Three weeks ago, while on a tour of Switzerland, something obvious suddenly struck me as I was crossing Lake Brienz by boat to catch the Golden Pass Line panoramic train on the other side, in Interlaken. Switzerland is much more than a wonderful place for skiers, hikers and chocolate lovers. It could be a fantastic place for paddlers too, with its numerous large mountain lakes almost void of motor boat traffic and circled by huge mountain chains, like the Alps. And one can easily get around by using a combination of boat and train, thanks to the country’s amazing public transportation system. For instance, you can board the Golden Pass panoramic train for an hour and half; then, if you want, get off the train and take a large, comfortable boat which crosses a long and narrow lake for an hour or two. The views are always breathtaking. Then, on the other side of the lake, you hop onto the train again, cross a few lush valleys covered with prairie flowers and milk cows while your luggage follows to your final destination. Oh, and, by the way, while on the boat, you can treat yourself to a lovely authentic Swiss meal washed down with Swiss wines, like the excellent Chenin Blanc.
Paddling on huge lakes
It’s during one of those wonderful and relaxing crossings that I came to realize that this country could be an excellent paddling destination if only there were an infrastructure in place to allow for kayak rentals on those large bodies of water. Along with my one of my travelling companions, André, whom, I learned, was also an avid sea kayaker, I started to dream out loud about a float of Swiss kayaks awaiting us in each lake port, just as large floats of bicycles are available in city train stations, allowing travelers and city dwellers to wander around easily. But we’re not yet there with paddling sports. No kayaks are to be seen on the breathtaking lakes of Switzerland yet. So far, the only way for paddlers who would love to visit Switzerland by train and by kayak is for them to have their own foldable or inflatable yaks and to carry them around. Which is not very realistic for most people in our little community.
Perfect food for paddlers
But then, another idea came to me as André and I were chatting about sea kayaking while savouring the wonderful rösti, a national dish that’s made with grated potatoes, and, in some cases, bacon, cheese and eggs. I suddenly realized that Swiss cuisine is the perfect fare for a hungry paddler, with its dried beef, smoked trout, excellent aged cheeses such as Gruyere, Vacherin or Emmenthal, sturdy potatoes, onions or apples. It came to me in a flash that the mountains and the “sea” reached one and another seamlessly in that lovely country through its food. Traditional Swiss foods need to age well and also accommodate huge appetites sculpted by the demanding alpine lifestyle, with milk used for cheese making, excellent chocolate, root vegetables that can keep all winter in the cellar of any mountain retreat, and dried, cured meat that’s almost indestructible… These criteria fit perfectly with paddlers’ needs, since we could chow down on a few dinosaur ribs for dinner after a long day spent on the water, but are also always challenged with keeping food safe over long periods.
The other advantage of traditional Swiss cuisine for paddlers is that it is simple and quick to make and a lot of recipes are “one pot dishes”. So here are a few suggestions to throw yourself into the food culture of Switzerland during your next paddling trip.
Rösti (pronounce reu-shti) (4 portions)
My friend Ursula, who was born in German Switzerland, told me that there are many ways to prepare this traditional and robust dish: either as a perfect side for meat and vegetables or as a complete meal, garnished with a fried egg. It’s a bit like hash browns. The version I’m proposing is meant to be a sturdy meal for big appetites. Just remember to pack a small grater when you plan to cook this easy camp meal.
- 1 large onion, finely diced
- 6 large cooked Yukon Gold potatoes
- 4 tbsp clarified butter (also called Ghee) (available in most supermarkets, it keeps for weeks at shelve temperature and can be used to grill food without burning or turning brown)
- 6 tbsp precooked bacon bits, vacuum packed
- 1 1 / 2 cups grated authentic Swiss Gruyere cheese (or Emmenthal)
- salt, pepper and paprika to taste
Using one tbsp of clarified butter, cook the onions until translucent over medium heat. In the meantime, grate the potatoes using a grater with large openings, add salt, pepper and paprika. Melt the rest of the butter in the pan, add the grated potatoes and brown over medium heat, mixing gently from time to time. Add the cheese and the bacon bits and heat the mixture until the cheese is melted. (In luzern, I ate the same dish garnished with a fried egg on top.)
Dried beef summer salad (4 persons)
- 12 slices dried beef (at your local supermarket or in specialty butcher shops)
- 6 slices of Tilsiter or Emmenthal cheese
- 1 large sweet onion, such as Vidalia, very thinly sliced
- 2 pinches dry thyme
- 1 tbsp dry parsley
- 2 tbsp aged Balsamic vinegar
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 2 apples, diced and sprinkled with vinegar to prevent oxydation
Cut the meat and the cheese in small slices, alternating while placing it on a plate. Add the onion rings, apples, vinegar, olive oil, herbs. Serve with whole wheat bread.
Swiss cheese fondue (4 servings)
This dish is very easy to make at your base camp. It is delicious with bread but also with mushrooms, broccoli, cauliflower and cooked carrots. Here’s a simplified version for paddlers, with no Kirsh.
- 8 slices of dry whole wheat bread, cut in 1 inch pieces
- 1 clove of garlic, crushed
- 3 tbsp all-purpose flour
- 1 1/2 cup Gruyere cheese, grated
- 1 1/2 cup Vacherin or Emmenthal cheese, grated
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
Put the cheese, garlic, flour and white wine in a pot, over low to medium heat and stir constantly until the mixture is melted. Serve immediately.
Swiss inspired sauerkraut (4 servings)
- 1 can Sauerkraut, rinsed and drained
- 2 - 8 oz dry sausages known as “gendarmes” in Switzerland (or any dry sausage)
- 1 large onion, finely diced
- 1 large carrot, grated
- 1 large potato, finely grated
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 1 cup water
- 1 tsp dry cumin seeds
Dice the sausages into small bits. Pour the sauerkraut into a saucepan, add the wine, water, sausages, and vegetables. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, cover and cook over low heat until the vegetables are tender (about 15 minutes). Serve immediately.
Uri – Älplermagronä (Swiss macaroni and cheese served with apple sauce)
- 3 cups elbow pasta
- 4 tbsp butter
- 1 large onion, finely diced
- 4 tbsp all-purpose flour
- 2 cups milk made with dry milk powder and water
- 1 cup Gruyere Cheese
- 1 cup Emmenthal Cheese
- 1 cup unsweetened apple sauce
- 2 tbsp dry parsley
- 1/2 tsp dry nutmeg
- salt and pepper to taste
In a skillet, fry the onion in 1 tbsp of butter until browned. Remove from pan and set aside. Put some salted water in a large pot. Bring to a boil and cook the pasta until done but still al dente, 6-8 minutes. Drain. In the skillet used to cook the onion, pour the flour and the remaining butter and cook over medium heat until it looks like a nicely mixed paste (3-5 minutes). Add the milk and mix well to prevent lumps. Keep mixing until the mixture bubbles. Lower the heat and cook for another 15 minutes or until the sauce is thicker. Add the cheese, the parsley and the nutmeg and cook until the cheese is melted. Add salt and pepper to taste and poor over the pasta. Mix well. Transfer the macaroni onto 4 plates, garnish each with the fried onion and add 1 / 4 cup of apple sauce on the side.