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.

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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 !

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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.

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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 !

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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 !

At the Grape Festival of Mendrisiotto

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.

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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
2 eggs
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 !

24 Responses to “La Dolce Vita… in Switzerland”

  1. Samantha Angela says:

    Mmmm, I love polenta. My father’s family is from Northern Italy so I grew up with it. My Nonna makes it a little more liquidy than what I see in your picture. I love sticking wedges of Friulano cheese into it– so that the cheese melt inside– and covering it with salami stew (or toccio).

  2. a lady's life says:

    I love old buildings like this.
    They take me way back to another place and time I always love to explore.

  3. Kelleyn says:

    I can’t wait to try this recipe! I am surprised that there is only two tablespoons of cocoa in the recipe. It looks so chocolatey. Loved video! You r so skinny, how do you do it and eat so much chocolate?

  4. Kerrin says:

    Samantha, mmm, sounds like you know your polenta. I love it too – and would probably like it with a variety of textures. Even just plain, without the cheese. Thanks for sharing !

    a lady’s life, agreed !

    Kelleyn, good point, it does look very dark and dense, but I think that is simply from all the other ingredients too. Picture a Christmas fruit cake, right ? Use 2 instead of just 1 Tablespoon of cocoa powder – or even more if you would like. Let me know if you try it. And thanks for watching the video ! You know I love chocolate and sweets, but I also love to run and swim and play tennis and eat very healthy in general. 🙂

  5. mayssam @ Will Travel for Food says:

    Sounds like a lovely part of Switzerland and that video of you is priceless! 🙂

  6. Silvia says:

    Beautiful pictures… and great food! 🙂

  7. Jen Laceda says:

    Oh…all that food! It’s lunch time here in Toronto…your delicious photos make me so hungry! Me hungry! Me hungry!!!! Great video also, Kerrin. You are a natural in front of the camera (as well as behind it). Once again, I am so envious of where you are living 🙂

  8. Emma says:

    Hah at that video, I loved it! You were so digging the deliciousness of the whole situation, I liked how into it you were with your knees. Like you too were ready to sprint up a mountain (and back down in time for the festival, of course).

    So many great photos, and so much good looking food. I’m very curious to try out the cake recipe, although I’ll definitely have to buy another bag of pine nuts if I’m to make it:)

    Silly hiking-on-chestnut-trail caricature children, with devious hand-to-face expressions!

  9. Kerrin says:

    mayssam, merci ! =)

    Silvia, danke !

    Jen, haha, sorry for making you so hungry ! Hope it was a delicious lunch after you read this ! I bet. And thank you so so much for your words about the video, really appreciate it.

    Emma, another classic Emma comment, love it ! I have to go watch the video again and see what on earth I was doing with my knees, haha ! But yes, you were right – I was totally digging the deliciousness of the whole situation ! 😉

  10. Yeye says:

    Such a natural and fun video of yours!!! You definitely have an enormous talent to be explored much further …
    Rice fields in Switzerland! What??? And I see you also have very pleasant savory experience to share with us. But I was kind of afraid that nothing sweet would be discovered 🙂 Until of course … the end.

  11. Luke says:

    I live in Chiasso, a little town near Mendrisio. I’m very glad to see some tourists in Ticino and in particular coming to the Sagra dell’Uva! We look forward to it every year!

    I think you made very Ticinese choices with the dishes you ate but there’s one missing: polenta e funghi porcini (and of course Merlot)! The next time you visit a grotto you must absolutely try it, it’s my favourite dish.

    Hope to see you again here!

  12. Andrea M says:

    Once again I reiterate my amazement of the health and fine physiques of the Swiss/Euros. They really do eat like this….and yet rarely do you see someone obese. It’s got to be there love of hiking, biking and more to do with, in my opionion, that they “get to” walk, school, work, etc. We could learn from them!

    On another note…one can smell the goodness and delicious-ness of grassy, earthy, rich cheese and the savory risotta. I love how they serve it there! And I’m going to try and make Torta di Pane this weekend!

    (I conquered Laugenbretzeln rolls this weekend…Lye and all.)


  13. Kerrin says:

    Yeye, thank you for your positive words, much appreciated ! But you were afraid that “nothing sweet would be discovered” – GASP – never !! 😉 Save the best for last…

    Luke, how lucky to live where you do ! And yes, you are so right ! I had polenta e funghi also when I was there. I thought it would be mushrooms mixed in to the polenta, like the cheese version, but it was a huge portion of mushrooms in a thick brown sauce on the side. Is that how your favorite dish is made ? Oh and of course, Merlot to wash it all down ! 🙂 Thanks so much for sharing.

    Andrea, first thing’s first – you made Laugenbrezel ? Wow, I am impressed – and I want one !! Lye is not easy to work with, but I have to try one day, since I love those so much. What recipe did you use ? As for the Swiss and their healthy, active lifestyle – it’s part of the reason why I love living here so much.

  14. Meeta says:

    Oh I thoroughly enjoyed this tour with you Kerrin – also totally love the picture of you. Miss you! As for the recipe – it sounds rich and dense and perfect for winter.

  15. mom says:

    Thank you for taking us on yet another wonderful adventure in Switzerland. Who knew that Italy lives quite nicely in Switzerland. My next visit Ticino might just be on the list….oh that list…so long but crossing off so many parts of the world I never thought I would get too. Your photography gave me such a great taste of the flavor of that region…thanks again….ciao!!!

  16. Andrea M. says:

    He he…Kerrin, you are the ambitious one. Why would anyone actually living in Switzerland “need” to trouble themselves with baking their own Laugenbrezli? I’m just desperate here in the wild west of America for some Swiss goodness.:) {I’m happy to send you a recipe still, should you want it}

  17. Kerrin says:

    Meeta, danke ! Miss you too. And hey, that photo you love of me, it’s not just a photo — it’s a video !! =)

    mom, you are most welcome ! And aha, Ticino is on the list now ?! I know it’s a long list, but you are so right – we have crossed off so many places together. What will it be in 2012…?? 🙂

    Andrea, ambitious — or curious ! 😉 You make an excellent point, I eat Laugenbrezel here all the time, and clearly whatever I could bake myself would never top them. But still, how cool would that be to make my own ?! And then be able to make them for my friends and family who don’t live in Switzerland… Please do send me the recipe – and a photo of yours too ! Thank youuuu 🙂

  18. Julia @ Mélanger says:

    Why haven’t we seen you in front of the camera until now?

    What a talent!!!

    Please, please, please share more with us? Our Kugel travel and food presenter? 🙂

  19. KugelDad says:

    If any of your readers are curious what Kerrin is really like, the video says and shows it all. That is sooooo you. Great interview! And congrats on your first published video. But if anyone would like to see more, I’ve got plenty. Not to worry, not without your permission 🙂 🙂
    And what a great post. Loved the tour, and your photos seem to get better and better. Bravo honey!

  20. Katrin says:

    You really are a natural! Got the audition tape for your own shown now…

    And KugelDad: some toddler videos please :-)!

  21. Lemon says:

    I love your photos. Seeing them is like strolling around somewhere in Switzerland, that’s great. And coming to the food, every time I see it on your photos, I feel like I have to make a Swiss culinary trip. Unfortunately, at the moment, I can’t, but at least I got some lovely Swiss cheese in a shop around the corner.

  22. Kerry @ Altogold Holidays in Switzerland says:

    Ohh I love these photos they’re awesome, going to have a go at the bread cake recipe

  23. Julia says:

    I love Ticino – it´s like a safe, clean and non-corrupt version of Italy 😉

  24. Kerrin says:

    Julia, haha, love it ! Thank you for that totally positive and enthusiastic reaction, I will try to get in front of the camera more often from now on, not just behind it… =)

    Kugeldad, key words in your comment above: “not without permission.” Enough said. 😉 Thanks so much for the positive words, dad !!

    Katrin, thanks ! You don’t need Kugeldad for toddler videos though, I’ve actually got a few classic ones chez nous. I’m seeing… bagels, lox & home videos !

    Lemon, hope you enjoyed that Swiss cheese, fantastic that you have access to great products. Hope you’ll be able to make that Swiss culinary trip soon. Thank you so much for your comment.

    Kerry, have fun baking ! Let me know how it goes for sure…

    Julia, I could not have said it better myself ! 🙂

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