Cows and cheese and chocolate, let’s go Swiss

Let’s talk about Switzerland today. It was a short visit to the Fribourg canton but that didn’t keep me from falling in love with it. What’s not to love? Green pastures, black and white Friesian cows, Medieval walled cities and castles, chocolate, a nerdy Giger museum, Gruyère cheese and -I saved the best for last- double crème. Let me repeat that: Double Crème. You need those teletubbyish green pastures of La Gruyère and those pretty cows to create such milk and such a cream: 45% fat; 100% natural. A delightful experience, over meringue – Swiss of course-, blueberries or ice-cream. It doesn’t matter, just go for it! Don’t worry about the calories. You can burn them down hiking some trails or climbing up the Molèson, the Dent de Broc, the Dent de Chamois or some other hill. Feel like Heidi running down some slope and stop at a bouvette d’alpage, a traditional wooden farmhouse, to enjoy a real fondue.  A moitié-moitié with Gruyère, Vacherin and kirsch or the creamy and lighter vacherin-only. I’d say take some friends and try them both, along with a nice Fribourg white wine. Yeah, they have wines in Fribourg, and they are quite good. At the slopes of Mount Vully, at the shores of the Murten Lake, you can see the vineyards extending uphill under a blue sky – thanks to a microclimate in the area.

 

Let’s stick to cows, though, for now. They are the queens of La Gruyère, their milk is the source of the famous cheese made since 1115 that brought fortune to the Barons du fromage. It’s also essential for Cailler chocolatiers since Alexander Cailler came up with a formula to make chocolate with condensed milk at his factory in Broc. It is the only chocolate brand in the world that does not use powdered milk – which, by the way, was invented here by Maurice Guigoz in 1908. You can visit the Maison Cailler for an interactive tour about the story of chocolate and Swiss chocolate with a grand finale: a tasting of all the house’s varieties that will help you decide which ones you are going to buy at the shop. Because you are going to buy some. Don’t delude yourself. But save some money for La Maison du Gruyère, ‘cause that’s round two – and you cannot give me the lactose intolerance excuse this time as Gruyère is lactose free. Remember the best Gruyère is the alpage variety, made with summer milk, from the green, green pastures. La Poya, the transhumance of cattle up the meadows in spring is a huge event, as well as the alpage, its descent back in mid-September to spend the winter at the stables. The armaillies, the shepherds, in their traditional vests, parade their cows, dressed with flowers and big ornate bells, through villages. As I said before, cows are the queens of La Gruyère.

 

Overlooking all this, like a rocky guardian, the Moléson. If you don’t feel like climbing up, don’t worry, a cable car will take to the top (2002m) to enjoy a 360º view of the country. To the South, the Geneva Lake (no smoke on its waters though) and the Alps rising in front of us in all their mighty glory. To the North, Fribourg, less mountainous and greener. Among the people you may see some goats just roaming around the summit. And from here you can see several trails going down in different directions. I’d really love to come back just to hike (and then eat some double cream. And them some more. I think I’m experiencing withdrawal from it. Meringue, I can bake, but that cream is impossible to find in Barcelona).

 

According to legend, centuries ago, when Switzerland was the Roman province of Helvetia, tribes of Vandals invaded the then uninhabited regions of the Sarine valley. One of their chiefs, Gruèrius, found a spot sheltered by mountains, with good hunting and a rocky hill standing in the middle. He had climbed the hill to watch the sunset when a white crane just landed on his shoulder. Instead of freaking out- which I would totally understand- he took it as a good omen and declared the spot to be his promised land. There he settled. He named his new home Gruèrius –yeah, exactly, his name, like that. On that hill lays now the small village of Gruyères, of just 70 inhabitants, awarded the most beautiful village in the south of Switzerland.  Surrounded by a Medieval wall, its only street slopes up towards the castle – diverting at its foot to reach the church and the graveyard. It is a gorgeous town, its beauty only enhanced by the colourful flower arrangements in the windows and the central fountain. It is a bit surreal to find amid this idyllic postcard the HR Giger Museum, which exhibits the weird, obscure, deranged and sometime even disturbing works of the Alien designer – which needless to say I totally loved, big fan as I am of the original 1979 Ridley Scott film. The Swiss artist is buried at the village graveyard in a very plain grave. In front of the museum another unforgettable spot: the Giger Bar with a totally awesome and out of this world decoration. We didn’t have time to have a drink in it as we were late for lunch, a pity.

 

The Castle is amazing too, its highlight being the view of the French Gardens in bloom from the main balcony but totally worth a complete tour – it’s the second most visited in Switzerland after the one in Montreaux (and according to our guide much more authentic).

 

And speaking of authenticity, let me introduce you to the town of Murten, which I mentioned in the opening paragraph. We need to move away from La Gruyère to the See district and its lakes. It was early in the morning when we drove here from Fribourg – it’s just a half an hour drive really. We went straight up the walls. I could have spent the whole morning walking up and down the covered medieval walls with its wooden beams, overlooking the roofs of Murten – roofs made of pentagonal earth coloured tiles and dotted with dozens of thin chimneys, with the lake on the background. Gorgeous village.A postcard village. But there’s more. Our guide had a surprise for us: She took us to a kaffehaus – this is a German speaking town- to treat us with a nidelkuchen, or gateau du Morat in French, a cake with 5 thin coats of caramelized Gruyère double cream over a light brioche. To make it you need to put the cake 5 times in the oven to caramelize the layers of cream. It’s absolutely amazing!

 

On the other side of the lake, in Praz, we would have the honour of tasting a savoury version with crispy bacon. Also amazing. We took a boat to Praz – it’s not really necessary as there is a short distance by road, but it’s nice and circles the lake, stopping at several villages- to visit the Mount Vully vineyards. This area enjoys a sunny microclimate that favours the grape’s maturing in one of the smallest wine domains in the world. The owner of the cellar we visited told us that here is one of the few places where you can still make a living out of a small vineyard, with only 20.000 bottles per year. After a nice lunch by the lake – local fresh trout cooked with almonds-, we were back at the boat and back to Fribourg.

 

The city of Fribourg keeps one of the best preserved Medieval centres in Europe, you won’t find a single out of place looking building sticking like a sore thumb. The view from the Bass Ville up the hill, crowned by the cathedral, is absolutely harmonious. Capital of a canton in an extremely civilised country with a really low unemployment rate, this is a bilingual city, a cultural melting pot -80% of its 23.000 inhabitants are French speakers, the other 20% are German speakers. Curiously, most Germans can speak French but most French only understand German (why am I not surprised?). We are told patois is also spoken, and so is Boltze – the inevitable mix of French and German. There are no less than 67 listed buildings – including churches, civil architecture, private houses, bridges, walls, schools, fountains and a water ballast funicular connecting the Haute Ville to the Bass Ville – the last of its kind in Switzerland. 100% sustainable, it works with waste waters.

 

A nice city to loose oneself wandering its streets, admiring the views from the Route des Alpes in the Haute Ville, hiking the surrounding trails and hills, spotting the distinctive forged shops signs and the gorgeous flower arrangements in the squares, and trying to identify the architectonical style of the buildings, with a mix of French, Norse and Flemish features, testament to that cultural melting pot that is Fribourg. It is also a city of water, with 11 sculpted fountains, and several bridges ranging from the stunning wooden 13thC Berna Bridge – door to the German district in the lower city-, to the modern La Poya, the longest suspension bridge in Switzerland rising almost 1000m over the Sarine river, the 18thC stone Milieu bridge or the two-level Zäringhen bridge from 1924. And one of the most particular water elements of all, the walled swimming pool of La Motta, the only fortified pool in the world, build in 1923 by the city families to keep their kids from drowning in the river.

 

And it is not only a beautiful city but also a lively one. On the day of our arrival, we stumbled upon the Saturday market by the city hall – this is a farming canton which values its local produce “du terroir” and we got excited like children about some unusual (for us, that is) vegetables, like yellow courgettes or red spring onions, and about some local delicacies like the moutarde de benichon, a mustard made with botzi pears – a small autochthonous variety of fruit. And also about something very familiar to us, Catalans, mushrooms: cep (boletus edulis), horn of plenty (a black species we Catalans call death trumpet) and chanterelles – as it turns out Swiss share our penchant for mushrooms – it was September, the perfect time for them. There was even a chef cooking some mushroom rice for a charity event and its wonderful smell flooded the market. It made us hungry just in time for lunch. To that effect, we descended to the Basse Ville and treaded into the Gotteron gorge – a natural canyon with waterfalls, trails and roe deer just outside the German quarter, in the lower city. It was here were, according to the legend, lived the dragon that protected the city – and is today its emblem. Here at the entrance of the gorge we also find La Pinte du Trois Canards, a cosy restaurant offering local produce – it would be our perfect introduction to Fribourg gastronomy.

 

Curiously enough, all initiatives to nominate the city as World Heritage Site have met with the opposition of its citizens. Fribougers want a city to live in, functional, not a museum subject to certain rules which would hinder their daily routine. I totally understand.

Cream doesn’t get much better than this….

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