quite a difference to the taste and texture of each. At three months, it’s smooth and slightly creamy; by ten months, the cheese has developed a distinct crystalline texture and sharper flavor.

Inside, there is a display that tells the story of how Gruyère cheese is made and why it tastes the way it does. More impressive, however, was the video above the factory floor that showed the cheese being made. The volume of milk processed each day is staggering: The cheese dairy is equipped with four vats with a capacity of 4’800 litres and produces up to 48 wheels of cheese each day, each weighing approximatley 35 kilograms.

The final stop was the aging room, which can accommodate up to 7000 wheels of cheese. It was hard to decide which was more impressive: the row upon row of cheese stored there, or the cheese-rotating robot, which removed each wheel, flipped it, moved it into a new spot and went on to the next.

It was all good.

 

More on cheese:

Emmi Guide to Traditional Swiss Cheese – a quick summary of widely available cheeses from Switzerland

Cheese: Slices of Swiss Culture – food writer Sue Style describers 30 or so (of more than 400) cheeses produced in Switzerland