Image: Brijesh Patel
September 23 2010
I have a weakness for Switzerland; more like a dependency, I suppose. When I have not visited it for a couple of months I begin to feel a little jittery and so when I walked through Geneva airport this month for the first time after the summer break, the feeling began to subside.
Nowadays of course the town is filling up with financial migrants who find the taxation imposed by our Cleggeron government inconvenient and I suppose that this Alpine country’s noble tradition of welcoming those oppressed by inimical financial and religious regimes causes one to forget that Switzerland is, au fond, a rural culture.
For me the most vivid evocation of Switzerland’s rustic roots is found at the beginning of volume two of Little Dorrit, where Dickens launches into a particularly colourful autumnal word-picture of vintage time on the shores of Lake Geneva: “The air there was charged with the scent of gathered grapes. Baskets, troughs, and tubs of grapes stood in the dim village doorways, stopped the steep and narrow village streets, and had been carrying all day along the roads and lanes. Grapes, split and crushed under foot, lay about everywhere.” There is plenty more about cows and goats smelling of grapes, peasantwomen feeding their children grapes, but you get the picture. It reminded me of my mother saying how, when she was at school in Switzerland, she helped with the vendange and after a day in the vineyards ate raclette. And this visit to Switzerland was as much about raclette as it was about wristwatches.
The more I learn about Switzerland, the more I like it. Most nations would have been proud enough to make the best wrtistwatches in the world, but that is not enough for the Helvetians; they have bequeathed countless gifts to the world, among them raclette. By the Middle Ages it was a firm favourite in the Alps, but alas gastronomic history does not record the name of the culinary genius who came up with the concept of heating up cheese until it melts. Nevertheless Swellboy salutes this nameless pioneer of Swiss cuisine.
One of the great consolations of life is the opportunity to eat melted cheese, which is something I manage to do in September when watch boss Jean-Claude Biver stages the Désalpe, the traditional removal of dairy cows from their summer pastures in the mountains to their winter quarters. Apparently one cow can produce 2,500 kilos of cheese in a season, and their return from the mountains sees these mobile cheese machines garlanded with flowers celebrating their productivity, their necks hung with elaborately embroidered collars, cowbells pealing joyously.
This bovine cavalcade includes wagons laden with cheese-making paraphernalia and men balancing cheeses the size of car tyres on their heads, in the manner of Victorian costermongers. Having seen early 19th-century engravings of similar processions, I was comforted to find that the spectacle still looks much the same as it must have done in Dickens’ time.
At the end of the journey, there is much blowing of alpenhorns and co-ordinated ringing of giant cowbells by men and women simultaneously performing what I can only describe as a Swiss square dance. The afternoon culminated in Miss Rural Switzerland (I am not making this up) giving a prize to the cow that had created the most cheese that summer – an amazing 2,800 kilos of the stuff. And then, after much eating of melted cheese and many speeches, it was off to a lakeside restaurant for a restorative supper of fried perch fillets, a Lake Geneva delicacy for which I have a great weakness.
The irony is of course that, having turned three watch companies around: Blancpain, Omega and Hublot, and now looking as though he will do the same for the Swiss cheese business, Jean-Claude Biver is not a Swiss citizen. Happily this is in the process of being rectified as he recently went to sit his citizenship exams: to become Swiss you need to know about mountains, lakes, and of course cheese. Imagine if prospective UK citizens had to learn about Morris dancing, saucy seaside postcards and fish and chips.
In a rare break with bureaucracy, when he turned up to sit his exam, the invigilators said that in view of his multifarious contributions to Swiss life, his exam would take place in the cellar below their office where he would be examined entirely on his ability to drink a glass of Swiss wine and, inevitably, nibble on a piece of Swiss cheese.