Travel Story Say cheese for taste of Zurich

Photo of Niall McIlroy

A fondness for fondue reached melting-point in Switzerland's biggest city.

It’s barely a year since my last visit to Switzerland and the memories are still vivid. I felt the first flurries of autumn snow fleck my cheek at the top of Mt Stanserhorn, dined on steaming hot Alpine macaroni, envied the owners of the apartments that line Lake Montreux and tried to interpret with a mixture of fear and fascination the ominous Dance of Death paintings that adorn the Spreuerbrucke that crosses the Reuss at Lucerne.

But the one thing I had my heart set on remained elusive. I had been determined to taste a Swiss specialty, fondue, but had departed Zurich for Copenhagen frustrated the itinerary hadn’t allowed me to indulge.

I’ve had a thing for fondue since trying it as seven year old, eagerly dipping chunks of chicken and beef into a casserole dish filled to the brim with hot cheese one Sunday lunch at the home of some Mauritian friends. I have never forgotten it and so, 12 months after my last unsuccessful attempt, I find myself back in Zurich at the beginning of a Railbookers train itinerary across Europe to London — and I’m doubly determined. Everything has been planned for me, from hotel stays to train connections. There is time to indulge. I have a one-track mind and it has nothing to do with carriages and stations.

Switzerland’s biggest city isn’t known for its fondue — veal in mushroom sauce (zurcher geschnetzeltes) and bratwurst are the specialties here. But the earliest known recipe for fondue is from a book published in Zurich in 1699. It was for a concoction of grated cheese and wine into which bread is dipped.

Traditionally, fondue was more like a souffle of eggs and cheese rather than a boiling cauldron of clotted yellow fat. And even in the late 1800s when it had evolved into the modern day manifestation without eggs, it wasn’t something the ordinary Swiss farmer would have gone for. The gruyere cheese used was expensive and fondue was much more popular in the well-to-do French-influenced areas of the west such as Geneva. But the powerful Swiss Cheese Union pushed fondue as a national dish to promote cheese consumption. Fondue sets were sent to the armed forces and the dish became popular in the United States.

Today, there are scores of fondue restaurants in all Swiss cities and there’s even a list of the best in the Zurich Tourism pamphlet. I’ve passed a few on the meandering streets of Zurich’s old city, but my hungry tummy is urging me to pick one, any one. A number of locals have recommended Restaurant Swiss Chuchi, so I head across the River Limmat into the maze of streets on the west bank in my search for cheesy salvation.

I smell it first as I walk on to the cobbled Hirschenplatz. And then there it is. Little tables assembled out the front, nearly all full and under a sign that bears the emblem of a black pot with an unmistakable yellow smear across the top.

Table for one taken, I’m faced with a choice of 11 types of fondue — a glorious problem. It includes fondue with pear brandy and pear pieces ($29.20), fondue mit tomatenwurfell (tomato pieces – $28.20), fondue with green pepper and mustard $28.20) or just plain old slices of meat dipped in hot fat. But I go for a four-cheese fondue (emmenthal, gruyere, bergkase and vacherin) with ham and champignons. The anticipation rises as my Thai waiter, Sangpon, returns with a basket heaped with dark and white chunks of bread, a plate and a prong, and a half of lager. And then I reach boiling point as he places on the table a small spirit burner topped with a Swiss flag-red caquelon that’s filled to the brim with thick yellow cheese bubbling and popping seductively. I need no more invitation and skewer the bread before whisking it through the fondue and bringing it to my mouth.

It’s been too long.

Memories of that Sunday afternoon return as I savour the thick hot cheese which has been made tangy with brandy — something I doubt was in that original fondue. It and I enjoy each other’s company for about half an hour. I stop eating only long enough to quiz Sangpon on its preparation.

“Oh, it’s simple, sir, ” he says, as if it really is. “Garlic in oil first, cheese is added, then alcohol, it’s stirred and must be kept at just the right temperature.” Sangpon is slightly bemused at my interest as I guess the chef will be when he receives my compliments. But I’m so engrossed in this four cheese triumph that my half pint goes virtually untouched. I reach the thick grossmutter skin at the bottom of the pot quicker than would be decent were three people sharing, and then set off on a lunch settling stroll, satisfied that every day of that 25-year wait was worth it.

The main thoroughfare, Bahnhofstrasse (Station Street) is bustling when I meet Zurich Tourism guide Boris Magrini for a tour of the city. The art history student is a real font of knowledge on all things architectural, which is just as well, for Switzerland’s biggest city has a clutch of historical buildings, a real hotch-potch of gothic, renaissance and neo-classical styles. He tells a good story when it comes to monasteries and martyrs, Roman baths, and the fascinating rebirth of West Zurich. Once a dour and abandoned industrial area, decrepit foundries have been turned into shopping courts and markets, there are boutiques under the arches of the old aqueduct and the Lowenbrau Brewery has been converted to cool apartments and galleries.

But with Boris as my guide, I’m just as engrossed in exploring in the Old City. The fantastic labyrinth of tiny cobblestoned streets and lanes is lined with guildhouses and cafes and punctuated by medieval churches, its heart skewered by the fast flowing River Limmat inhabited by a navy of robust white swans. And old it is. Zurich is thought to have been settled for at least 7000 years and while little evidence of that remains, the past has a place amid the present.

The grand old railway station, the Zürich Hauptbahnhof, is one of the world’s busiest and a hub of the national and continental system. There’s been a station here since 1847 and with as many of half of all journeys in the city taken by public transport, it’s still at the nucleus of town.

I’m standing opposite the grand old building on the Bahnhofstrasse, one of the world’s most expensive retail streets. But 140 years ago my feet would’ve been wet and I wouldn’t be window shopping for things I can’t afford.

For until 1864, this was a ditch which marked the outer boundary of the Old City walls. Now it’s lined with big name outlets — Hermes, Burberry, Tiffany and Louis Vuitton and the street is gleaming in the unseasonably warm late October weather. Zurichers and tourists sit around white cafe tables sipping pints of beer, munching on pizza, and people-watching from the pavements. Between these cafes, the streets are thronged with shoppers and there are chestnut and peanut sellers and born-again Christians failing yet still trying to disseminate pamphlets. All the while long blue trams slink along the Bahnhofstrasse, bells clanging as they go. Across the river, it’s far less glitzy and more atmospheric in the Niederhof — a knot of streets that all seem to end in fountains issuing water so clean you can drink it. Boris says there are 1224 such fountains in Zurich and I feel in no position to argue.

In these back alleys, Dadaism was born in Cabaret Voltaire and Lenin wrote and pondered while plotting a return, and then a revolution, in Russia.

Zurich has a strict building height limit and so it is the city’s majestic churches that puncture the skyline on either side of the Limmat.

As was intended, they are still the most impressive buildings in a city of beautiful structures, although the castle-like National Science Museum flies the flag for the secular.

Around the churches, Zurich has swelled. Ludwig the German, a grandson of Charlemagne, who wanted a convent to house his daughter Hildegard, founded the green-steepled Fraumunster in 853. For a time, before the Reformation, the convent was powerful enough to collect taxes and mint its own coins.

The Reformation was born in the 1500s in the twin-towered Grossmunster, a symbol of Zurich, and across the river the 8.7m timepiece at St Peters was once the biggest clock face in the world — surely a title a Swiss church should hold.

St Peters stands near the top of the Lindenhof, my favourite part of Zurich, where the streets wind upward into piazzas edged by 500-year-old guildhouses, many of which are now restaurants and pubs. It’s cobbled and steep and not easy walking but all roads seem to lead to this apex. And they always have. Lindenhof Hill, set high over the Limmat, was settled by the Celts, fortified by the Romans and then conquered by Ludwig the German. And now, in the late autumn sun, locals and tourists climb to picnic, play chess, watch the light glint on the Limmat and to work off fondue.

Fact File

Disclaimer

Niall McIlroy visited Zurich courtesy of Railbookers and Zurich Tourism.

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