If you want to get a sense of contemporary Swiss culture and indulge in some of its pleasures, start by familiarizing yourself with the rituals of daily life. These are a few highlights—things you can savor with relative ease.
Cheese: The Swiss Cure
It was Swiss cheese that put the apples in the cheeks of the hardy little mountain girl named Heidi, the heroine earth-child who inspired Victorians to leave dark city streets for clear Alpine air; to rise early, work hard, and—first and foremost—eat cheese three times a day. For Heidi and Clara—for whom daily meals of cheese and goat's milk worked a mountain miracle—butterfat was a virtue; cholesterol a concept unborn. Today cheese is still a way of life in Switzerland, so every visitor has to try the famous fondue at least once (it may be a winter fixture, but tourists are allowed to eat it year-round). Once the Gruyère, Emmental, or Appenzeller is melted and skillfully mixed with a soupçon of garlic, a teaspoon of flour, and some white wine, the richly aromatic whole is brought to table in the pipkin and placed on a spirit lamp. Guests armed with long-handled forks then spear small squares of bread or meat and dip them into the steaming dish. But the eating of fondue is a fine art: each guest who fails to withdraw his morsel is called upon to offer a bottle of wine to the company—a lady, they say, pays with a kiss to whomever she chooses. Fondue is rendered all the more convivial by the tradition of downing a shot of 90-proof kirsch halfway through the pot: the coup du milieu.
What Makes Them Tick?
It lies on the beveled-glass countertop of Vacheron Constantin's Geneva store: centuries of technology compressed into a miniature of gold and glass, its second hand sweeping to a point within 10 seconds of when it reached the same point last month—Swiss precision in microcosm. The fact that Vacheron is the world's oldest manufacturer of watches (it sold its first sober design in 1755) underscores the fact that these mechanical gems, as they were, are also Swiss history. During the Reformation, Calvin banned gilded crucifixes and chalices, leaving scores of brilliantly skilled goldsmiths with idle hands. Before long, an industry was launched, which, to this day, makes you believe in national stereotypes: the Swiss are precise and persevering. You can see this when a factory worker neatly drops into place a minute hand the size of an eyelash; or in the gradations of firewood stacked from finest kindling to fattest logs with the geometric complexity of inlay at a country inn; or as you step off a train in Lausanne just as the second hand on the station clock hits the arrival time.
Yes, Swiss watchmaking is a science, but visit Geneva's Patek Philippe Museum of watches to be wowed by fantastical creations, brilliant colors, and awe-inspiring detail. Clearly, Swiss watchmaking is about much more than time.
How Now, Brown Cow?
Many images leap to mind when you think of Switzerland but surely only one sound: cowbells tinkling in happy indiscipline. This is a sound many travelers often later hear in their dreams, one that many wish could be "photographed." Even city slickers fall under the spell of Switzerland's cows. Get up close to these pretty brown-and-white livestock and you can smell their sweet breath—testament to all the succulent grasses (which also go in many of the world's top perfumes) they've munched. Newspapers have reported that Switzerland's cows are "stressed," so these days many of them get to go on "vacations" from factories to spend summers up in the hills. After all, without the milk of these cash cows, Swiss cheese and chocolate wouldn't be half as famous. Now if they could only create a breed that produces chocolate milk!
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