Dear Friends and Family,
Switzerland and fondue go together like peanut butter and jelly, Wallace and Gromit, a light and a switch. But when I picture dressing up for Halloween as this perfect, cheesy pair, I see my Swiss friends laughing or shaking their heads at me. Not only because my costume would look ridiculous, but because it would also reinforce stereotypes (like a Swiss guy with the whole shebang of suspenders, knee-high socks and a perfect yodel) and ignore so many other cheese specialties.
When I refer to my “Swiss friends” here, I’m thinking specifically about Nicolas and Florian, two guys my age who proudly say they are “as Swiss as it gets.” We met the first week I arrived in Switzerland. I had inquired about their “room for rent” listing. They responded and suggested we meet for a drink. Our friendship grew from there.
All of us worked long days (me at the dairy, Nicolas as an engineer, Florian as a student finishing his thesis research) and so we often got together in the evenings, at which point they would introduce me to local dish after local dish. Be it rösti, soupe de chalet or raclette, the common denominator was always cheese— Gruyère or Vacherin— accompanied by stories. Stories of life in the Swiss army (both had served). Stories of motorbike adventures (Nicolas drove his across the Saudi Arabian desert). Stories of hiking in the Alps (something we all loved).
My curiosity about Swiss culture and traditions also shaped the dinner hour. Le Bénichon, I learned, is a village feast to celebrate the harvest, the cows and the farmer’s return from mountain pastures. Swiss wrestling, as they explained, is definitely a thing too. (Though the Swiss seem much tamer than the Mongolian pro-wrestlers I befriended in Ulaanbataar).
I’d like to think they benefited from me as much as I did from them (I made dinners and chocolate chip cookies) but I was definitely spoiled. For Nicolas’ birthday, his mother taught me how to make macaronis de chalet— basically mac n cheese “the Swiss way,” cooked over fire with ham, milk and cream. We all took turns stirring the pot by hand, tending the fire and drinking wine before tucking into one of the world’s best comfort foods.
The boys also introduced me to Rivella, a popular soft drink that I find particularly interesting. In the same way that every country has a distinct way of eating or serving cheese, every country also has a different usage for whey (the by-product of cheese-making). In Norway, they make brown cheese. In Mongolia, we conserved whey to wash dishes. In Switzerland, whey is the primary ingredient of Rivella.
Nicolas and Florian laughed at my fascination with Rivella. It is not particularly delicious and I don’t even like soft drinks. But I do love the creativity that so often accompanies all things cheese. And, like macaronis de chalet or raclette, Rivella strikes me as very Swiss; a treat you might only find by actually living there. Or having close friends who do.