Book Review: Beyond Muesli and Fondue, the Swiss Contribution to Culinary History

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Written by C. Naseer Ahmad

Breaking bread together has deep rooted spiritual foundations for strengthening fellowship and in easing tensions among people of different persuasions. So it is propitious that a seasoned Swiss diplomat with exquisite tastes and a vast reservoir of knowledge and experience wrote a book “Beyond Muesli and Fondue,” which describes Swiss contributions to culinary history.

The book begins with a quotation attributed to Lord Palmerstone: “dining is the life and soul of diplomacy.” This sets the stage for discussion very aptly, just as any diplomatic engagement requires. The author explains that in the “diplomatic world, official dinners are important for two different reasons. They provide a framework for the exchange of information and opinions, for communications, for negotiations, but also for personal contacts.”

Organized in seventeen chapters this book makes a delightful reading. The readers will get a lesson in history and information about not only historical incidents but also the recipes and how many people are served.

Vatel and the Sun King’s Delights of the Table,” is a chapter with both drama and delightful recipes. “After the fish delivery for the great banquet for Louis XIV did not arrive on time, Vatel threw himself on his sword,” wrote Ambassador Dahinden while providing the historical background about Vatel and the six recipes mentioned in this chapter. “Omelette Aux Asperges” – Asparagus Omelette was apparently a favorite of Louis XIV; the palace of Versailles had many plots occupied by hot-beds for growing asparagus.

Dunand: Napoleon’s Chef and Poulet Marengo,” is another interesting chapter with history but not the drama of a chef throwing himself on his sword to avoid shame and embarrassment. One learns about the origin of Poulet Marengo – associated with the Battle of Marengo in 1800 – and the creativity of Dunand.  Legend has it that Poulet Marengo became Napoleon’s favorite dish that was prepared for him after every battle. In addition to Poulet Marengo, there are a few more interesting recipes with Swiss origins in this chapter.

Delmonico’s and Haute Cuisine in the New World,” provides a good historical perspective of the travels and business ventures of Giovanni Del-Monico hailing from the small Ticinese village of Mairengo. The readers will get an understanding of the successful Delmonico’s restaurants perhaps by the work ethic which inspired the motto: “Quality is more important than the price.” The Delmonico Cook Book published in 1880 which was followed by “The Table: How to Buy Food, How to Cook It, and How to Serve It” – both mentioned in this chapter provide valuable insight behind the Delmonico legend and of course The Delmonico Steak served today.

In a short chapter “César Ritz: King of Hoteliers and Hotelier to Kings,” the author efficiently describes the story of Ritz who set standards for the luxury hotel business and how the name is so attractive even today. Like the previous chapters, recipes for mouth watering dishes are found in exquisite detail.

Henry Haller: The White House Chef” is one of the most interesting chapters describing the historical background of the famous chef—who served many U.S. Presidents—from Altdorf, Switzerland and received his initial culinary training at the Park Hotel in Davos. The recipes for the favorite dishes of different U.S. Presidents and/or their spouses make this chapter a fun reading.

The Savory Swiss Soups and Their Stories,” starts with the statement that “soup was the first nourishment cavemen took from the cooking pot.” In describing the soup “Potage a La Guillaume Tell,” the author sets the stage beautifully to introduce the readers to different soups, their recipes and history. For example, the “Kappeler Milchsuppe” has its origins from the First Kappel War between the Protestants and the Catholics in the Old Swiss Confederation.

“In search of a Swiss National Cuisine,” is an interesting chapter which provides the analysis as well as explanation of why foodies can’t identify a specific Swiss cuisine despite enormous contributions to culinary history.

Because each chapter presents interesting historical perspective and dishes or drinks with Swiss origins, it hard to ignore the Swiss contributions to culinary history and just as hard to pick a favorite because every chapter is outstanding in its own right.

The book provides a culinary journey from the Renaissance to the modern times. It gives so many opportunities to discover remarkable chefs and the recipes associated with them.

The list of recipes, neatly organized by categories such as soup, desserts and cocktails and drinks, is tucked at the end of the book. For those who want try out any of the recipes, this list contains the page number to turn to.

This book is a splendid idea for an ice-breaking diplomatic discussion in any setting. It should also be a good item for the book shelves of diplomats who work hard to solve sometimes intractable issues.