If you could eat just one meal for the rest of your life, what would it be? Perfectly aged and marbled slab of wagyu? Lightly seared bluefin tuna (served with a large side of guilty conscience)? Freshly caught crayfish in a simple lemon butter, washed down by several gallons of lightly wooded Chardonnay?
The options are endless, but I’ve happily settled on the one that would do me – and it involves a table in a charming little hotel in a village in Switzerland.
Of all the places you don’t want to travel on the rand, Switzerland ramps comfortably to the top of the list. A hot chocolate on the slopes can cost you the GDP of Lesotho, and swiping your credit card for a hotel deposit usually triggers a nervous call from your bank manager.
But there are myriad reasons to take a deep breath and throw fiscal caution to the wind: most importantly, the cheese fondue.
I am very much a cheese devotee, from a simple ball of Mozzarella, to a reeking French fromage with the qualities of tear gas and the local dump. A whole Brie crumbed, deep fried and lathered with cranberry jelly; lumps of blue-veined Gorgonzola tossed into a salad with pear and butternut; grilled halloumi drenched in the lemon juice the Greeks would have us eat everything with: cheese is glorious fare (provided it’s not processed and sold in individual plastic sleeves in your supermarket, in which case you might as well just eat the packaging). But it’s as fondue that cheese truly finds its raison d’être.
At its simplest, this dish of Swiss magnificence is a molten pot of Gruyère (Emmentaler can also make an appearance), fortified with white wine, that arrives bubbling away irresistibly. Armed with a series of skewers and salivating intent, you plunge small chunks of bread into the pot, twist it around until the cheese has cooled just enough to cling onto your crust, and then devour with the purest Alpine satisfaction, a rich, smooth, pungent mouthful of Swiss delight that drowns out the doubts about spending next month’s bond payment on lunch.
A spellbinding two-hour train journey from Zurich, Engelberg is the perfectly sized ski destination for me: big enough to have plenty of fun in, but not so large that you get swamped by the crowds. It covers all abilities with a decent range of runs, and the food (and beer) on the mountain is above average. It’s in the town itself, though, that my favourite attraction lies: the Alpen Club Hotel, and its fabulous fondue.
The hotel was introduced to me by Herman Coetzer, owner of Durbanville’s Meerendal wine estate, and founder of the wonderfully daft Snow Bike Festival. Herman has kindly lent me his apartment in Engelberg on several occasions, and on my first visit he made the introduction to Alpen Club, a dark wooden Swiss chalet housing roaring fires, old wooden furniture, and cheese fondue. I’ve written this paragraph a dozen times in my head, but can’t quite capture the sheer indulgence of it, the warm, regal allure of molten cheese and bread. It seems like such a simple dish, and in practical terms, it is – but to eat it is to realise what cheese was truly made for.
And the wine? A footnote, but an important one: when not creating watches and chocolate and cauldrons of cheese, the Swiss also make some surprisingly good wine, with some of the whites particularly brilliant. And the Alpen Club has a wine list that will offer several local whites to joust with and cut through the cardiac arrest of the hot cheese, the final dash of perfection to Swiss food as religious experience. So if you haven’t tried it before, and fancy a trip to Switzerland, head to Engelberg, book a table at the hotel, and prepare to be converted.
This week I’m drinking this week
Gerard Holden is big blonde bear of a man, somewhere between Boris Johnson and Philip Seymour Hoffman, but with one substantially greater claim to fame than either of the other two: he has a single cap as a rugby international for Uganda. He’s also the man behind Franschhoek’s Holden Manz estate, producing some lovely wine, including the varietal that’s probably our most underrated in South Africa: Cabernet Franc. Bruwer Raats leads the charge here, and Warwick have an excellent example, but the Holden Manz is also rather special: big and rich, yet wonderfully soft at the same time. A frequent support act in blends, Cabernet Franc holds itself marvelously as a solo performer – as Gerard’s 2016 reserve emphatically illustrates. Be warned, though: the price is more Switzerland than South Africa.
Dan Nicholl is the host of Dan Really Likes Wine, an online show with a light-hearted approach to wine.
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