Swiss Adventure: Skiing and Feasting

The feasting outranked the skiing on our recent trip to the Swiss Alps. During our almost week-long visit we had only one day of glorious sunshine.  The rest of the time it was foggy, overcast with heavy gray clouds, even a bit of snow. After this winter of incredible snow falls with a meter and a half already on the ground, more was not needed. The clouds meant the mountains were no where to be seen.  And, my bad knee gave me problems which kept me off the slopes most of the time. However, thanks to our friend Ortrud, we ate very, very well.

Skiswiss3 Ortrud and her husband Kurt are German friends who have a home in a Provencal village not far from us.  They invited us to their Swiss "cabin" in Radons for winter fun. Radons, elevation 1,900 meters, is a tiny hamlet of no more than 20 houses. It is located in the Swiss canton (state) of Grisons in eastern Switzerland bordering Italy to the south and Austria to the north, about 40 kilometers from that jet set haven, St. Moritz.  In Grisons, they speak Rhaeto-Romanic, Switzerland's fourth official language after German, French and Italian.

The weathered wooden houses in Radons were built by farmers about 200 years ago. They came to the hamlet in summer months so their livestock could graze in the mountain pastures. Kurt and Ortrud's house is the only "new" structure, built some 40 years ago by Ortrud's father. Today there are about 50 inhabitants in Radons, but no one lives there year round.  All are Swiss, with the exception of Kurt and Ortrud, and many from Zurich who come for ski holidays  or summer vacation. There are also a few farmers whose cows still graze on the surrounding slopes in summer.

Getting to Radons and the cabin was a challenging adventure.  The one road leading to it is buried under snow in the winter.  There is a snow-trail from a parking lot at a ski lift about 15-snow mobile minutes from our friends' home.  We parked there, then loaded all our gear (lots as we had both downhill and cross country skis, boots, clothes and food supplies) onto the local "taxi," a trailer with eight open seats and a compartment for luggage pulled by a snow mobile.  It was a chilly ride through the woods to their house, the last in the village and atop a hill.  The taxi stopped at the bottom.  We had to lug all our stuff up the slope through deep snow. The access path had long been buried in white stuff. Reaching the top was tough enough.  Loaded down it was an athletic feat requiring stamina and coordination.  I am lacking in both departments and fell more than once, dropping my charges.

The cabin is cozy and inviting,  wood-paneled with three bedrooms upstairs and the kitchen, living and dining area on the first floor — all warmed by a wood-burning stove.  We celebrated our arrival and conquering the wicked hill with an aperitif of champagne, foie gras and bread with a white truffle spread.

The first day was the best with plenty of sunshine and spectacular views of the surrounding mountain peaks.  I joined Axel, Ortrud and Kurt's son who is a student in Sweden, and his girlfriend Carolina, both snowboarders, for a trek to the slopes. Those above Radons belong to the ski area Savognin.  Unfortunately the nearest lift is a lengthy jaunt from the cabin, but once there the skiing is excellent, mainly wide-open red runs accessed by chair lifts with no waiting lines.

The next day Bicycle Bob, who much prefers two wheels to two boards, joined me and Ortrud on the ski mountain, but the weather and visibility worsened during the day.  We took refuge in a mountain restaurant.  Another sunless day Bob and I got out the cross-country skis for a few runs around the prepared track which passes right at the bottom of the cabin.  We hiked on a snow trail yet another day. 

We didn't need sunshine to enjoy our evening feasts.  Ortrud is a cook extraordinaire.  She was a dietician in a hospital, then took a special course to become a chef and was the head of a hospital kitchen of 20 employees.  I loved helping her in the kitchen.  Unlike me who follows recipes, she cooks from instinct — a little of this, more of that — and dreams up tasty concoctions using the supplies on hand. There's the challenge.  There are no stores in Radons.  The closest shops are at the bottom of the mountain, the  snow taxi ride followed by a trip in a car, at least a half-hour and expensive.  A one-way trip in the taxi costs about $60. A less-expensive alternative is the Snowliner, a type of snow tractor with an indoor cabin which makes several roundtrips a day from the ski lift to Radons, cost about $8.50 one way. However, there's not much room for shopping supplies.

Ortrud fills up the freezer and attic store room with supplies during summer months when access is easier.  Still, much must be transported in winter. I was impressed with her culinary ingenuity. Spaghetti bolognaise, rack of lamb, steak, fish rolls, and reindeer filet were among the main courses we savored.

Axel brought the reindeer from Sweden.  2009_0111skiswiss0065   I helped with "surgery" on the raw meat.   All the tiny tendons must be delicately removed.  Ortrud browned it, then roasted it, and made an exquisite sauce with the meat scraps, chopped onion, grated ginger, cinnamon, pieces of tangerine, rosemary, salt, honey, Preiseelbeeren (German cranberry) sauce and red wine.  At the end she added fresh chanterelles.

After a first course of escargots with garlic butter, we relished the reindeer served with poached pears and cranberry sauce, red cabbage and dumplings.  I had brought brownies and lemon bars which made dessert for several evenings.  It was a three-star meal.

The men did their share in the kitchen, too.  Kurt was the "bread engineer," using a package mix to whip up different kinds of delicious breads.  My favorite was ciabatta.  After rolling out the flat dough, he smeared it with pesto, then rolled it. It was a fabulous midnight snack one evening, warm from the oven with red wine.

Bicycle Bob, also dubbed "Mr. Health Himself" by one of his daughter's former boyfriends, begins his day with a health melange of grains, yogurt and fresh fruit.  We brought an ample supply of fruit. He meticulously cuts up the fruit for an exquisite fruit salad, which not only served as a breakfast addition, but also filled in for desserts several nights — after the brownies and lemon bars had been consumed.

See photo gallery for more.

Cuisine Nicoise

Food for me is one of the highlights of travel.  I love to sample local specialties, discover new flavors and tastes.  Before we headed to Nice, I did some research on its cuisine and restaurants where we could try traditional dishes.  There's much more than salade nicoise although that was an entree at Chez Palmyre, a tiny restaurant in Vieux Nice I had read about.  There was nothing special about the food (good but basic), however the price (14 euros or $11 for four courses) and the ambience merit a visit.  It's a neighborhood kind of place where the diners, a total of 24, greet each other with the obligatory air kiss on each cheek.  Suzanne, the owner, takes orders, then shouts them to the cook back in the kitchen.  Chez Palmyre dates back to 1926 and has become a Nice institution.

As is La Merenda –another mini place with room for just 24 customers who sit on stools which would Nice.food2 be more at home in a kindergarten classroom.  The restaurant is mentioned in almost every article I had read about Nice.  The challenge is to get a table as La Merenda has no phone. You just show up early in the day and request a place for  later.  While waiting for our food, we struck up a conversation with the man at the next table, just centimeters away. Larry, a soon-to-be 50 New Yorker who just "came into some money," had quit his job and was traveling the world. He also has a blog:  www.intrepideaterreturns.blogspot.com

With a title like that, no wonder he ordered tripe as his main course. Bicycle Bob went with another signature Nice dish: stockfish.  The fish is soaked for five or six days in running water.  Its weight triples.  Then it is simmered with onions, tomatoes, garlic, black and green olives, bell peppers, olive oil and a few potatoes.  I tasted it — not for me.  I was happy with boudin, blood sausage served with a mashed potato/onion combination and applesauce.  All three of us began the meal with an entree of  stuffed sardines, truly excellent.  As Bicycle Bob doesn't consider a meal complete without dessert, he ordered lemon tart, another winner. 

We were guests of the Nice Tourist Office for lunch at L'Escalinada where we began a wonderful meal with La Ribambelle, the restaurant's combination entree plate with squid, octopus, grilled red pepper and beignets, airy, melt-in-your mouth fritters of eggplant and zucchini: a fabulous combination that was a meal in itself.  A large bowl of chick-pea salad was also placed on the table.  We learned that when Nice was part of Savoy (Italy),during much of the first half of the 19th century, it could not trade with France, so it looked to North Africa. Much of the Nice cuisine still has that influence.

The restaurant's menu listed some local favorites, such as Testicules de mouton panees (translation not required) and Merda de can ("dog shit" in the local dialect).  Not to worry, it's actually gnocchi with Swiss chard.  We played it safe.  I chose scampi for  my main course, while Bicycle Bob went with wild rouget (red mullet).  We were both more than satisfied.

We dined at yet another restaurant specializing in cuisine Nicoise, Lou Balico.  L'omlette de poutrine is considered a local delicacy.  I had to try it.  We had seen poutrine at the market — miniscule, silvery fish caught only in February and March. The omelet was delicate and light, but a bit on the fishy side.  Bicycle Bob opted for rabbit with a tapenade sauce.

"You know, I'm not really thrilled with this traditional food," he remarked after this meal.  So, for our last adventure in Nice dining, we went to La Zucca Magica, (the magic pumpkin), a vegetarian restaurant run by Italians.  We're not vegetarians, but it was our favorite.  It's also a favorite of Mark Bittman, the New York Times food writer.

The decor is pumpkins and gourds and squash — hanging from the ceiling, on the tables and window sills, depicted in paintings and photos on the walls.  It's dimly lit with flickering candles, cozy and inviting.  There is no menu.  You take a seat, order some wine, and food starts arriving — five different dishes, one after another.

We started with a pesto, cheese and artichoke creation that was heavenly.  Then soup, a blend of spinach and ricotta with a hint of nutmeg, followed by a "pumpkin sandwich,"  a cheese and pumpkin Nicefood.14 concotion.  The main course was a pasta dish combining black olives, mozzarella and pumpkin.  Topping it all off we savored apple and pumpkin strudel with cinnamon ice cream. Bicycle Bob, who is a pumpkin freak, was in his glory, and I'd easily convert to vegetarianism if every meal could be like this.  We'll go back next time we're in Nice.

And, then we'd also like to try Keisuke Matsushima, a Michelin one-star restaurant run by a 31-year-old Japanese chef of the same name specializing in "Japanice" cuisine.   It's highly recommended.  If the dollar holds its course, we may be able to afford it.

Last but not least on the Nice food scene is socca, a giant crepe made with chick-pea flour, cooked on a wood-burning stove on a sheet of tin-plated copper.  There are numerous places in the alleys of Nice's old town where customers wait in line for a paper plate of the pancake which is chopped into bite-size pieces.  The legendary place for socca is Chez Theresa in the market where the lovely Theresa is more than happy to pose for photos.   

Nice Carnaval 2009

Welcome to  my blog.  I'll tell you about life in this wonderful part of the world, with stories about travels here and elsewhere, anecdotes of daily life — and food.  The fabulous cuisine of France is one of the reasons why I, my husband (known as Bicycle Bob) and our two cats (now three) moved here from Germany almost five years ago.  I love to cook, entertain frequently, and will share favorite recipes.  For more about me, see my web site:  www.leahlarkin.com

CARNAVAL                                                                                          2008_0916nicecarnaval0032

It's a riot of flowers and floats, almost-naked dancers from Brazil, giant balloons that float over the crowds, bands from around the world blasting a cacophony of sounds, confetti and more.  During a three-week period in the pre-Lenten season, Nice sponsors huge parades along its famous seaside boulevard, Promenade des Anglais.

Maybe I'm a Carnival addict.  Since moving to Europe more than 30 years ago, I've been to many of these boisterous, colorful celebrations. I love them all.  Now that Bicycle Bob and I are living in France, I felt we must see the best of France's festivities: Nice's Carnaval.

We went to an afternoon parade, then another at night.  As parades go, both were spectacular.  Flowers are the focus of the afternoon event.  Pretty costumed young women on floats decorated with thousands of blossoms throw bouquets of canary-yellow mimosa into cheering crowds.  Between the flower floats is an international melange: troops of dancers (many wearing very little — fortunately the sun was shining), acrobats, stilt walkers and jumpers, bands  — and amazing huge balloons in the form of characters and animals.  The latter are controlled by ropes held by those walking under the fantastic creations. They lower and raise the ropes, letting the balloons soar high into the sky, then dipping them down, skirting the heads of some of the joyous spectators.

The balloons reappear during the night time parade like surrealistic objects hovering over the masses, their bright colors and bulbous shapes highlighted by spotlights.  There are also floats of enormous figures that twist and turn, and more dancers and spirited sounds.  Lots of drums and noise.  It's a big, crazy party.

Pranks and shenanigans are always part of Carnival fun.  In Nice Carnival goers buy confetti, streamers and cans of "fun string" to bombard one another with.  The latter is a spray of moist, rubbery colorful strings.  Some victims end up looking like they walked into a monstrous cobweb.  Fortunately the stuff is harmless and can easily be removed.  Of course, we got our share — in our hair, on our clothes, even in the face.  It's all part of the fun.  We  bought a few cans of the spray.  Maybe we'll have a Carnival party next year and "attack" unsuspecting guests.

Every Carnival is unique.  Nice's parades and flowers are definitely worth a visit.  I'll go back, but then I'd also like to go back to Basel, Switzerland, for the Morgestraich with its eerie sounds and costumes in the 4 a.m. darkness, Venice with its marvelous costumed characters who wander along the canals, the Black Forest with its grotesque masks…Maybe Rio should be next, but then there's New Orleans…