30 June 2009
We got back into town last week and went immediately our favorite Swiss comfort food spot, Mund+Art, only to find that it is closing at the end of this week. Eine Katastrophe! This is our go-to restaurant for comfort food (Schni-Po-Sa anyone?) and the place for us to try traditional Swiss dishes. We learned about äplermagronen, hackbraten, and g'hackets here. The wine list has a thoughtful selection of dozens of quality Swiss wines, not only from Suisse Romande and Ticino, but also from eastern Switzerland. The service is charming.
In honor of the many fine meals we've had at Mund+Art, I want to talk a bit about Swiss food culture. The Swiss seem to have a complicated relationship with their food. On the one hand, there is a love of, and pride in, all things grown and made in Switzerland, with cheese as the outstanding example. Every venue, from farmers markets to restaurants to grocery stores, celebrates seasonal produce. (Bärlauch season was a treat, and who doesn't love Spargeln season?) On the other hand, cuisines from all over the world are represented in Zürich's 2000+ restaurants, and, in a manner all too familiar to an American, everyone seems to have their favorite foreign cuisine. Many Zürchers are in love with Asian food (often of the non-specific Thai-esque variety). Spanish tapas and true imitation French braserries have their devotees as well, as do steak houses serving USDA Beef (seriously?). When asked for their favorite cuisine, no one seems to answer, Swiss of course!
What about Swiss cuisine? Where is it? One place we found was Mund+Art. Others include Zeughauskeller, Voderer Sternen, and Le Dezaley. But these places, with the exception perhaps of Zeughauskeller, don't serve Swiss cuisne so much as Swiss dishes on large menus that represent a Germanic continental style with the occassional Asian flourish. Fondue, Birchermüesli, grilled Cervalts (and other sausages), Rösti, and Zürcher Geschnetzeltes are all fine dishes. But a set of popular favorites does not a cuisine make.
As an outsider it's difficult to know what these typical dishes represent. Are these nationalized verisons of various regional cuisines that are alive and well outside of Zürich? (If so, what happened in Zürich?) Are these just the sentimentalized representations of formerly vibrant food cultures that have withered in the face of modernity? Or are these dishes the restuarant versions of living homecooking traditions that are simply not visible in the public sphere?
I don't know the answer, but my experience has been that there is not a cohesive, self-evident, and easily identifiable national cuisine, or even set of regional cuisines. If it exists, it's hidden Swiss households.
This can be contrasted easily with France, where the many registers of French cusine, from low to high, also carry a local identity and can easily be experienced in the cafes and restaurants, as well as small shops where even the smallest purchase (a lettuce or a cheese) is a matter for some consideration. Is it local? Is it the best quality?
The story of Mund+Art is all about the complicated relationship Swiss have to their food culture. The name itself is a pun on a term for dialect and was intended to reflect the restaurant's focus on regional Swiss specialties. When it first opened in 2008, the goal was to revive forgotten dishes from many regions, presenting them in a modern style. This initial effort was quickly dropped when many customers failed to recongnize the names of the dishes and were unwilling to try them.
The restautant retooled, keeping the more popular and well-known traditional dishes (such as Hackbraten, Älplermagronen, and Zürigschnetzlets) on their Klassiker list and adding an ever changing assortment of other cuisines in an effort to keep the customers coming in. The end result was a confused menu and a notable failure to build a dinner trade that would keep the doors open.
Does the end of Mund+Art mean that the Swiss no longer recongnize or want their traditonal cuisine? Or does it reflect all the common failures (service, consistency in the kitchen, food cost overruns) that close restaurant doors?
Whatever the answer, I am going back once more this week to hear "En Geute" in my favorite Swiss restaurant. We will really miss it when the doors close.
Final note: I'm still on the lookout for more on Swiss food. Links to the the Swiss chapter of Slow Food, Laughing Lemon, and Le Menu are all on this page and have proven helpful. Please send me your recommendations on restaurants, cooking schools/classes. and markets.
Summer is here and so are the work crews on Seefeldstrasse. The whole street is being dug up, section by section, and mains replaced. The whole mess reached our doorstep last week. The dust and noise begin at 7 AM and dominate the apartment. We hide behind closed shutters until after 7 PM.
The work is expected to be completed by mid-August. Oh how we hope the legendary Swiss efficiency will mean the work finishes on time.