I'm not surprised that in Geneva, Switzerland, arguably the orological capitol of the world, the trains, trams and busses operate with reliable precision. Though charming, beautiful and undoubtedly a wonderful place to live and work, Geneva, at least in winter, is not exactly what I would call an exciting city, but then it is also arguably the center of the vaunted Swiss private banking industry, a business that requires a certain conservative aloofness, and is the city from which sprung John Calvin and Calvinism. At less than half million of total population, Geneva lacks the energy buzz of cities like New York, London, Paris or Barcelona, but as the home of many international organizations, the birthplace of The Red Cross and The Geneva Convention it does possess a certain gravitas and worldliness.
I wasn't in Geneva for long, but I made good use of my time there, walking all over the city. I stayed with young, well-traveled friends, who were able to give me an interesting perspective on living in the city. Their perspective on food was particularly interesting to me. They do not eat out much. Geneva is an expensive city. It has many restaurants, but dining out tends to be very expensive. They note, however, that the general quality of the food available in markets and even supermarkets is quite high. As such they tend to cook and either entertain or be entertained by friends. When I suggested that we dine out, they couldn't really point me to any truly "special" or creative restaurants, nor could I identify a specific restaurant in the city that screamed for me to try. That's not to say that French speaking Geneva doesn't have plenty of very good food and very good restaurants. I have no doubt that that is the case. With warm personal memories and associations with eating fondue in the 1980's at the restaurant La Fondue in New York City in the 1980's (my wife and I shared our first kiss there after our second date), I thought it would be fun to try that traditional dish at its source. The place they brought me was perhaps the most well known fondue restaurant in the city, Les Armures, located in the Hotel Les Armures in the old part of Geneva set high upon a bluff overlooking the lake on the left side of the source of the Rhone River. The first thing to register as we entered the restaurant through the revolving door was the unmistakable aroma of rich, ripe cheese that permeated the place. I sensed that I would not be disappointed.
With a multilingual menu, the restaurant is certainly not unknown to tourists, but it was still full with French remaining the predominant language heard around the dining room. Though the menu had plenty of traditional dishes to choose from, we opted to share three different types of fondue.
A Fondue à la tomate incorporated a tomato sauce along with the cheese and other flavor components. This was to be spooned over boiled potatoes. I had never had a fondue like this before. It's not that it was particularly novel, but I think this style is more prominent here than elsewhere. It was certainly tasty. but my least favorite of the three that we had. It was, however, the favorite of one of my friends.
More attuned to my experience and taste was a Fondue aux bolets, which incorporated porcini mushrooms in with the molten cheese, wine and herbs. Though very rich, the mushroom flavors came through. This fondue was eaten with the classic technique of spearing torn pieces of bread with a long fondue fork and swirling it around the oozy mixture taking care not to lose the bread in the mix (that's how I won my first kiss from my future wife – she lost some bread in her fondue and according to the menu that required her to kiss me. Who was I to argue?). I had always understood fondue was best handled using slightly stale, day old bread cut up into cubes. Here, though, the bread was still pretty fresh and brought to the table sliced, leaving it to the diner to tear off pieces for the fondue. I liked tearing off slightly larger pieces to be able to snare some porcini along with the cheese and wine mixture. The bread and technique certainly worked as the pot was ultimately mopped clean. As the visitor, I was the fortunate one to get the wonderful crusty bits from the bottom of the pot known as la religieuse.
The third fondue we had was the Fondue Chinoise, a Swiss interpretation of the Mongolian hot pot. The broth was a beefy bouillon fortified with wood-ear mushrooms and other vegetable components. The beef, as is typical came thinly shaved. It was accompanied by four sauces including a mustard, a tartar sauce, a Mayonnaise and a Russian dressing. I preferred mine without any of the sauces. The meat platter was replenished twice, by which time we were all quite full. Though the Chinoise came with frites (cooked in olive oil) and a nice salad, it was still rather expensive at 48 Swiss francs and considerably more-so than the other fondues.
Given how cold it was outside with a strong wind adding to the chill, the fondues were a fun, relatively economical and ideal way to relax, warm up and get a taste of the area.
Our meal was ably washed down with a nice, crisp, local Aligoté. All in all, it was a fine, fun and appropriate way to begin a visit to Switzerland.