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Swiss Cheese

It is hard to leave Switzerland without dipping into a fondue (from the French verb fondre, meaning "to melt"). The main French contribution to the Swiss table, fondue entails a pot of gooey melted cheese being placed in the center of the table and kept on a slow burn while dinners dip in cubes of crusty brad using slender two-pronged fondue forks. If you lose your chunk in the cheese, you buy the next round of drinks or, should you be in Geneva, get thrown in the lake. It’s traditionally a winter dish, and the Swiss tend to eat it mostly if there’s snow around or they’re at a suitable altitude.

The classic fondue mix in Switzerland is equal amounts of Emmental and Gruyère cheese, grated and melted with white wine and a shot of kirsch (cherry-flavored liquor), then thickened slightly with potato or cornflour. It is served with a basket of bread slices (which are soon torn into small morsels), and most people order a side platter of cold meats and tiny gherkins to accompany it. Fondue moitié moitié (literally "half-half fondue") mixes Gruyère with Vacherin Fribourgeois, and fondue savoyarde sees equal proportions of Comté, Beaufort and Emmental thrown into the pot. Common variants involve adding ingredients such as mushrooms or tomato.


 

But not all cheese in Switzerland is consumed as fondue. Switzerland produces over 450 types of cheese (käse in German, fromage in French, formaggio in Italian), and contrary to the common belief, not all Swiss cheese has holes. Emmental, the hard cheese from the Emme Valley east of Bern, does, as does the not dissimilar Tilsiter from the same valley. The overwhelmingly stinky Appenzeller used in a rash of tasty, equally strong-smelling dishes in the same-name town; or Sbrinz, Switzerland’s oldest hard cheese and the trans-alpine ancestor to Italian Parmesan, ripened for 24 months to create its distinctive taste, do not have holes, they are to be eaten straight and thinly sliced like carpaccio or grated on top of springtime asparagus.

Another distinctive Swiss cheese with not a hole in sight is hard, nutty-flavored Tête de Moine (literally "monk’s head") from the Jura region, which comes in a small round and is cut with a flourish in a flowery curl using a special handled cutting device known as a girolle.

Just as unique is L’Etivaz, which, in the finest of timeless Alpine traditions, is only made up high on lush summer pastures in the Alpes Vaudoises (Vaud Alps). As cows graze outside, shepherds inside their century-old chalets d’alpage (mountain huts) heat up the morning’s milk in a tradition copper cauldron over a wood fire. Strictly seasonal, the Appellation d’Origine Contrôllée (AOC) cheese can only be made from May to early October, using milk from cows that have grazed on mountains between 3,280 feet and 6,561 feet high.

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