Switzerland: Eating Zurich

A culinary tour of the nation’s biggest city brings surprises, writes Eli Orzessek.

It’s comes as a bit of a surprise when Paul, the young Swiss chef at Zunfthaus zur Waag, opens his mouth to speak.

He introduces himself in what could be the thickest Aussie drawl I’ve heard outside Australia.

It turns out Paul had spent some time over there backpacking and brought back the accent as a souvenir. Although I’m in a traditional restaurant in the heart of Zurich’s Old Town — housed in a building dating back to 1315, no less — every now and then I hear that familiar twang and I’m transported to a pub in Queensland.

I’m here to try my hand at cooking Zurich’s trademark dish, Zurcher Geschnetzeltes – veal strips with mushrooms, cooked in a creamy sauce and served with a crispy rosti — that wonderful Swiss take on a potato fritter that I’ve been eating plenty of on this trip. All in all, this dish is sort of like your mum’s beef stroganoff on crack.

My guide and I are taken to the kitchen, where, thankfully, we don’t have to do much prep work ourselves. The veal is cut and ready and grated potatoes by the bucketload are waiting to be formed into round cakes and fried up into rosti.

Paul explains to us how the best rosti are made with two different types of potato to ensure the best consistency. He demonstrates how to shape the grated potato, before placing it in a small pan over a very low heat to slowly fry, while we cook the veal to accompany it.

He makes it look easy but, as you’d expect, mine comes out quite a bit less perfectly.

Cooking the veal also presents its challenges — I’m not quite as adept at flicking the pan in just the right way to move the meat and mushrooms around and end up with a fair bit on the counter. It’s a learning curve, right?

Following my attempt, we eat our end results in the traditionally furnished dining room — but I’ve ended up with Paul’s creation, rather than my own slightly wonky rosti. I happily accept.

Outside the restaurant, I observe one of the restaurant’s most famous features — a miraculous fountain through which water is turned into wine. Well, sort of, a barrel can be attached to the fountain underground and when a pedal releases the tap, wine flows freely, to the amazement of guests. Zurich may not be the capital of Switzerland — Geneva takes that title — but, much like Auckland, it’s the largest city in the country. And according to my guide, the rest of Switzerland has a bit of a complex about Zurich, which, as an Aucklander, sounds familiar. Having previously visited Basel, it definitely feels like an Auckland v Wellington vibe.

Out of the Old Town, I’m taken to one of the city’s up-and-coming areas. District 5 in west Zurich was previously a disused industrial- turned-red-light-district, but it’s undergone huge gentrification in recent years, as hipsters and art galleries move into the warehouses.

Lovers of contemporary art won’t want to miss the Lowenbraukunst art complex. In a former brewery, it houses a dozen art institutions under one roof — most notably, the Kunsthalle Zurich, Switzerland’s leading contemporary art organisation, which moved in permanently in 2012.

Repurposed buildings are a theme here. My guide and I walk to the Im Viadukt area, an old railway viaduct dating back to 1894 which has been turned into a shopping area, which houses a diverse mix of fashionable shops, art galleries, delicatessens and cafes under its 36 arches. Alongside is a sprawling park, where children from a local daycare play among the greenery and fountains.

At the heart of the Im Viadukt is the Markthalle, a covered market where 20 farmers and food vendors from around the area sell their wares — there’s everything from delicious cheeses to hot filled focaccia sandwiches and fresh seafood. But I’m particularly taken by the stand selling Tirggel, which are traditional Swiss honey cookies with intricate raised images baked into them. These sweet treats date back to the 1400s and are most popular around Christmas.

I’m tempted to buy one to take back with me, but I can just imagine these very thin biscuits breaking into many pieces, so reluctantly I decide not to.

As we continue our walk through District 5, we cross a bridge over the Limmat river, where my guide points out a sectioned off swimming area below. There are many of these public baths around the city and it amazes me that these urban rivers are clean and safe to swim in. The Flussbad Unterer Letten is the oldest of these facilities and it looks like a lot of fun — the strong currents of the river carry swimmers rapidly from one end of the pool to the other. I’m told these currents make the baths particularly popular with teenagers.

Although I don’t have time for a swim at this particular point, my guide recommends an outdoor swimming spot closer to where I’m staying at the Hotel Marktgasse.

The historic Seebad Utoquai sits on Lake Zurich and dates back to 1890. It was the first public bath in Zurich to allow men and women to swim together, but it still offers gender segregated areas — the men-only section particularly popular with gay bathers, who perform some PDAs on the sundecks.

On an early September evening, the water feels quite brisk, but I dive in headfirst and swim out to one of the pontoons anchored out in the lake. Looking back at the historic buildings with blue and white curtains over the changing rooms, the place definitely has a vintage fee, as though you’ve been transported back to the 1920s.

A refreshing swim is just what’s needed to get my stomach grumbling for my next Swiss culinary adventure. I’ve chosen to dine at Haus Hiltl, which is the oldest vegetarian restaurant in the world, according to the Guinness Book of Records. After eating baby cow for lunch, this seems like a noble and ethical choice for dinner.

Vegetarian or not, it turns out to be one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten.

The restaurant offers an extensive buffet of vegetarian food, featuring more than 100 dishes from around the world — you just grab a plate or container to go and you’re charged by the weight of your food. However, I’ve opted for the a la carte experience.

I started with the Hiltl Tatar, a take on steak tartare that’s made with eggplant — and it blows my mind just how much it actually resembles raw mince.

I decide to continue with the “Veggie Butcher” menu, which replicates various meat dishes and go for the Cordon Bleu as my main. It’s a huge slab of crumbed organic seitan (a kind of wheat gluten fake meat) and smoked tofu that absolutely oozes with kaltbach cheese when I cut it open. Served with carrots, spinach and an impressively large serving of sweet potato fries, it’s a meal that defeats me.

There’s no way I can finish it and I can’t even deal with dessert. If all vegetarian food was as good as this, I could possibly give up meat for the rest of my life.

Except for that creamy veal with mushrooms maybe.

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