“A big bowl of hot boiled potatoes and some cheese? For fifty people?”
Peter’s and my wedding had been in the US. Now my in-laws wanted to give a buffet dinner for us in Bern, to celebrate with Swiss family and friends. When Peter told me the main course, I was . . . well, I was flabbergasted.
“You mean melted cheese, like fondue, to dip the potatoes into?”
“No,” said Peter. “Lots of different kinds of cheeses—to slice.”
“Raclette cheese, the kind that melts on the potatoes?”
“No,” repeated Peter mildly. “Potatoes boiled in their skins and a big platter of all sorts of cheeses. In Bernese dialect it’s called Gschweuti mit Chäs.”
“Won’t there be any crackers? Or bread? Something to eat with the cheese?”
We were newlyweds. Peter kept his patience admirably. “You eat potatoes with the cheese.”
And that was what my in-laws served. Everyone at the party ate it happily. In Switzerland, you see, cheese goes with everything. Or nothing. It’s a core food.
Cheese—probably in the form of curds—comes up in Pliny the Elder’s account of the Helvetii, the Celtic precursors of today’s Swiss who squared off with Julius Caesar. In 1115, cheese from the Count of Gruyères’s lands gets its first written mention; Emmentaler cheese, the one with the holes, in 1273. But even before their names were written down, Swiss cheeses were certainly being eaten, because cheese, whether fresh or aged, soft or hard, gave peasants a way to preserve milk.
Poor people in early medieval Switzerland lived on Mus: a gruel or porridge of mixed grains and vegetables, often from the cabbage family. But as they began to own or at least tend cows, sheep, and goats, cheese entered their diet. Eventually it became their main food. For a long time the wealthier classes didn’t eat cheese; they considered peasant food.
For centuries the Senner or Sennerinnen were crucial to the production of cheese. These herdsmen or herdswomen drove the cows up to the Alpine meadows in the spring and brought them down again in the fall, living in the meantime all summer in the mountains with their animals. Every morning and evening the cows were gathered in and milked, and then, before the milk could spoil, it had to be made into cheese. During their months on the Alp, the herders lived on milk, cheese, butter, fresh curds and whatever dried provisions they’d been able to bring with them. At the end of the summer, the great wheels of cheese they’d made were brought down from the Alp on the herders’ backs, fastened to a wooden contraption called a Räf.
Today young Swiss still take summer jobs on a mountain, tending cows and making cheese. Although the huts they live in may have only an outdoor pump instead of running water, their cheesemaking equipment is much more modern than the cauldron over a fire that the traditional Senn used to use. And the cheeses they produce are usually ferried out each week by four-wheel-drive or even helicopter, when fresh provisions for them are also brought in.
Although cheese with potatoes is considered very traditional Swiss cuisine, potatoes—a New World food—weren’t accepted as normal fare until well into the nineteenth century. Noodles became common even later in the century, introduced by the Italians who travelled across the border to work on the extraordinary number of roads, tunnels and bridges built in the Alps. Nevertheless, potatoes and pasta are the basis for one of the simple cheese dishes that is considered typically Swiss: Älplermagronen or alpine macaroni. It’s a main dish intended to fill someone up with cheap, easy-to-produce comfort food.
To make it, you cut potatoes into small cubes and boil them in salted water, adding pasta (traditionally penne) in time for both potatoes and noodles to be done at the same time. Draine them, and then, in a buttered baking dish, alternate layers of the potato/pasta mixture with plenty of grated Gruyère cheese. Put the dish in the oven at a low heat that will melt the cheese but not overcook the potatoes. In the meantime, warm up half a cup or more of cream (the Swiss think nothing of dousing what they eat in heavy cream); season it with salt, pepper and nutmeg; and pour it over the potatoes, pasta, and cheese. While the casserole is staying warm in the oven, slice an onion or two into thin rings, dredge the rings in flour, and fry them in butter until they’re crisp.
Top a plateful of Älplermagronen with the fried onion rings and serve it with a bowl of homemade Apfelmus (applesauce). If you want a meal with even more cholesterol, you can add crisp bits of bacon to the potatoes before you layer them with the cheese.
Now that’s a dish that will give you the stamina to chase cows around the Alps all day long.