Worlds Apart? Swiss region and Stirling share some traits

 Cows on parade at Desalpes.

Cows on parade at Desalpes.

By Angela Hawn
Photos by Maddie Budding

Step out the door of our temporary new digs in the lovely rural town of Switzerland’s Farvagny le Grand and savour the rustic sounds of cows lowing in the distance, frequently accompanied by that homey whiff of manure associated with cows everywhere. Ah, so much like our former surroundings back in beautiful Stirling, Hastings County. Except here, the cows generally sport bells, and on special occasions, flowers and even hats!

When my family decided late last March to move abroad for a year courtesy of a job exchange for dad, we eagerly anticipated all the differences encountered when living in a new culture. And, to our delight, there have been many.

To begin with, unlike our native homeland, people speak not one or even two official languages, but four. We’ve ended up in the French speaking part of the country, but you don’t have to travel far to hear Swiss German, Swiss Italian or even that small section of the population who speak Romansh. And hand in hand with four languages comes a wide variety of Swiss cuisine. From German style spätzle noodles to fried potato rösti to French baguette dipped in moitié moitié fondue (half Gruyère, half mouth-watering Fribourg Vacherin cheese), we’re doing our best to sample it all.

And it’s all good, 99% of the time.

But occasionally homesickness strikes, even when you’re having fun. You might be strolling along the shores of Lake Leman (better known to tourists as Lake Geneva) and suddenly realize how much it resembles Lake Ontario at sunset. Or maybe you’re speeding down the autoroute between Fribourg and Montreux, marveling at how much it looks like the stretch of 401 near Brighton. Until, of course, you look to the side and view the Alps looming over top. Absolutely stunning, but definitely not home.

 The church steeple of Farvagny le Grand stands out in this rural town, which has more in common with Stirling than simply cows.

The church steeple of Farvagny le Grand stands out in this rural town, which has more in common with Stirling than simply cows.

Fortunately, on those rare occasions when a wee bit of nostalgia tugs at our collective soul and we find ourselves aching, ever so slightly, for a taste of the familiar, we’ve been delighted to realize Farvagny and Stirling have far more in common than just cows.

Take cheese, for example. Serendipitously, four cheese lovers who hail from Canada’s Cheese capital have landed right in the heart of the Gruyere region, famous for making some of the best Swiss cheese around. Whenever we find ourselves missing some of the delectable cheddars or mozzarellas found at Eastern Ontario’s Wilton Cheese Factory or nearby Ivanhoe, we can easily run right next door to the Farvagny Fromagerie and sate ourselves on the wonderful products made in-house.

Luckily, I’ve only mistakenly requested 5000 grams (vs. 500) of the stuff once. Blame it on the challenges of placing an order in a second language. Thank goodness my French fluent elder daughter was there to help set things straight. If our Fromagerie neighbour thinks the Canadians living across the way have a dairy addiction, we’ll never know. Like all Swiss we’ve met so far, he’s far too polite to comment.

 Much like in Hastings County, wonderful daytrip destinations are within driving distance. This is the 500-year-old town clock in Bern.

Much like in Hastings County, wonderful daytrip destinations are within driving distance. This is the 500-year-old town clock in Bern.

And, what goes better with cheese than wine? So easy back home to hop in the car and head to Tweed’s Potter Settlement Wines or any number of excellent wineries in Prince Edward County and indulge in a little tasting. To the delight (relief?) of the adults in the family, good wine in Switzerland can be found just as close. Living less than an hour’s drive from one of Switzerland’s best known wine regions, we’ve happily made many a daytrip to the gorgeous Swiss Riviera, where grapevines frequently share space with palm trees. Oh, the pinots, the gamays and the syrahs! Heavenly!

Just ask the same kid who sorted out my cheese ordering dilemma. The first night we arrived and headed next door to a welcome dinner at the neighbours’, she made a very exciting discovery: future wine connoisseurs can begin drinking anything made from the grain or the grape at age 16. And 18-year-olds can partake legally in the harder stuff!

Good thing about the wine, as her only chance to sample it will happen in Switzerland. Apparently only about 2% of all those superb Swiss reds, whites and rosés ever hit the export market, and I’m pretty sure Canada isn’t on the list. Still, as our ever practical daughter has helpfully pointed out, our part of Ontario produces amazing wine and she will even be legal drinking age when we return.

 All dressed up and nowhere to go but down from the Alps to greener pastures for winter. A flower-bedecked cow gets ready for the annual Desalpes celebration near Charmey.

All dressed up and nowhere to go but down from the Alps to greener pastures for winter. A flower-bedecked cow gets ready for the annual Desalpes celebration near Charmey.

Indeed, wine’s a popular beverage here. Inspired by our experiences back home singing with choirs like the Hastings Prince Edward Youth Chorale and Shout Sister, we opted to join a couple of choral groups in Switzerland. And what better way to end a practice than with a glass or two of a good Swiss red! I like to think a few sips here and there help improve both my singing and my ability to speak French!

My husband regularly enjoys a glass after school with his teaching colleagues right in the elementary school staffroom, a definite no-no back home. You can well imagine his surprise on a recent field trip. After a long hike through the snow, all of the teachers organized the students into groups to eat their packed lunches, then pulled out bottles of wine to share amongst themselves. And the one pouring the drinks might very well be the principal! Cheers!

 The view from Albert Einstein’s former apartment (now a museum) in downtown Bern.

The view from Albert Einstein’s former apartment (now a museum) in downtown Bern.

When not busy sampling the local wine and cheese, we love to travel. Whether it’s the Swiss Riviera, Bern, Lausanne or Geneva, we’re surrounded by interesting places to visit on the weekends. Much like our beloved Hastings County, we live within easy driving distance of several wonderful daytrip destinations. Checking out the Roman ruins a few kilometres away in Avenches or a 1000-year-old abbey in nearby Jura region quickly became repeat favourites. At just over 40,000 square kilometres, the entire country feels pretty accessible, though getting from point A to B can mean traversing a few mighty curvy mountain passes or going straight through them via seemingly endless tunnels.

 La famille Hawn-Budding prepares to hike along the famous north face of the Eiger.

La famille Hawn-Budding prepares to hike along the famous north face of the Eiger.

And, when we want to go a little further afield and head outside Swiss borders, no sooner said than done. Once late on a lazy Saturday afternoon, we decided to head next door for dinner in France.

Could teeny, tiny Liechtenstein be next in our plans to visit nearby countries for an hour or so? Just past Zurich and bookended cozily by Switzerland on one side and Austria on the other, this tiny kingdom on the Rhine figures prominently on my husband’s “must see” checklist. Even better, our younger daughter can practise her fledgling German there.

“Really?” she moans when we tell her about Liechtenstein’s lingua franca. Apparently the only thing more challenging than total French Immersion at the local high school is studying German for the first time. Though always available, teacher assistance comes in…French!

 Lake Leman / Lake Geneva at sunset, complete with swans – not unlike Lake Ontario.

Lake Leman / Lake Geneva at sunset, complete with swans – not unlike Lake Ontario.

We’ll just have to console her with a trip to the cinema (plenty of “Version Original” selections abound, with subtitles in both French and German running along the bottom of the screen) or perhaps with some good Swiss chocolate. Gruyère region also boasts a number of award winning chocolate factories. And the chocolate, helped along by all that rich milk produced by Switzerland’s many cows, tastes divine. Hmm…we’re so glad we get to return to wonderful Hastings County at the end of this grand adventure. But there are definitely some things we will miss. Chocolate anyone?


Bonus: A Traditional Moitie-Moitie Fondue Recipe

Unless you can get your hands on some proper Swiss Gruyere and Fribourg Vacheron, making a traditional Moitie-Moitie fondue might be pretty hard outside of Switzerland, but you can easily rig up a Canadian substitute using the following:

- 500 grams shredded French Gruyere (don’t tell anyone from Gruyere, Switzerland!)
- 500 grams shredded Emmenthal
- one and a quarter cups of white wine (since nothing Swiss is likely available, try Sauvignon Blanc)
- 2 or 3 tsps. cornstarch to help hold everything together
- dash of lemon juice
- black pepper and minced jar garlic to taste
- baguette, torn into pieces

Stir everything but the baguette continuously over low to medium heat until blended and keep warm with a fondue burner. Enjoy!

Optional: Give each guest their own shot glass of kirsch for dipping their pieces of bread prior to swirling them in the fondue.

For more about Angela’s adventures in Switzerland and even the occasional recipe, check out her blog at ramblingsofamenopausalmomabroad.wordpress.com.