High spirits

If there is a food (and drink) paradise on Earth, it is Switzerland
Lunch at Europe's oldest vegetarian restaurant, Hiltl, in Zurich
Lunch at Europe's oldest vegetarian restaurant, Hiltl, in Zurich

On the edge of Lake Geneva, in the town of Vevey, a gigantic steel fork rises out of the water, like a shining emblem of the power and pleasure of food. It&rsquos an apt signature landmark for a town that prides itself on its gastronomic history. Vevey was the place where one of those great life-enhancing inventions &mdash the milk chocolate &mdash was first created, in 1875. It is also the birthplace of such universally loved comfort foods as Ovaltine, Maggi and Nescafé, invented by Nestlé, the world&rsquos largest food company which has its headquarters here (the giant fork sculpture in the lake is also courtesy Nestlé). But I am steered away from all things processed and packaged during my food safari in Vevey and its neighbourhood in the Lake Geneva region. Instead, I am offered a non-stop feast of the freshest harvest of fields, forests and lake &mdash so exquisitely presented, they look like still-life masterpieces transferred from canvas to plate. 

Spring is in the air in the Swiss Riviera, the impossibly picturesque stretch of coast along the shores of Lake Geneva, dotted with charming historic towns like Vevey, Montreux and Villeneuve. Wild white narcissus, like drifts of snow, grows thickly on hillsides, filling the air with a heady scent yellow dandelions are scattered like gold dust on green grass. The town squares are lined with chestnut trees just beginning to unfurl their pink-and-white blossoms tulips, hyacinths, wisteria and lilac form a pastel colour palette that is a balm for the eyes and soul. The elegant little lakeside towns, which enjoy a mild microclimate thanks to the moderating effects of the lake, have long attracted rich and famous settlers, as well as visitors from all over the world.

Among them was Rabindranath Tagore who came to visit the writer Romain Rolland in Villeneuve in 1926. Upon sighting The Poet with his burning eyes, flowing robes and generally Old Testament-prophet-like mien, the town buzzed with the rumour that God himself had arrived. It&rsquos a story that&rsquos still remembered by locals and related to Indian visitors. The rock musician Freddie Mercury (alias Farrokh Bulsara) was another Indian who frequented these parts, and whose memory is honoured &mdash his bronze statue stands in Montreux&rsquos main town square, overlooking the lake. Another prominent resident honoured with a statue &mdash this one facing the Big Fork &mdash is Charlie Chaplin who lived in Vevey for twenty-five years, until his death in 1977. A group of Gujarati tourists (true to stereotype, they&rsquove brought a cook along, and they&rsquore munching theplas) cluster round it to have their picture taken. &ldquoMake sure both the Tramp and the Fork are in the frame,&rdquo says one. &ldquoBechaara&nbspChaplin, he was always hungry, that&rsquos why he&rsquos looking at the fork.&rdquo 

Assuaging hunger seems to be a major preoccupation in Vevey, with its plethora of restaurants and gourmet food shops. And very well they do it, too, as I discover on my first day there, which begins with a lunchtime cruise on Lake Geneva in an elegant Belle Epoque steamer. As we drift past the medieval turrets and battlements of the thirteenth-century ch&acircteau of Chillon (which inspired one of Byron&rsquos most famous poems, &lsquoThe Prisoner of Chillon&rsquo), I lunch on duck ballotine served with a salad of algae, and skip the remaining courses. I&rsquom saving my appetite for dinner, which is at the Michelin-starred Le Restaurant, at the very grand Trois Couronnes hotel. This is a meal that dazzles with its less-is-more simplicity. The emphasis is on seasonal foods, heirloom vegetables, and herbs that grow wild in the spring, and there are no rich sauces to mask the natural flavours. Asparagus served with tiny deep-purple potatoes and fresh goat&rsquos cheese, is followed by perfectly grilled daurade flavoured with lemon zest, and a salad of lettuce hearts and dandelion leaves. I end with luscious strawberries served with an intensely flavoured berry sorbet and little shell-shaped madeleines, all of it washed down with the local Chasselas white wine (more about Chasselas later). It&rsquos a long, leisurely meal, stretching over two hours, but prepared with a light touch that doesn&rsquot leave one feeling overstuffed.

I have another memorable gourmet experience at lunch the next day. That morning I board the Golden Pass train at Montreux station in the company of a coachload of Chinese tourists, and head into alpine countryside in the Ch&acircteau d&rsquoOex region. My attempts at Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai meet with little success &mdash my small-talk conversation starters are met with a barrage of facts and figures about the great progress that China has made in recent years, delivered by an earnest young woman civil servant. At the end of her spiel, she bows formally, and then turns away to look at the scenery through her camera lens. The view from the train&rsquos panoramic windows is indeed enchanting brown-and-white dappled cows gambolling in flower-filled meadows forests with gurgling brooks picture-book-pretty wooden chalets. A couple of hours later, I am at the village of Rossini&egravere, sitting on the terrace of just such a chalet, overlooking the foothills of the Alps. This is the Jardins de la Tour restaurant, a magnet for gourmets in the region and winner of fourteen coveted Gault Millau points. Lunch begins with a delicate carpaccio of l&rsquoomble chevalier, a delicious fish from Lake Geneva. It nestles artfully on a bed of baby carrots and turnips, and plants foraged from the countryside &mdash bear&rsquos garlic (the broad leaf and the bud of the plant, both of which have a mild but delicious garlic flavour) and tiny blue alpine flowers. As I chew on those fragrant flowers, I begin to understand why Swiss cows, who spend their days grazing in alpine meadows, look so content and placid. The fish course is followed by filet mignon and r&oumlsti&mdasha hearty Swiss speciality of grated potatoes baked with cheese.

It&rsquos just as well that after this meal we&rsquore on our feet for the next couple of hours, watching the making of one of Switzerland&rsquos finest artisanal cheeses &mdash L&rsquoEtivaz. It is made by hand over an open fire, in copper vessels and only between May and October, when the cows are in high Alpine pastures. It&rsquos a rich and nutty hard cheese which finds its way into Europe&rsquos finest food shops, and each farmer&rsquos production is identifiable through a system of labelling. We realize how individualized is the making of this cheese from a true story we&rsquore told. An Etivaz cheesemaker lost her wedding ring, frantically searched everywhere for it, but with no luck. More than a year later, a shopkeeper in England cut a slice off a wheel of Etivaz to sell a customer, and came across the ring embedded inside. He informed the Etivaz farmers&rsquo collective, gave the number of the wheel of cheese, and the cheese-maker got her wedding ring back. Each wheel weighs around thirty kilos, and there&rsquos a laborious process of turning and salting each cheese over a period of at least eight months, until it is mature enough to eat. Etivaz dairy farmers have now invested in a robot to do this job &mdash we watch it at work, striding menacingly along the cellars where the cheese is stored, lifting and turning each one in its gigantic steel arms. A happy tasting session follows, and I decide I like the Etivaz best when it is around three years old, eaten in paper-thin slices, and accompanied by white wine.

There&rsquos more white wine to come the next day when we spend the morning at the Lavaux vineyards, a Unesco World Heritage Site covering the hill slopes for thirty kilometres along the shores of Lake Geneva, from Lausanne to Chillon. It took a Gallic gourmand, back in the eleventh century, to spot the vine-growing potential of this area. The Bishop of Lausanne, a native of Burgundy, got his monks to terrace the hillsides, build stone retaining walls along the terraces, and plant the grape vines. Lavaux vine-growers claim their wine gets its distinctive taste and quality from the fact that it receives the warmth of &lsquothree suns&rsquo &mdash the sun in the sky, the sun reflected off the waters of the lake and the sun&rsquos warmth from the stone retaining walls. Switzerland&rsquos superb wines are among the country&rsquos best-kept secrets &mdash they are not well-known internationally because production is small and most of it is consumed by the Swiss themselves.

We drive through Lavaux&rsquos beautiful heritage villages &mdash St Saphorin, Rivaz, Epesses &mdash to arrive at the home of a thirteenth-generation wine-maker, Patrick Fonjallaz, whose ancestor established the family vineyards, Clos de la Republique, in 1552. Patrick sits us down at his dining table, places four wine glasses and four bottles in front of me and begins his wine-tasting lessons. The first Chasselas wine I taste, Epesses Republique, is distinctly fruity the next one, a St Saphorin, is earthier &mdash it&rsquos grown in a different kind of soil. Then he pours me a deep yellow Passerille, a dessert or after-dinner wine, made from grapes that have been half-dried in the shade. &ldquoThe flavours,&rdquo he tutors me, &ldquoare of quince, apricot, peach, orange.&rdquo I dutifully note all this down, but my head is beginning to spin. Finally he decants a Grand Cru 2009 Pinot Noir. I protest that I can&rsquot drink any more. Patrick assures me I can his wines have very low acidity &mdash Chardonnays, for example, have seventy-five per cent more acidity &mdash and so I can drink a lot without any ill effects. We refill our glasses, I stop taking notes, and conversation and laughter flow as spirits (literally) rise. Perhaps to gauge just how high we are, Patrick poses a riddle &ldquoWhat walks with four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs in the evening&rdquo Stumped for an answer (solution at the end of this article), we totter off for lunch at the nearby Auberge de la Crochettaz, with its expansive view of Lake Geneva.

And here, we meet the ebullient, hospitable Norman Rodriguez, formerly of Siolim, Goa, who has lived and worked in Switzerland for the last thirty-five years. Norman has hit on a winning formula &mdash there&rsquos Indian food (in thalis if you want) for tour group Indians, and Swiss/French fare for locals. With Indian tourists to Switzerland having finally overtaken the Chinese, business is booming, and Norman has hired seven Indian chefs. His Chinese wife helps keep the restaurant running efficiently. My companions Pascale and Nicole tuck happily into daal, naan and masala grilled prawns, while I try his Coquilles St Jacques (scallops), done in classic French style, but with a clever desi twist of hara dhania.

Zurich is just three hours by train from Vevey, but it&rsquos a startling change of scene, from the bucolic, laid-back atmosphere of the Swiss Riviera to the big-city bustle and energy of Switzerland&rsquos wealthiest town. When you walk down Zurich&rsquos main street, the Bahnhofstrasse, you&rsquore literally walking on gold &mdash the big Swiss banks have their gold reserves stored in vaults beneath this street. And you&rsquore looking into the glittering shop windows of the world&rsquos top jewellers, watchmakers, couturiers and, yes, chocolate-makers too. After a quick stop at the Confiserie Spr&uumlngli &mdash their macaroons, known as Luxemburgli, are irresistible &mdash we sit down to lunch at the Carlton restaurant, as famous for its wine cellar as its food. The cellar has been painstakingly built up by Markus Segmuller (&ldquoI&rsquom a wine academic, not a sommelier&rdquo), who is a bit dismissive of the Lavaux wines as he extols the virtues of wines from Zurich and other German-speaking parts of the country. &ldquoTry this Stadt Zurich Barrique, which is quite like a Gew&uumlrtztraminer,&rdquo he says, as he pours me a glass of fruity white wine to accompany a melt-in-the-mouth veal mousse with Madeira sauce. &ldquoOur Pinot Noir is superior, and so are the Petite Arvine and Fendant, fine white wines from the Valais region,&rdquo he maintains. In Markus&rsquos wine cellar, I&rsquom intrigued to see all the 990 bottles are stored standing up &mdash &ldquoIt&rsquos been scientifically proven that there&rsquos absolutely no need to lie down the bottles,&rdquo he says, &ldquoas long as your cellar has the right humidity and temperature of 17&degC.&rdquo A hoary old wine-myth demolished.

After lunch we embark on a whistle-stop gastronomical tour of Zurich &mdash the Globus food hall where alphonso mangoes are selling for the equivalent of Rs 300 a piece the wood-panelled Odeon Café where Lenin sat and plotted the revolution the elegant Kronenhalle restaurant adorned with the works of Picasso and Miro who paid for their meals with their art the Laderach chocolate shop where I&rsquom presented sinfully rich truffles by the young man who&rsquos decorating them with intricate swirls of white chocolate. And finally, the Hiltl, the oldest vegetarian restaurant in Europe, where there&rsquos a table laden with good old peeli dal, chhole and samosas.

We take an afternoon break for espresso and chocolate cake at the Clouds restaurant, a glass cube perched on the thirty-fifth floor of a tower in the edgy West Zurich district. Once a neighbourhood of factories and mills, it has now been transformed into a vibrant scene of caf&eacutes, boutiques and theatres. From Zurich West we head to Zurich airport, where we spend the evening taking in a truly eye-popping show at the Radisson Blu Angels Wine Tower. The &lsquoAngels&rsquo are graceful ballet dancers who float inside a tall glass tower stacked with wine bottles, and perform incredible acrobatics as they fetch your drinks order. It&rsquos such a mesmerizing sight that my companions, Claudia and Elisabeth, and I have difficulty tearing ourselves away.

On my last day in Zurich we take a twenty-minute train ride up to the 869m &Uumletliberg mountain, for lunch at the Uto Kulm restaurant. The bracing mountain air whets our appetite for the excellent smoked salmon and cheese-filled ravioli. As I look out of the restaurant window, with its spectacular view of Zurich&rsquos cathedral spires, its silvery Limmat river, and its glorious, crystal-clear lake, I feel a pang that in a few hours I will leave all this loveliness behind for the 45&degC inferno that is Delhi in late May. I feel an even sharper pang as I realize how tight my clothes have become in just five days. I&rsquom amazed &mdash and shocked &mdash at how much food and wine I&rsquove managed to put away. But I&rsquove loved every mouthful of it, so now I guess it&rsquos time for a week-long bhuna chana and water fast, a la Sushma Swaraj.

(Answer to Patrick Fonjallaz&rsquos riddle a human being&mdashfour-legged as a crawling infant, two-legged as a young adult, and three-legged as a doddering oldie using a walking stick.)

The information

Getting there

Swiss has direct flights from Delhi to Zurich for approx. Rs 50,000 return. From Zurich airport there are frequent trains to Vevey and other destinations.


A 90-day visa costs Rs 4,200 for adults and Rs 2,500 for kids (6-12 years). VFS charges extra. Apply for a visa appointment a month before the date of travel (vfs-ch-in.com).


1 Swiss Franc (CHF) = Rs 62 (INR)

Swiss Riviera&ndashVevey&ndashChateau D&rsquooex

Where to stay

Hotel Astra, Vevey is conveniently located just opposite Vevey train station, with comfortable rooms, friendly service and superb breakfasts.(from CHF 278&nbspastra-hotel.ch). The Hotel&nbspTrois Couronnes, Vevey, established in 1842, is a luxurious palace hotel overlooking Lake Geneva and has long been a favourite of kings, emperor and movie stars. If you have deep pockets, you can&rsquot do better (from CHF 450hoteltroiscouronnes.ch).

Where to eat

Le Restaurant&nbspin the Hotel Trois Couronnes, Vevey, which has just won a Michelin star for its inventive Mediterranean-style cuisine (hoteltroiscouronnes.ch) merits a visit.&nbspLes Negociants&nbspis a local favourite, in the heart of Vevey&rsquos old town, with a wide ranging menu&mdashfrom steak to seafood to scrumptious desserts (hotelnegociants.ch).&nbspPoyet, Vevey for its mouth-watering display of artisanal chocolates, including one called &lsquoMumbai&rsquo with flavours of cardamom, cinnamon and tea and another called &lsquoKundun&rsquo, created in honour of the Dalai Lama, flavoured with lotus blossom (confiserie-poyet.ch).&nbspJardins de la Tour, Rossini&egravere, a small restaurant, housed in a wooden chalet, specializes in cuisine based on fresh local produce, impeccably prepared and beautifully presented by the chef-owner Patrick Gazeau (lesjardinsdelatour.ch). At&nbspClos de la Republique, Epesses, Lavaux vineyards, taste owner Patrick Fonjallaz&rsquos superb wines, visit his cellars and be entertained by his tales (patrick-fonjallaz.ch), while at Auberge de la Crochettaz, Epesses, Lavaux vineyards, run by Goa-born Norman Rodriguez, sample their Indian food as well as the fondue and other Swiss specialities (crochettaz.ch). 

What to see & do

Take a 90min&nbsplunchtime cruise&nbspon Lake Geneva from Vevey&rsquos pier up to Chateau de Chillon and back, in a lovely Belle Epoque paddlewheel steamer, run by the CGN company (cgn.ch).Wander around Vevey&rsquos historic old town, with its covered marketplace, cobblestone streets and heritage buildings, including the house where Jean-Jacques Rousseau stayed and wrote his Confessions.&nbspAlimentarium Museum&nbspin Vevey, founded by Nestlé, has interesting displays of all things food-related, from still-life paintings to vintage food packaging, porcelain tableware, and a fun interactive section where you can experience the difference between crunchy, chewy and crumbly textures (alimentarium.ch). Drive through the pretty&nbspheritage villages&nbspof Rivaz, St Saphorin and Epesses amidst the terraced Lavaux vineyards, a Unesco World Heritage Site. For more information on the Wine Route&nbspalong Lake Geneva see montreuxriviera.com. The largest wooden chalet in Switzerland, built in the 17th century,&nbspGrand Chalet, Rossini&egravere was the home of the famous painter Balthus. His Japanese widow now lives there. Special exhibitions are held in its great hall (swissinfo.ch). Take a guided tour of the&nbspEtivaz Cheese Cellars and Shop, close to Rossini&egravere, then taste and buy the delicious cheese at the shop next to the cellars (the Swiss, by the way, eat 19kg of cheese per head per year and are all the healthier for it etivaz-aoc.ch). You can also watch the cheese being made in copper cauldrons at&nbspLe Chalet, in nearby Chateau d&rsquoOex, in a rustic log cabin (lechalet-fromagerie.ch).


Zurich Tourism&nbspruns a very helpful and friendly office at the main railway station. Stop in to collect brochures, maps or find a hotel that suits your budget. And do buy here the Zurich Card, available for 24hrs (&euro 20) or 72hrs (&euro 40)&mdashit gives you free travel on all public transport (tram, bus, rail, boat, cable car) in the city and its vicinity free entry to most museums, as well as shopping&nbspdiscounts (zuerich.com). 

Where to stay

I stayed at luxurious, &uumlber-efficient&nbspPark Hyatt Zurich, with stylish modern d&eacutecor and large comfortable rooms. It boasts a bamboo grove in the middle of its foyer, museum-quality modern art on its walls, and is centrally located, a short walk from the Bahnhofstrasse (from CHF 550 zurich.park.hyatt.ch). The 5-star&nbspWidder Hotel&nbspis also an architectural masterpiece nine historic houses in the heart of town have been ingeniously converted into a harmonious whole. If your pockets aren&rsquot deep enough to stay here, at least have a drink in its beautiful library or bar (from CHF 650 widderhotel.ch).

Where to eat

Carlton Restaurant&nbspon Bahnhofstrasse, in an elegant art deco building, and with a fabulous wine cellar. Let master sommelier Markus Segmuller choose the wine for you (carlton.ch). Everything at&nbspConfiserie Spr&uumlngli, the famous chocolate shop on Bahnhofstrasse, is sinfully irresistible. Fact the Swiss eat 11.6kg of chocolate per head per year. Story it&rsquos a favourite hangout for bored wives of rich Swiss bankers, and if you spot one who places her spoon upside down on her saucer, it&rsquos a signal she&rsquos looking for romantic adventure (spruengli.ch).&nbspL&aumlderach&nbspis another famous chocolate shop, where each confection is a work of art (laederach.ch). Established in 1898,&nbspHiltl&nbspis a Zurich institution, and Europe&rsquos oldest vegetarian restaurant. The original owner converted to the vegetarian cause when he found that a meatless diet cured his rheumatism. Help yourself from the buffet, get your plate weighed, and you get the bill. Desi khana also on offer (hiltl.ch).&nbspZeughauskeller&nbspis another Zurich institution. This cosy, lively establishment in Bahnhofstrasse dates back to the 15th century and serves hearty local specialities at reasonable prices. Try the Zurcher Geschnetzeltes&mdashveal in a cream and wine sauce (zeughauskeller.ch). Visit&nbspOdeon Café/Bar, an atmospheric place on the banks of the Limmat. Among its famous former regulars Lenin, Mussolini, Einstein (odeon.ch).&nbspClouds&nbspis a fashionable bistro/bar in Zurich West, on the 35th floor of a tower, with spectacular views of downtown Zurich (clouds.ch). At&nbspRadisson Blu&nbspAngels Wine Tower Bar, check in for your flight a couple of hours early, and watch the spectacular &lsquowine angels&rsquo float around and perform acrobatics inside a glass tower as they fetch your drinks. There&rsquos a show every hour, with LED lights (radissonblu.com/hotel-zurichairport).&nbspUto Kulm, at the top of Mount &Uumletliberg, is a great place for lunch, with its panoramic views of Zurich, the surrounding countryside and the distant Alps. Work off your lunch with a walk in surrounding forests (utokulm.ch). At&nbspFischstube, have your evening aperitif overlooking Zurich&rsquos lake (fischstube.ch). 

What to see & do

Take a cruise on Lake Zurich, on a boat run by the&nbspLake Zurich Navigation Company. Lunch and dinner cruises are also on offer (zuerich.com or zsg.ch). Drop in at the lovely&nbspChinese Garden&nbspon the lakeside (a gift to Zurich from its twin city Kunming). Right next to it is the last house built by Le Corbusier, a minimalist structure with steel, enamel and glass panels and a &lsquofloating&rsquo roof. It&rsquos now a museum dedicated to his work (centrelecorbusier.com). Visit the&nbspFraumunster Cathedral&nbspwhich has exquisite stained glass windows by Marc Chagall on biblical themes. Feast your eyes on the truly outstanding collection of Indian miniature paintings at the Rietberg Museum, set amidst expansive gardens. They also have a fine collection of Gandhara and Chola sculptures (rietberg.ch).

Related Stories

No stories found.
Outlook Traveller