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FOOD AND DRINK

What is Swiss rösti and how do you make it?

If you thought Swiss food was just about cheese and chocolate, think again: rösti is no small potato.

Chefs cook during a record attempt of the world's largest rösti during an event marking the 125th anniversary of the Swiss Farmers' Union in Swiss capital Bern, on September 19, 2022.
Chefs cook during a record attempt of the world's largest rösti during an event marking the 125th anniversary of the Swiss Farmers' Union in Swiss capital Bern, on September 19, 2022. - Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

You can’t live in Switzerland for more than five minutes without realising what an important role rösti potatoes play not only in the country’s culinary traditions, but also in its culture in general.

It is such an integral part of local customs that the Swiss Farmers’ Association set a new world record when its members prepared a giant rösti in front of the parliament building in Bern in September 2022. 

The approximately 1,300 kg of potatoes were used for the event, where potatoes were fried in a 13.7-square metre pan shaped like a Swiss cross.

That year’s record beat the previous one from 1994 by three square metres.

And it was no small feat, given the logistics involved in the project.

“The potatoes needed for this had grown over the summer in all the cantons before being brought to Bern for this culinary event”, the Association said in a press release.

“In a solemn ceremony opened by bell ringers from the region and alphorn players, 27 delegations from all the cantons as well as the Principality of Liechtenstein handed over the potatoes in wicker baskets”.

This event was held to celebrate the association’s 125th anniversary, which is very fitting since in centuries past the stir-fried potatoes served as inexpensive, simple dish for farmers working in the fields.

The main appeal of rösti in those days was that potatoes were plentiful in rural areas and the dish itself required only a very basic mastery:

  • Peel and grate the raw potatoes using a standard grater. You can grate them lengthwise if you like long strands.
  • Add salt and pepper into the mixture — season lightly or a lot, depending on your taste.
  • Melt butter (rather than oil or margarine) in a frying pot.
  • When hot, pour the potato mixture and stir-fry for around 10 to 12 minutes on each side. The end product should be crispy and golden-brown, never soggy.

With time, the dish has evolved somewhat, but not too much; as many foreign residents have observed, the Swiss like their food plain and made from locally sourced ingredients.

While various ingredients like ham, bacon, and cheese can be added to the mixture, and a fried egg sometimes tops it, the recipe is still true to its origins.

READ MORE: You are not Swiss until you try these seven weird foods

Cultural impact

Whether in its original or ‘modernised’ form, rösti can hardly be called trendy.

Yet, for such a simple dish, rösti has made quite a cultural impact in Switzerland.

While it is more associated with the German-speaking part, where it originated, it is sometimes served in other regions as well, mostly as accompaniment to meat or sausages.

But beyond the mere food, this potato dish came to represent the cultural (rather than geographical) divide between the German and French-speaking regions, called the Röstigraben

In German, “Graben” means border, gap or rift – and therefore Röstigraben symbolises the cultural rift between the two largest linguistic groups in Switzerland. 

Whether such a rift actually exists in reality or just in people’s imagination is another matter. Much of this idea has to do with stereotypes of each linguistic group, but beyond the language and local customs, they are all…Swiss.

And it is not excluded that they sometimes cross the invisible Graben to share a meal of rösti together.

READ MORE: Röstigraben: The invisible barrier separating Switzerland

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FOOD AND DRINK

Cheeses face the heat at Raclette World Championships in Switzerland

Up in the Swiss Alps, the air hangs thick with the funk of hot cheese as the planet's best melt away the competition at the inaugural Raclette World Championships.

Cheeses face the heat at Raclette World Championships in Switzerland

The Swiss native dish dates back centuries to a time when mountain herdsmen would heat their cheese on an open fire and scrape off the melted part to keep them going.

But never before have producers, experts and restauranteurs come together under one roof to determine which cheeses make the world’s finest raclette.

Nearly 90 cheeses were being put to the test this weekend in Morgins, a village in Wallis – the southwestern region considered the home of raclette.

“All these guys are small-scale producers who go up into the mountain pastures with their cows at the start of summer,” said the event’s founder Henri-Pierre Galletti. “It’s a way of validating their work, which is a hard job but a truly beautiful one,” he told AFP.

Morgins – more than 1,300 metres up in a wooded valley before the Alpine pass reaches France – welcomed thousands of raclette enthusiasts to witness the three-day contest, which culminates on Sunday with the winners crowned as champions.

The three-day event culminated on Sunday with the winners crowned champion.

Smooth and creamy

In the village hall’s kitchen, cheese half-wheels are grilled under electric raclette heaters. The grilling can take from 30 seconds upwards, depending on the cheese.

The cooking is done by eye, with a feel for how each cheese melts. Once it bubbles up – but just before it starts to brown – the melted cheese is scraped onto the plate, then whisked out to jurors.

“The taste is in the fat,” said racleur Jean-Michel Dubosson as he scraped off another serving with the back of his knife. “It’s important not to heat it too quickly.”

While the kitchen is bustling, the tasting hall is a place of reverent silence. Judges twirl the cheese around the fork before tasting. Many wore traditional black with a red neckerchief, though one sported an “In raclette we trust” hat. The atmosphere is slow, relaxed.

“We are looking for a raclette that is creamy, smooth, has a nice appearance, a nice colour,” said Eddy Baillifard, known as the “pope of raclette” and one of the supreme jury final round judges. “And in terms of taste, a nice texture, no thread, no strings, no gum.”

Judges sample a maximum of 15 cheeses in a sitting – about as much as one can handle before the sense of taste peaks, not to mention the volume. Between raclettes, hot black tea or sliced red apples neutralise the palate.

The judges rank each cheese from one to five on appearance, texture, taste and aroma, and overall impression.

Good company

The three categories are raclette with raw Alpine milk (open to cheeses made in Alpine pastures between June 15 and July 15); raw milk raclette; and other raclette cheeses.

Most of the cheeses were from Switzerland, and if not then from the neighbouring French Alps. However, cheeses from Belgium, Canada, Italy and Romania were also in contention.

Producers from Britain, Japan, Norway, Sweden and Kyrgyzstan are interested in coming next time.

“To be here representing Romania, it’s a big thing for us,” said Narcis Pintea, 34, who learned his craft in Switzerland before taking his skills back home.

Besides the competition, he was relishing the chance to talk with other cheesemakers, as well as the judges to improve his chances in future.

A giant Saint Bernard dog kept watch at the door, and outside a few thousand raclette enthusiasts sampled numerous freshly-melted cheeses to the sound of a cowbell ringing team.

One stallholder had got through 60 kilograms of cheese before lunchtime was even over.

“A day without raclette is a wasted day,” said Baillifard. “There are several ingredients that make raclette so enjoyable, but the main thing is the people you share it with. When you’re in good company, the raclette is already 80 percent a success.”

Cheese champions

The championships had three categories.

Alpage de Tanay, from Wallis, won the most hotly-contested crown for raclette with raw Alpine milk, a category only open to cheeses made in Alpine pastures between June 15th and July 15th.

Fromagerie Le Pont, also from Wallis, won the title for best raw milk raclette.

Fromagerie Seiler Selection by Wyssmuller Maître Fromager, from the Obwalden region in central Switzerland, took the final crown for other raclette cheeses.

A giant Saint Bernard dog kept watch at the door, and in the festival tents outside, raclette lovers sampled numerous freshly-melted cheeses to the sound of a cowbell ringing team.

More than 30,000 raclettes were served to the public, accompanied by four tonnes of boiled potatoes and six pallets of gherkins and onions.

“A day without raclette is a day wasted,” said Baillifard.

“There are several ingredients that make raclette so enjoyable, but the main thing is the people you share it with. When you’re in good company, the raclette is already 80 percent a success,” he added.

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