La Dolce Vita… in Switzerland
My recent travels found me eating pasta, risotto, polenta and gelato, and listening to the musical sounds of the Italian language.
While your minds may be full of romantic images, like crossing the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, strolling through the Borghese Gardens in Rome, perhaps shopping in Milan or simply eating pasta all day long in Bologna,… I’m not even talking about Italy. I’m talking about Switzerland. Yes, Switzerland, the country with a distinctive Italian speaking canton in the South, called Ticino (or Tessin in German), where you often forget you’re actually not in Italy.
With the mildest climate in the country, more sun and no fog (so they say), Ticino is Switzerland’s Mediterranean, where you’ll find not only mountains and glaciers, but perfectly manicured green valleys and even palm trees too. Towns have names that simply invite you to say (ok, sing) them aloud with your best Italian accent: Bombianasco, Arosio, Bellinzona. Many Swiss head south for the warmer temperatures, for the popular film festivals and to clink glasses of local vino.
Lakeside towns may draw the crowds, but medieval villages deep within the canton were my favorite and are certainly worth exploring. Some appear to have not aged over the past few centuries. Omnipresent flower boxes confirm their Swissness, while vines climbing up the walls toward the slate roofs add an Italian touch. I could have walked around Sonogno for hours (despite it being pocket size), up and down the winding narrow streets of this last village in the verdant Verzasca Valley. And I certainly hope to visit Corippo one day, an even tinier hilltop village that’s actually the smallest in Switzerland – 17 inhabitants ! This museum of a town sits propped up on the mountains, seemingly impossible to access except by foot. They say chickens there wear handkerchiefs to keep their eggs from rolling down the super steep inclines !
But back to that risotto… Who would have thought that the world’s northernmost rice plantation is in Switzerland ? Who would have thought Switzerland has rice fields at all ?! (No howling rice guards here though, like in Bali.) The only rice fields in the country are on the shores of Lake Maggiore, at the farm Terreni alla Maggia in Ascona. Set among apple, fig and chestnut trees, as well as perfect rows of organic vineyards, the fields have been providing us with small grain Loto rice, used almost exclusively for risotto. I managed to get a few pointers on how to make the best risotto, a dish every Ticinese makes at home: use good wine, add a splash of cream towards the end of cooking and top with lots of Parmigiano cheese !
While all Ticinese whip up a stellar risotto effortlessly at home, they go to the local grotto for polenta, another typical dish which requires a much longer preparation time. A staple of the region, this cornmeal based dish can take hours to cook over a low flame and is often served with Alpine cheese. But here’s a warning, if you order your polenta with Gorgonzola, for example (photo above, middle right), you won’t get polenta cooked with the cheese, or even with some sprinkled on top. You’ll get a huge mound of polenta sitting beside an even larger wedge of cheese ! You’ll then be instructed to spoon some polenta over the cheese so that it melts.
And of course, you’ll need some vino to wash it all down…
The Ticinese love their wine (especially red Merlot), and this was most evident at the 55th annual Grape Festival of Mendrisiotto, Sagra dell’Uva. When I asked a few locals about what the festival meant to them, the answers were unanimous, “We are happy ! We are celebrating the making of the wine here and its high quality, even compared to Italian wines. Ticino life is about celebrating, we like that very much. And all of the Ticino canton comes to this party !” There was a crowd indeed, all there to taste the wines of the new harvest along with local sausages and cheeses, listen to live music and meet people. How to eat the local fresh cheese (photo below, bottom left): top with olive oil, freshly ground pepper and red wine vinegar. Spread on bread and enjoy !
And now for a MyKugelhopf first: a video ! Click the image below to see me checking out what was about to become my dinner at the Grape Festival !
But let us not forget about dessert… Of course there’s gelato and tiramisu in this very Italian canton. I could never forget what the waiter at Fattoria L’Amorosa said to me as he served me their house tiramisu, sliced like a cake: “My Grandma’s tiramisu is the best in the world, but the chef’s is very good too.”
Meanwhile, it’s no wonder the Swiss are hiking pros. With bread, cheese, müesli and/or chocolate in their backpacks, they’ll have enough energy to make it up any mountain. Not to mention Ticino’s self-sustaining chestnuts (“the bread of the community”) and a local specialty for dessert called Torta di Pane (recipe below). Have a piece of this bread cake (think fruit cake meets brownie) for breakfast or as pre-hike fuel, and you’ll be running up and down the picturesque chestnut trail in no time.
Torta di Pane (Ticinese Bread Cake)
from Donatella Gerosa, tour operator in Ticino
300 grams dried bread
1 liter milk
5 amaretto cookies (almond flavored Italian cookies)
pinch of salt
lemon rind, grated
150-200 grams granulated sugar
1-2 tablespoons cocoa powder
1 shot glass grappa (or kirsch)
100 grams raisins
splash of vanilla
50 grams cedrat (candied citron, or you can use candied lemon)
50 grams pine nuts
50 grams powdered sugar
Warm the milk and soak bread for 4 hours (or overnight). Preheat the oven to 180-200 degrees Celsius (350-400 degrees Fahrenheit). Drain liquid and mince the bread with all the other ingredients except pine nuts and powdered sugar. Pour the mixture into a buttered baking tin. Cover with the pine nuts and bake for 1.5 hours. Dust with powdered sugar.
Buon Appetito !