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Portugese Patterns

portuguese tiles

ceramic tile

Portugal has been one of those few European countries to which for some reason both my husband and myself never had been to. We had often been very close by, in Spain, we had seen pictures, heard recounts and read articles though. According to them, every pore and place of this history laden little country sounded fantastic, and a few weeks back we finally decided to go see for ourselves and travel to Portugal.

What a great decision this was! Even though our expectations were high, we did not get disappointed in any way. The cities are charmful and pictuesque, full of art and beauty stories, the villages and landscapes ever changing, rural and genuine. There’s colors and gardens and architectural styles, orchards and green spaces and traditions. The people act calm, friendly and helpful towards strangers, and seem like a happy and serene bunch between themselves.


vineyards in the duoro

And the food, oh the glorious food, is an entire story on its own. Portugese food is down to earth and does, what food first and foremost used to be and (at least there, how refreshing to witness) still is intended to do: It nourishes. Both the body and the soul, and abundantly so. There is little Froufrou in Portugese food, and much honesty. Animals and plants are used in their entiety. So one will get served pig ears instead of just the loin, turnip greens instead of just turnip, or tiny, whole fishes, eyes, fins and all. Continue reading “Portugese Patterns” »

Swiss Kiss #7 – Älpler-Maggronen (alpine style Pasta)

mac n' cheese on steroids

Älpler the people who, seasonally, work high up in the Alps. Farmers, shepherds, folks that during about 100 days in the summer move accept to leave civilization behind them – often also their families – and go tend to the rough and steep land on 5000 feet elevation or higher, and to the animals they bring, to keep the meadows healthy and profitable. They milk, fix huts, make cheese, repair fences, jump in as vets if an animal needs one. They are all rounders, every single day, all summer long. There’s less romance involved in the life of an Älpler than most outsiders imagine. But much more hunger.

Älpler-Maggronen – “the alpine farmer’s Maccaroni” – are Mac n’ Cheese on steroids. Besides the pasta and (true, real, high quality) cheese they also contain potato, onion and cream. They are traditional to the inner Switzerland region – mainly the Uri, Nidwalden and Schwyz cantons. While transhumance – the seasonal move of people and animals to different areas – has been done in many, many centuries, the Älpler-Maggronen came to life less than 150 years ago.

Around 1882, to be exact, when the massive tunnel underneath the Gotthard mountain was built, in order to connect central Switzerland with the southern part, Ticino, and Italy. The Swiss liked the pasta the Italian construction workers brought along, and they quickly realized that they not only were nutritious, but light and robust enough to be easily transported up to the mountains, and that they had an excellent shelf life. The farmers combined the pasta with what was readily available and would keep them full for a good while.

mise for swiss version of mac and cheese

Nowadays the dish is served in all German speaking regions of Switzerland (so mostly in the north and north eastern part of the country). Some people like to add bacon or ham cubes, some serve apple compote with it, others top the robust mixture with caramelized onions. And some even put the mix in the oven until the top forms a crust. (That is Swiss democracy in food, I guess.)

The chives, although quantity wise the most minuscule of all ingredients, play an interesting role in this dish. While most people tend to consider them as garnish or momentary trend – comparable to the leaf of parsley that for decades adorned every daily special of each Swiss train station restaurant – the chive in Älper-Maggronen has its exact reason. Wild chive is a very common alpine herb and therefore used when ever possible. It adds freshness, color, nutrients and zing to any dish. And makes Älpler-Maggronen a perfectly complete meal. What else would one want?

aelpler maggronen, in bowl, ready

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No Rules Fish & Seafood Soup

Fish & Seafood Soup in the bowlThere’s six people, five males, four persons who drive, three different schools, two parents and one bunny who rule this house. There’s also countless passions, many tasks, several jobs, few clubs and one business that influence all of us and our lives together daily. In relation to our meals – around which not only my thoughts and dreams usually float around here – this often translates into suppers that can be served in stages and taste as great at 10pm, when the last one comes home, as they did four hours earlier, when the first one sat down to eat.

One of our favorite such dishes has turned out to be a Fish & Seafood Soup. It is flexible and a little different, yet vibrant and rich in flavors each time, and most every time we serve it, at least one of us claims that it never has tasted as good as in the current version. Not following any set rules keeps this dish interesting and perhaps even is the main reason that we never get tired of it.

The instant we decide that dinner will be “The Soup”, as we refer to it, we immediately also agree if it will be “the clear” or “the tomato” one. The latter one contains tomato paste and fresh or canned tomatoes, and it is the one we usually prefer. (Unless there is a specific ingredient we want to incorporate and highlight, like we once did with saffron.) Fish and seafood wise we often choose fresh product that is quick to handle (shrimp, fish fillet, etc.) and, I admit, I admit, retreat to the monger’s frozen case for the items that require more elaborate prep (and he already has done for us – mussels, clams, octopus, etc. Hey, it’s an anti hectic dish, after all). Any combination of creatures has proven to be possible and delicious here, really. As for the vegetables, we like to add chopped onions and garlic, cut up a few potatoes, sometimes peppers, fennel or leeks. Herbs, fresh or dried ones in the form of a bouquet garni, usually are part of the mix as well. As is broth and, always, a little wine (white or red, depending on what’s on hand. Or what we are trying to find an excuse to open for…)

Besides the fact that it is simple and satisfying, doesn’t cause much prep nor clean up work and tastes even better when reheated a day or two later (please, make a mental note that there never is too much of it), “The Soup” offers one more very pleasant aspect: The longer it cooks, the better it tastes – and the longer and more deliciously it smells. The flavors just seem to melt into each other, deeper and deeper. The texture becomes smoother, thicker, more soothing, the chunks turn more tender over time. So don’t even try to stay under six hours! On the other hand, you can leave this soup on the stove for a whole day without having to worry about it. As long as the happy party gets a stir every hour or so, it will behave very well. – And so will the ones who sit down to supper that night. No matter how many there are.

eating the fish & seafood soup

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Swiss Kiss #4 – Rösti

cooked rosti

Rösti just has to be the most Swiss of all Swiss dishes. – It is not tied to a season as for instance Fondue (melted cheese) or strawberries with the insanely sweet cream from Gruyère are. It is not as expensive as is Zürcher Geschnetzeltes (strips of veal and kidney, served in a creamy sauce with mushrooms). It is not limited to a region like Luganighe (pork sausages) are to Ticino. It is never as time consuming as are Capuns (chard leaves with a filling of cured meats from the region, served with a rich cream sauce) or Pizzoccheri (hand cut pasta made of spelt flour, mixed up with greens, squash and/or meat, plus cheese).

And certainly no other dish lends its name to express an unofficial yet mentality wise very much existing division of the country: The so called Röstigraben (Rösti ditch) separates the vast eastern and central (Swiss German) part of Switzerland from the one to the west of Bern, a much smaller area in which people speak French. The Easterners always blamed the Westerners to be more French than Swiss – and used a dish to state the difference between the two regions: True Swiss eat Rösti. And halfway ones don’t. (So, and this now is official: Even tiny countries have their inner, little battles.)

Historically, Rösti is connected to the Bern canton, an area widely populated by farmers and mainly living of agriculture. Until this day the potato cake – what Rösti basically is – remains a popular breakfast on farms, where the workers eat it after a first round on the field or in the barn. And not only in Bern. Nowadays Rosti is cooked all over the place – including western Switzerland.

A plain Rösti usually stands as an accompaniment to some other foods. Classic partners are Bratwurst with an onion gravy, grilled Cervelats, blood and liver sausage, or chunky apple sauce. Often Rösti simply is topped with an egg sunny side up (or two), and served together with a salad. One or two easy additions can turn Rösti into a full and satisfying meal. Bacon cubes, grated cheese, onions or julienned vegetables* can be added to the potatoes. Or the finished Rosti can be covered with slices of cheese and broiled in the oven. – There’s no limits when it comes to Rösti. And not even the Röstigraben can change this…

potatoes, resting for roesti

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No Fairy Tale

caroline as child, skiing

Once upon a time there was a young girl sitting in the lunch room of a big chalet somewhere in the mountains of Berner Oberland. Like all the other boys and girls signed up for that ski camp, she just had arrived on a bus and was waiting to learn whom she would be put in a group with and when they finally could grab their skis and hit the slopes.

Restless and bored at once, the kids started to unpack the lunches they had brought from home. The sounds of aluminum foil being torn off, insulated bottles opened and apples bitten into took over the room.

Eating her thick and soothing butter, salami and cornichons sandwich, the girl all of a sudden noticed a boy sitting a few chairs down on the opposite side of the table. Or more so did she notice his lunch.

In the center of a square piece of wax paper sat a small disc of a soft cheese. With a pocket knife the boy cut what looked like perfect twelfth off the round. One at a time, slowly and focused. One at a time, he slid each single wedge off the knife’s blade onto the wax paper, picked it up with two fingers and put it in his mouth.

Tomme Vaudoise, cut

The diminishing disc looked like a fluffy white cloud slowly but surely disappearing. Watching the boy eat made the girl assume that the cheese simply melted in his mouth. And in the air she believed to suddenly find some seriously lovely aromas.

It was then and there that she fell in love. Not with the boy, but with the cheese. Not knowing its name didn’t matter. And even without having had one single bite, she knew it tasted wonderful. It was its charisma, the message the cheese sent that touched and tickled the girl. “I might be tiny and the only one in here, but I do stand out”, it said. “I am fragile but I have character. I am pure, innocent and beautiful.”

Not too long after the girl had returned from the ski camp, she met the cheese again. She had been looking for it in the cases and on the shelves of various cheese shops. And one day, there it was. Unmistakably. It went home with her.

They lived happily ever after. – And until this day I still am madly in love with Tomme Vaudoise*.

tomme Vaudoise, selection rolf beeler

*Tomme Vaudoise is a white mold rind, soft cheese from the region of the Vaud canton in western Switzerland. The best kinds are still made of raw milk and have a nicely yellow, very creamy to runny paste. The flavors are earthy and sweet at once, they remind one of mushroom, cauliflower and butter. The cheese is delicious on its own and goes very well with cured meats, especially a younger salami. Tomme Vaudoise can be heated in the skillet and top a salad, risotto, potatoes or polenta. Some people like to coat it with breadcrumbs or sesame seeds, or wrap it in bacon before warming up in the pan. – So, go play! Tomme Vaudoise is the best partner to do it with.