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

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