29 April 2011

Unholy Swiss Cheese: Gruyère

I don't like Swiss cheese. There, I said it. Now, I only mean "swiss cheese" in the American deli counter sense of the term - that mild, tangy cheese with the holes. Cheese from Switzerland is a whole other story, a personal favorite being gruyère. It's hard and earthy, a little sour, a little sweet. It can range from smooth and mild to chalky with crystals that bite at your tongue sharply. Chances are you've tasted it. Fondue is most often made using gruyère, as is the gooey lactic cover of french onion soup. It's usually that large, thin rectangular slab on a cheese plate. The wheels are huge, two feet in diameter and over 77 pounds, so slices don't really get much smaller.
Driving into the region, we saw and smelled cows immediately. Holsteins and "Swiss browns" (as they're known in America) dotted the green, rolling landscape and a pungent mix of manure and milk odor wafted through the crisp, clean air. The bovine are owned by cooperatives and their milk is delivered twice daily to whichever dairy is within 12 miles of their pastures. After the wheels are produced, the cooperatives are given some, which they age however they see fit (as long as the cave temperatures meet official Gruyère AOC standards). All of this means that the cheese is never branded as the product of an individual producer or fromagerie. Gruyère is gruyère is gruyère. The difference in type comes only from how long its been aged, where the pastures are located and in what season it was made. When the cows can feed on wild flowers and fresh grass, like right now, the cheese is said to be the tastiest.
The region - and the cheese - are named after the town of Gruyères. It is as picturesque as can be, with its castle atop the hill. There is not much more than a single, wide cobbled street and a few narrow side alleys in the namesake village. We found it mostly empty, with just two dozen or so tourists snapping pictures and loading up on black and white spotted souvenirs. Locals only eat fondue in the winter time, but in the little village, the sour scent of pots a-bubbling emanated from cafe after cafe.
We stayed at a farmhouse in Pringy, right outside Gruyères proper, and learned from our hostess that it belonged to a dairy cooperative. The cows out back contributed to our breakfast the next morning, a wedge of gruyère, bread and some homemade yogurt that Merlin mistook for cream (realizing his mistake when it separated upon contact with his coffee). Being as we'd only eaten bread and cheese for about 25hours at this point, the jar of prune jam on our breakfast table felt like an act of mercy. The farmhouse hallway was lined with prize ribbons and old cow bells. All throughout the region you could hear a chorus of them, ringing like a thousand mini church bells. The heavy, musical clang followed us everywhere, the percussion backing the wind section of the spring birds.
Above is the Maison de Gruyère, a larger scale fromagerie which conducts tours daily. It's also the only place I've ever seen include "alcohol-free fondue" on their menu. Doesn't the liquor in the wine cook off? We couldn't bear to go watching cheese being made for an hour while we felt so full of it. So, instead, we set off on a two hour hike between this dairy and the one at the top of Mount Moleson, where the very special "Alpage" Gruyère is made. Taking a look at these wheels once more and reasoning that we'd probably consumed about a third of one ourselves, we decided we'd tack on another trail and make our two hour hike a four hour one.
The walk, officially called "Sentier des Fromageries" was beautiful and steep. It took us through cow pastures, past wooden barns and dairies and over a dozen of these springs. Some emptied out into hollowed out logs , all provided water that was ice cold and very, very welcome. We didn't see many other walkers on our way, most likely because there are over 10 marked trails in the surrounding area - all of which were shorter and less difficult than this one. At the top of our climb (elevation: 1100 meters), we found the fromagerie (closed), a self-service cafeteria (which only sold wine by the half liter. When in Europe!) and an alpine coaster. Everyone else had arrived via cable-car.
In Gruyères, I had my very first fondue (not counting chocolate ones). It was everything I expected it to be: undeniably tasty, but not something I would just wake up and be in the mood for. My favorite thing about fondue: the fact that the long, skinny forks make the act of dunking chunks of bread into a bubbling pool of melted cheese seem dainty.

Castle Hunting: Chenaux

Castles are often like this - a jumbled collection of styles and parts fit together haphazardly and changed often. The fortress and house at Estavayer-Le-Lac, the grand castle/chateau Chenaux, is a great example of this process of modification, destruction and addition. Little of what is visible is original, yet it hasn't really been renovated or recreated. Instead, the walls have been pockmarked with new windows, closed in by townhouses, made indefensible and more glamorous, opened up for roadways and replaced with new materials. None of this was done with preservation in mind, and the rambling place is perhaps even more authentic feeling because of it.
The main building is currently occupied by a police station and off limits - unless you're brought in for booking, that is. The grounds around the prefecture are open for visitors, though, and are beautifully maintained. Carp swim in the pool and Lac de Neuchâtel is visible in the distance. A few people in suits (presumably men of the law) were smoking in the main courtyard, which served as a parking lot. The brick tower shown above, along with its twin on the other side of the main house, was one of the last defensive structures built here.
Here are two of the towers - there are 14 in all, spread around the town. The stone structure on the right was one of the original defensive buildings built here, in 1290. Some two hundred years later, the brick tower on the left was erected, in 1503. The difference in style is immediately evident, especially when they are separated by the chateau building between, which was turned into living quarters in the 1700's and then fitted with nice windows for the gendarmerie.
As you can see, it's lilac season in the valley towns of Switzerland. We have been surrounded by purple and white blossoms and the scent of late spring - a surprise, considering the elevation and the wintry conditions at home.
Anyhow, the walls of Chenaux are really quite long, but it's difficult to see them because they wind through recent buildings and cut through large swaths of fenced property. Here and there, they are approachable and sometimes even climbable. There is a poorly marked but interesting walk through the town that roughly follows the fortification's footprint. We meandered along it for about an hour, enjoying the sunshine and the warmth of the day.
An aside: Estavayer-Le-Lac is known as the city of frogs. We're not entirely sure why, though there is a nineteenth century collection of taxidermied examples housed in a local museum. This huge frog bench sat, seemingly aghast, in someone's front lawn. It really amused us and we would have sat on it, but there was a fence.
We left the town and immediately drove into a rainstorm. It was a satisfying picture day, with a lot of interesting bits and pieces to shoot. I must admit, when I first saw the big windows and wide open doors, I thought we were out of luck on the castle front - usually I like to go for real defensive structures instead of chateaus. It was a fascinating place, though, and had some great remnants of its pre-manorial self. Also, it was one of the lovelier castles we've been to, with magnificent views out over the lake and some very pretty grounds.

Why Don't They Have This in America?

In Switzerland, instead of parking meters that necessitate shoving your hand down car seat cushions or begging a local convenient store worker for change of a twenty in nickels, they use these. You simply turn the wheel at the top to signal your arrival time and observe whatever maximum time limit is allowed for your parking space.
Police officers are consistently prowling the streets, checking on times. So, there's definitely no way you can get away with setting your clock ahead or not returning before your time limit is up. It's brilliant, really. Parking is free if you follow the posted rules and you get a big fat ticket if you don't. Sounds pretty logical to me.
Since locals have a version of the clock that sticks to their windshield, these dashboard ones come with some helpful traffic tips for visitors. Ours includes a moving model which shows that you should use your blinker when exiting a roundabout. It was purchased at a chewing gum and lotto shop for 1 swiss franc.


Rivella feels like the national drink of Switzerland, and it seemed like a good starting point for us - it is a milk based soft drink, if you can imagine that, and seems perfectly at home in amongst the grazing bovines. Basically unchanged since its introduction in 1952, it is made from cow's milk whey, herbs, lactose (dairy sugar), carbonated water and some fruit extractions. It is basically clear and the label points out that it's made from pasteurized milk. Signs all over switzerland advertise the stuff; the logo adorns awnings and menuboards like Coca Cola or Budweiser does in America.
The original drink is sold in a bottle with a red and white label. Rivella light is sold with a blue label (pictured above). There's also "Rivella verte," or green tea rivella, in green. Apparently, there's also a yellow version, made with soy products instead of dairy. We haven't seen any yellow bottles yet, but we're looking out for them.
We are divided on the issue of taste. Rebecca hates it, I like it. We both agree that the green-tea flavor is the most easily approachable. Also, that the original is better than the low calorie version. Rebecca says that it tastes like sour cream soda (that can be interpreted two ways) or like a too-seltzery egg cream. I think it has a little bit more of a nuanced flavor. It's nicely unsweet and tastes grassy - the overriding flavor is more like burnt milk than sour milk, I guess.
I just read that Rivella tried to introduce the drink in America in 2004 but had little success. Also, Holland accounts for about ninety percent of the export market, which is interesting.

23 April 2011

CRF: Estonia

"CRF" is not a crime show you've never heard of, it stands for "Cutting Room Floor." Below are some of our favorite pics that never made the blog. We figured we'd reminisce a little while we're home for a visit. (Back in Europe April 26th).
Estonia was probably our favorite of the Baltic countries - we were there at christmastime, during a period of heavy snowfall and very little light. When the sun came up, it was magnificent. The sky had a pure, frozen quality that we liked. This picture was taken in Tartu, on a morning that we almost left the cameras at home. Soon after, we got nearly three feet of snow.
There were a lot of pictures - for whatever reason - that we could never fit into the Tallinn posts. This was a favorite, but it has nothing to do with anything else, so it ends up here.
We go to a lot of museums, but the toy museum in Tartu really stood out. It was a great collection and very well displayed. Someone must have had a lot of fun setting up all these little dioramas.

After a surfeit of castles in Latvia, we never got a good castle-hunt together. It would have been nice to do a post about the town walls of Tallinn, but it was hard to get any perspective on them because the streets in the old town are so narrow and have grown around the walls and engulfed them.
There were old women selling mittens and socks at all of the markets. We loved the patterns and colors. These mittens were purchased as gifts for our family - so we couldn't post a picture until after the holidays were over.
This was just a strange mannequin in the KGB cell museum in Tartu.
It was a beautiful christmas season, with long nights filled with christmas lights and lots of hoogvien.

20 April 2011

CRF: Latvia

"CRF" is not a crime show you've never heard of, it stands for "Cutting Room Floor." Below are some of our favorite pics that never made the blog. We figured we'd reminisce a little while we're home for a visit. (Back in Europe April 26th).
During the Soviet era, the Russian Olympic bobsled team travelled down to Sigulda, Latvia for training. While we were there, a group of teenagers walked around town in their matching red jumpsuits that said RUSSIA across the back. We never tried out the tourist bobsled track, but we did a lot of bowling at the alley above the grocery store.
The slow food market in Riga, understandably, didn't have much fresh produce. These apples were sad and frozen, but the napkin thrown on top seemed to be a truly inspired choice.
The Christmas tree lighting in Valmiera really marked the beginning of the holiday season for us and the town's market the next morning was our first attempt at gift shopping. More snow had fallen overnight and only the really game vendors showed up. Most everyone that was there lined up to pick apples out of the back of a minivan or queue at the frozen fish truck. The thought of making a lamp out of one of these legs occurred to one of us, but bringing it back to the family run restaurant we were staying above would have been awkard.
On a drive to Aluksne. Ice hockey is huge in Latvia and we saw more than a few basketball courts converted into ice rinks for the winter. This was the only puck action we saw and they were really going at it.
A plate of Latvian food. Trying to avoid egg-battered fish smothered in cheese or just about anything pork related, we found ourselves turning to slaws. Hot cabbage, cold cabbage, green, white or red. In the foreground is a scoop of "fur hat" which was a savory parfait, basically, made of chopped herring, egg salad, shredded beets and carrots. The colors were always so vivid and took away some of our pained yearnings for fresh vegetables.
Driving around Latvia, churches like this would pop up roadside. So many of them looked abandoned, boarded up. No matter how small a village was, there was a large, beautiful place of worship nestled into the woods.
The Riga market was the most impressive we've ever seen - still is. The first big snowfall had just covered the city and, inside, people visited the seed stands to dream about and plan their springtime gardens.

18 April 2011

CRF: Lithuania

"CRF" is not a crime show you've never heard of, it stands for "Cutting Room Floor." Below are some of our favorite pics that never made the blog. We figured we'd reminisce a little while we're home for a visit. (Back in Europe April 26th). Lithuania felt more exotic before we got there than it did in-country. Somehow, we were expecting the Baltic states to feel like outposts of civilization, on the edge of a frozen sea, far away from anything that was familiar. When we got to Vilnius, though, we found a mostly green, orderly place with friendly people and pretty old buildings. We contemplated doing a mailboxes post, which this picture would have been a part of, but never finished it. One day in Vilnius we came across a huge gathering of people listening to a bishop or cardinal give a blessing. This picture was taken from beneath an archway, atop which the man was standing. We later saw the event featured on the news - thousands of people packed the street in front of us here, all looking up above our heads. We never got a glimpse of the actual speaker, even though we were so close. Vilnius is a pretty city, with a compact and interesting old town. There are a number of low-key beauties amongst the buildings, and the crowds were thin enough that we never thought of it as too touristy. A wall of art pieces that we passed many times but didn't really notice until we saw it lit up at night. The Curonian Spit is one of the most fascinating and unique places that we've visited on the trip - made more so because it was the offseason and the whole strip of land had quieted almost to silence. Even the water in the lagoon was still and glassy. A riverbank art installation. We couldn't tell if this was a theater group or an advertisement, but it was interesting. Driving through the flat plains of the south country, we stopped at this little family graveyard. It was old and contained only a dozen or so graves, most with a similar tilt. We almost did a whole post about the place, but there wasn't much to say. We took a trip to Seda one rainy afternoon. It's a tiny town where some of Rebecca's ancestors lived before the war. Once primarily Jewish, the town is now a muddy huddle of small buildings, vegetable gardens and outhouses. We stopped into the library, looking for someone who could point the way to the old synagogue, which was located on the map but which we couldn't find. An ancient man was enlisted by the librarian to take us there. He moved extremely slowly and spoke no English. This is a picture of the synagogue. The whole story will be recounted another time, it's too long to fit here.

14 April 2011

Gypsy Kitchens: Tomato-Apple Bruschette

Bruchette are among the most common things one finds on Italian menus and restaurant tables. It's a good use for stale bread - bread goes stale when it sits out at a bakery all day, then is left unwrapped around the house for a few more hours. At our little campsite, we concocted a slightly unorthodox version with apples added to the mixture.
Lacking a toaster oven, we cut the bread up beforehand so that it would get harder faster. We bought pesto - which is sold from the deli counter at the supermarket - to spread on it as a kind of base layer.
We mixed tomato, apple and red onion with salt and olive oil for the top, then let it sit for a few minutes so that the flavors would meld with one another. The apples added a nice crunch to the tomato, and the pesto added the herb flavors we were looking for.

Things Sammarinese People Like

LinkCranes. Not the feathered type or the paper type, but the type that lift things. Warm weather always brings construction and in San Marino that involves a lot of cranes. It's a country built up the sides of a mountain, so it seems pretty logical- especially because a lot of the buildings they're working on are not only built on seriously steep hills, they are also surrounded by narrow streets that would never fit a construction truck.
We realized that there were so many cranes when we found ourselves saying, "Wow, that would be such a great picture if that crane wasn't there" multiple times per day. In fact, we toyed with the idea of publishing a post simply called "Great Pictures of Cranes Ruining Great Pictures." After a while, they just became part of the scenery for us. If you look at some of Merlin's favorite views, you can definitely spot a crane.
Double-Decker Tramezzini. Like aperitivo, this was a case of the Sammarinese taking something Italian a step further. A tramezzino is a sandwich traditionally made with an oversized piece of white bread (cut diagonally, de-crusted) and a simple filling. In San Marino, however, there were three pieces of bread (or 1 1/2, really) and two different sets of fillings. The combinations we ran into most often were tuna & artichoke + lettuce & tomato and mushroom & mayo + ham & cheese. I thought that it was pretty nice to be able to, essentially, have two tramezzini, but save eating a piece of bread. Merlin thought of it as having two tramezzini and getting one less piece of bread. We concluded that the Italian variety was better either way you (diagonally) cut it, because these were a bit of a mushy flavor overload.
San Marino Adventures is a pretty big deal here. It's the "biggest Adventure Park on the Adriatic Riviera," according to its promotional literature and you see signs for it posted along every major road in San Marino. We visited a few times, because the parking lot adjacent was a perfect home base for several hikes, and played with the idea of trying it out ourselves. In the end, we only watched as other people 'adventured' across ladders strung up high in trees and across zip lines. Laughing at people laughing at their loved ones who are not laughing at all as they try to untangle themselves from a net is pretty priceless.
Air Guns. We spent a lot of our two weeks in San Marino trying to figure out what the heck all the air guns were about. A set of google searches led nowhere. Are they legal here and not in Italy? Are there actual guns sold inside, too, that can't be advertised? Up in the Historic Center, the amount of military and arms-ccentric shops is baffling. We passed by seven of them just looking for postcards. Along with air rifles and air handguns, they sell camouflage duds, pocket knives, swords and the like.
Needless to say, we saw many a teenage boy and grown man carrying around sword-sized boxes. Initially, we figured it was some strange tourist thing - but then we saw Air Gun stores along the highway and in other parts of town devoid of tourist attractions. My theory is this: The three towers lend themselves perfectly to a sort of Medieval Times brand of tourism, which led to the Museum of Torture and the Museum of Modern Weaponry, as well as shops selling swords and shields. Over time, sword and shield shops evolved to include air guns and the tourism bureau pushed to get some sort of law in place making it easier and/or cheaper to buy those things in San Marino than in surrounding Italy. But that's just a theory.
Local Wine on Tap. Every bar and cafe had San Marino wine on tap. It was always the white, sparkling (frizzante) variety and shared the tap with either a German beer or Coca Cola. They like their wine on tap so much, that at most casual eateries, there's no way of ordering wine by the glass. You chose between 1/4, 1/2 or 1 litre, each of which would be placed on your table in a branded carafe like the one above. It's an excellent way of doing things, really. In San Marino, we drank tap wine and bottled water. (For the record: tap water is totally potable here, just -like most of Europe- not served in restaurants).
The Funivia runs from Borgo Maggiore to the Centro Storico, arguably the two most popular towns in San Marino. It seemed to be running constantly and the parking lot at the bottom was perpetually full. The fact that driving up and into the historic center is sort of difficult, parking is more expensive and access is quite limited adds to the funivia's popularity. There was a walking path up, as well - the Costa dell'Arnella Footpath - which Merlin and I preferred. We figured, the twenty minute climb was actually faster than waiting for the tram, yet we saw only three or four people (2 of whom were on mountain bikes) in our dozen or so trips up/down.
Looking down from the top, we could see why more people didn't take to the trail and why they all liked the funivia so much. Of course, you don't actually walk the 475 foot gradient straight up like the funivia, there are enough turns to make it pleasant. (It was still amazing, though, to see the mountain bikers coming up alongside us).

Honorable Mentions

L'Agretti. On a few hikes, we ran into people poking around in the grass with a stick while carrying a handful of weeds. Then, we had lunch at a restaurant in Serravalle and were served a vegetable called agretto, which looked like steamed dark green grass and tasted like sweet spinach. The proprietor told us that they don't have agretto in America and that it grows "right in the sand." The next time we saw a hiker doing some casual weeding, we put two and two together. If you're ever in an Italian or Sammarinese supermarket and see a bundle of vegetable that looks like chives, but firmer and with a purplish bottom, I highly suggest you get some and cook it up.

Guard Dogs.
Unfortunately, we learned how much the Sammarinese like these firsthand. Bark, bark, bark was basically the soundtrack to most of our walks anywhere close to a house. They were all very intent on protecting their owner's property. In fact, we didn't pass a single dog that didn't yelp and growl at us. Luckily, all of them were either fenced in or chained, which was comforting. Merlin thinks that the reason they were particularly aggressive was the fact that they were fenced in or chained. Chicken and egg.

Hello Kitty.
I have seen the following Hello Kitty branded items since arriving in San Marino: necklace, keychain, purse, backpack, sweatshirt, sweatpants, car visor, sunglasses and more that I'm sure I've forgotten. Babies, little girls and grown women all really like the pink-bowed feline. I definitely saw a commercial advertising a Hello Kitty powdered sugar sifter - for decorating cakes.