by Rosa Mayland
My Swiss Grandmother and Her Glorious Cuisine
“As a grandmother of six, I believe that it is crucial that we make time to pass on our recipes, cooking and growing skills and other crafts to our grandchildren.”— Darina Allen, president of Slow Food Ireland
Grandmothers link us to our culinary heritage
In our modern world, most women choose or have to work, and countless couples don’t have the time or energy to become kitchen bees. Many people prefer buying prepackaged food and don’t see any point in spending their free time preparing homemade snacks. The majority of 21st-century grandmothers hail from a generation of females who cut themselves off from old traditions, therefore nowadays, very few kids are lucky enough to have grandmothers* who cook or enjoy cooking, and who are able to share their family’s culinary legacy with their grandchildren.
Thankfully, I am on of those rare and fortunate individuals who had two talented home cooks as grannies. Although they were of two different backgrounds (one was an English townswoman and the other a Swiss peasant), they shared similar life experiences and were very strong-willed stay-at-home mums who encountered wartime and knew what living on a low budget was.
Although I was far too young to have learnt recipes as well as tricks from them or even to have spent much time in the kitchen with them, I nonetheless witnessed how they concocted nutritious food for their families and tended to the daily meals as perfect retro housewives did. That was enough to have an impact on my life and influence my way of dealing with food.
Looking at them busily clinking pans, simmering sauces, boiling water, frying potatoes, sizzling steaks, roasting meat, steaming vegetables, mixing batters, kneading dough, baking sweet treats and creating the most magnificent of aromas has left an everlasting mark on me and sparked the flame of passion for all things that are linked to cooking as well as baking, hence giving me the urge to gather as much information regarding my culinary roots as possible and to dig deep into them.
This subject is so dear to my heart and it is for that reason that I wish to talk about one grandmother in particular today: my Mémé who died more than 19 years ago, at the age of 92…
Unforgettable Memories of Times Gone By
All of my memories regarding my Swiss grandparents (on my father’s side) are closely connected to food. My strongest associations with them always relate to the “pleasures of the table”. When I was a child, both were already quite elderly (well into their eighties) and I was separated from them by what would normally have been three generations. They belonged to another world, a world which no longer exists.
Having been born in the countryside, at the beginning of the last century, they clung to archaic Swiss values, both good and bad (for the purpose of this article, I’ll focus on the ones I can relate to). All their existence was based on humbleness, transparency, honesty, and hard labour; no space was left for enjoying life or taking care of themselves. The only little gratifications they had resided in simple rituals like eating, working and sleeping, which structured their everyday routine.
Belonging to such an era meant that relationship-wise, they were quite incapable of giving or showing any kind of love in the way we understand it now. Heck, I can’t even say if they were really fond of me or appreciated the person I was back then! Because of that, I feel I never formed a true and reciprocal relationship with my grandparents – at least, not by my modern definition — and I can’t recall exchanging much conversation with them. The rare moments when we really connected were solely while we shared a meal together.
Having been brought up in the countryside, in the conservative (not in a religious way) and agricultural/rustic Canton of Vaud, located in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, during times of turmoil and change (war, political tensions and economic difficulties), my grandmother, like most women of her period, had no choice other than to learn how to be an accomplished domestic “superwoman” and that until her dying day. That was what she was predestined to be, or at least that’s how she saw it.
Both my grandparents were true Swiss peasant archetypes who lived their lives the way they thought they were meant to from the day they were born to the day they died, and unflinchingly accepted their fate. From his early teens until his late 60’s, my grandfather worked in the fields and for the sanitation department of his village. After he retired, his lifestyle remained the same, and there was not one day when he was not keeping busy. He spent a great amount of time in his garden, watching over his lettuce, grapevines, vegetables, fruits and rabbits. My grandmother continued being the person in charge of the household chores and the central pillar of the family. She continued to cook, do the cleaning, pay the bills, calculate the family budget, etc. and, in addition to that, after my father and aunts had left the nest, she became the foster mother of my 3 orphaned cousins (her grandchildren), whom she adopted after they had lost both their parents in tragic accidents .
It was in this simple and austere environment that my grandmother’s extraordinary traditional cuisine bourgeoise (pronounced “kwee zeen boor jwaz” — it refers to plain, but good down-to-earth cooking) was rooted and evolved over time. She was a skilled and brilliant cook as well as baker who taught my English mother how to put a meal together and transmitted her Swiss culinary knowledge to her as well. My mom later did the same with me. My grandparents’ attachment to good-quality, tasty, comforting, healthy and natural food is the only thing which I’ve inherited from this side of the family and which keeps their memory alive, so I passionately cherish this “heirloom” and carefully protect it from extinction!
As far back as I can remember, the kitchen was the central part of the house. Ethereal smells escaped from that very 50’s-looking room and crept into the whole house. When we arrived, relieved after having walked a few kilometres from the train station, located in the middle of nowhere, to their village, the first thing that greeted us was the glorious smell of cooking and baking, which transformed my grandparents’ spooky home (creepy events happened there…) into a warm, cozy place to stay. A heavenly feeling!
It is absolutely impossible to forget my grandmother’s seasonal soups (onion soup, nettle soup, potato soup, etc.), green salads (home-grown lettuce or hand-picked dandelion leaves), stews (lapin à la crème or rabbit in sour cream & mustard sauce, made with the rabbits raised and butchered by my grandfather; her rôtis (roasts) and bouillis (beef from which bouillon or soup was made); her salée à la crème“, gâteaux (in those latitudes people commonly use the term “gâteau” to describe a “tart” or “galette”) made with home-grown fruit (apples, berries and rhubarb – rhubarb is not a fruit but a vegetable, I know, but it can nearly be categorized in this way); her luscious meringues served with thick golden cream scraped from the top of the milk basin (in the olden days my grandparents got all their cheese, milk and butter from the village dairy – this stopped at the beginning of the 90’s); her canned sour cherries and her homemade Kirsch.
The most vivid recollections I have of my grandparents are very much linked to that of indulgence and gluttony (the non-Biblical or moral meaning of the word) as what they served me was always delicious, natural-tasting and assembled with much attention to detail and dexterity. My grandmother might not have been a sentimental or visibly open-hearted woman who expressed her feelings, but she was always generous when it came to filling our stomachs and put all her soul into that task. I cannot recall having ever been hungry while staying at my grandparents’ home. I guess it was her way of showing that she had consideration for us. As we all know, “a way to a man’s (and why not woman’s?) heart is through his stomach”…
Whether she delighted in staying in front of the stove or not still eludes me. I rather think that she took her role as housewife seriously and did what she had to do without contemplating her condition, since there was no other option. Nevertheless, she poured all her energy into making dazzling dishes and as a result, she served succulent chows every day.
My grandparents nearly never bought any of their vegetables and fruits. They were self-sufficient and the only products they purchased came from the butcher’s, the cheese dairy or the store bus, which drove into their village on a weekly basis. When it came to berries (gooseberries, blackcurrants, blackberries, etc.), grapes, apples, plums/prunes, green salads, leeks, potatoes, dandelions, mushrooms, herbs, wine, rabbit meat, my grandfather was in charge. He either grew them or went into the countryside to pick or hunt them himself. They ate according to the season and only served regional products. The perfect diet.
Although my grandmother’s cuisine was varied, the same recipes turned up on a more or less regular basis. She was not the adventurous type, so she rarely improvised, invented or prepared anything new, nor did she feel the need to step into unknown territory. All her recipes came from a (virtual) repertoire, passed down from generation to generation, never questioned and never changed.
Through her modest, yet hearty and flavourful food, I learnt a lot about Vaud’s culinary traditions and since then, my admiration for it is undying. I really adore those farm-style dishes, impregnated with the spirit of this region’s customs and people. They are a reflection of that canton’s rich cultural heritage.
If not for my grandparents, I might never have eaten all those unique dishes or even heard about them! Unfortunately, it saddens me not to own any of my Mémé’s handwritten recipes and to have never been shown how to prepare them. Anyway, the little I was able to witness was enough to supply me with precious information in order to help me reproduce everything and obtain the recipes I was looking for after a lot of intensive brainstorming and nerve-wracking research on the Internet (some of them are very difficult to find). Through my persistance, I was able to recreate all the specialities I had tasted in my formative years, and which made up an integral part of my childhood.
A simple, but precious recipe
One of my granny’s all-time classic goodies was an unpretentious vanilla sheet cake called Galette Du Pont, which she unfailingly baked on the occasion of our visits. Although it is quite basic and nothing posh, this soothingly soft and delicious sponge-like pastry — very similar to a Victoria Sponge or a Galette Bretonne/Gâteau Breton Au Beurre, the buckwheat crêpes from Brittany in France — always brought a grin to our faces and filled us with immense joy. It had a homey quality that instantly made us feel cozy and comfortable.
Regrettably, I don’t know anything about this recipe’s origin, story or why it carries such an intriguing name. There is no mention in of it any book nor in cyberspace. Anyway, I have decided to share this very special recipe here, on The Rambling Epicure, so that it is finally pulled out of oblivion and put into the spotlight for the world to savour…
Galette Du Pont
Makes one large 24 x 37 cm sheet cake
Click here for metric conversions
500g all-purpose flour
3 Tsp baking powder
1/2 Tsp fine sea salt
125g unsalted butter
250g castor sugar
2 Tbs peanut oil (or any other neutral oil)
2 1/2 Tsp pure vanilla extract
4 large eggs, at room temperature
16-18 Tbs full fat milk (or enough to obtain a smooth and spreadable cake batter)
- Preheat oven to 180° C (350° F).
- Grease a rectangular sheet pan.
- In a medium bowl, mix together the flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat together the butter and sugar until pale, light and fluffy.
- Add the peanut oil and vanilla. Continue beating until fully incorporated.
- Add the 4 eggs, one at a time, beating/mixing all the while until well blended.
- Incorporate the dry ingredients and the milk, alternating between the two, while mixing well, until all ingredients are totally combined and the batter is homogenous.
- Pour into the pan and spread evenly.
- Bake for about 45 minutes or until golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean.
- Cool the cake in the pan on a wire rack, covered with a towel (it keeps it damp) and remove mould or cake pan once it is cold.
This cake is best eaten on the same day you bake it and is delicious when served alone (that’s how my grandmother served it). It is also perfect when frosted or sliced in the middle and filled with buttercream, cream and strawberry jam, Nutella, pastry cream, etc., or just simply topped with fresh strawberries and whipped cream. You can even use it to make trifles or puddings.
*Please note that I am only speaking about grandmothers and not grandfathers as, in the past, the division of tasks in society was such that women were always assigned the task of cooking. At this time, men and women rarely shared the housework, thus cooking dinner was exclusively a feminine chore. Women held a certain knowledge that is moving toward of extinction, since women work outside the home and the basic knowledge of cooking has not been passed down to the majority of men.
The purpose of this article is not to debate about the positive or negative effects of the emancipation of women, but rather to point out the fact that a certain gastronomic “heritage” is disappearing into oblivion.
**And let’s not forget that women in Switzerland were only granted the right to vote in 1971.
Original recipe by Rosa Mayland, June 2011