05 September 2008
Breakfast in Switzerland
Last week I spent seven lovely days in Lausanne, Switzerland, a beautiful city nestled on the steep banks of Lake Geneva. The weather was perfect. The sun shone daily with occasional picturesque clouds hanging from the blue sky. The days were delightfully warm and the evenings were comfortable. It was a fabulous end of summer break.
Personally, I am a glutton for ancient and medieval history, and this area of Switzerland is full of opportunities to learn about both. I was genuinely charmed by the region’s Roman foundations, Romantic connections, Gothic architecture and medieval chateaus. Entwined in each wonderful exploration of the past were adventures with food, sometimes planned and sometimes a matter of pure serendipity. I savored these stories, hoping to share them, but where do I start?
How about with a good Swiss breakfast! Since breakfast is the nutritional foundation for any day of active exploration I planned to pay particular attention to this important meal. While at home I am just as likely to start the day by dunking a slightly stale chocolate chip cookie into a cup of hot coffee as I am by sitting down to a nutritious morning meal, I did plan to eat well and try new things while I was away.
The first thing that came to mind when I considered a Swiss breakfast was Muesli. Invented by Swiss nutritionist Dr Max Bircher-Benner in the late 19th century, Muesli, a mixture of raw grains, nuts and dried fruits splashed with fresh milk or yogurt, has become one of the foods most closely associated with a simple and practical Swiss breakfast.
Though "Switzerland is Yours" suggests that “the Swiss themselves seem to steer clear of the stuff at breakfast,” I had heard that Muesli is served at many Swiss hotels and so, when I arrived in Lausanne, I fully expected to make Muesli a part of my Swiss breakfast experience. I had expected not only to try it but to describe it for you, perhaps to even like it!
Imagine my surprise when on my first morning in Lausanne I surveyed the breakfast buffet table and realized that Muesli was no where to be found. Instead I saw a wide variety of other foods carefully arranged on the buffet table. There were trays of meat and cheese, eggs, a variety of breads and a choice of fruits and juices. It was a delightful spread full of both the familiar and the mildly exotic. I had a hard time choosing. I sat at my table with a cup of coffee while I scanned the room for ideas.
The guests in the breakfast room seemed to be a mixture of businessmen and tourists. What I found amazing was that the conversational hum in the room fell on my ear in such a great variety of languages. I thought I caught notes of French, German, Swiss German, English, Japanese and perhaps even Russian. At first glance the breakfast preferences of these guests seemed as varied as the languages spoken. Some people were enjoying a breakfast of yogurt and fruit. Some had a plate full of meats and cheese. Here and there I saw eggs with or without sausages or bacon.
The common thread in this breakfast tapestry seemed to be the croissants.There was at least one on nearly every table in the room. Sometimes there were several piled onto a plate set beside coffee and juice. What’s more, as often as I saw croissants I saw opened tubs of Nutella, a chocolate hazelnut spread which seems to be as popular in Europe as peanut butter is in the US, dotting the tables. A taste for these items seemed to be what most everyone shared in common.
Over the course of my stay in Switzerland I tried the soft cooked eggs. Sometimes they were quite runny and sometimes, preferably, they were almost firm. I also ate a breakfast or two of soft cheese with sliced ham and a hard roll. I must confess to having skipped the yogurt and cut fruit. Yogurt is not a favorite of mine. I also skipped the sausages and bacon. Regional sausages are always interesting to contemplate but the intrigue is usually more than I can handle early in the morning.
All of these choices had some merit. Yet one morning I witnessed a scene which brought the experience of a Swiss breakfast together for me in a new way. On this particular morning, as I enjoyed my second cup of coffee I couldn’t help but notice a young couple eating at a table near the window. This couple collected a plate of several croissants each and brought them back to their table. There the young man took a croissant in his hand and carefully opened it horizontally. Next he opened a small tub of butter and slathered it onto the exposed surface of the croissant. He also opened a small tub of Nutella and carefully scooped the full contents into the heart of his croissant before he spread it with his knife and carefully covered it with the top half of the croissant.
After fully assembling this masterpiece the young man closed his eyes and bit into his creation almost tenderly. It was clear that he was thoroughly enjoying the smooth chocolaty hazelnut paste oozing from the slight flaky crunch of the exterior. Then, when he had finished the last bite of his carefully embellished croissant, he repeated the process. He prepared another in the same way. I couldn’t help but smile! I had to think that he was onto something. In an effort to immerse myself in the local customs I picked up a croissant and a tub of Nutella and tried it for myself. Wonderful!
By the end of the week I began every morning with a cup of dark cream infused coffee, a wonderfully flaky croissant and a small tub of Nutella. I loved pouring the cream from a small pitcher and stirring it into my coffee cup with a delicate demitasse spoon. I loved tearing off a piece of the croissant, listening to the soft crunch as small flakes dusted my plate and feeling the smooth resistant texture of the buttery crumb inside. I enjoyed spreading the thick dark hazelnut paste on the bread and indulging in the sweet chocolaty taste of the confection. Yes, by the end of the week, my preferences seemed consistent with most of the other diners at breakfast. This deceptively simple fare seemed so casual, so ordinary, and yet so sublime. Move over Muesli! In my mind’s eye a Swiss breakfast has a whole new look and its all about simple sweet indulgence.