Away from the slopes, Switzerland is known for its jazz festival, fondues, Christmas markets and making the food of the gods. By Karen Pasquali Jones
The lake in front of me was perfectly still except for a waterfall on the far side gushing a torrent so inviting I wanted to dive straight in. I was in Vevey, in Switzerland but I wasn’t looking at the Alps and there was no sign of snow.
This pool was, in fact, a lake of chocolate and I was in Laderach, the renowned Swiss chocolatier’s, about to learn how to make FrischShoggi (fresh chocolate) by hand.
Dressed in whites, with a giant chef’s hat, I was tasked with creating a bar of the finest chocolate in the artisan’s workshop at the back of one of their boutiques. So, holding a mould, I filled the tray with the molten chocolate, being careful not to spill a drop, then scraped off all the excess chocolate with a very large knife.
‘Very good,’ Aurelie, our instructor said. ‘Now decorate it with whatever you like.’ Trays of enticing ingredients were laid out on a bench. ‘Less is more,’ I told myself, adding a sprinkling of tiny pieces of fudge, some hazelnuts and a handful of cranberries. Finished, my bar was placed in the blast chiller to harden, then wrapped so it looked good enough to eat. And with a price tag of 12 CHF (AED44) – not that I would sell it, it was my first chocolate bar, after all – the experience was utterly priceless.
Chocolate Grows On Trees
Chocolate, unlike money, grows on trees. It’s one of the world’s favourite foods, but cocoa is hard to grow. The trees need a tropical environment – wet and lush – so grow in a narrow band of countries around the equator, including central and south America, Africa and Asia.
More than 40 percent comes from Cote d’Ivoire, and the price of cocoa fluctuates wildly because of the weather, disease, and political upheaval, so most farmers suffer financial hardship.
Fortunately, many chocolate companies, including Laderach, use Fairtrade cocoa, which helps make cocoa farming more sustainable, and invests Fairtrade premiums in training, facilities for their communities, including schools – the literacy rate in Cote d’Ivoire is only 50 percent – medical centres, and water wells, as well as increasing volumes of cocoa beans to sell at a better rate.
A third-generation family-run confectioner’s, Laderach is a sustainable business, using fair trade ingredients and ensuring nature conservation is a priority when they select their business partners.
Switzerland is the home of some of the best chocolate in the world – Toblerone, which was created for royalty as a sweet snack, and Lindt who created the popular Swiss Thins in 1845, and Charlie Chaplin’s shoes, a novelty chocolate pair of battered boots as a tribute to Vevey’s famous resident
Switzerland is the home of some of the best chocolate in the world. It gave us Toblerone, which was created for royalty as a sweet snack, and Lindt, supposedly the best white chocolate on the planet, who created the popular Swiss Thins in 1845, and Charlie Chaplin’s shoes, a novelty chocolate pair of battered boots as a tribute to Vevey’s famous resident.
Silent Movie Star
The silent movie star moved to Manoir de Ban, a 35-acre estate in Corsier-sur-Vevey, overlooking Lake Geneva, near Lausanne, after he was banned from the United States in the Fifties over suspicions he had communist sympathies. The London-born actor spent the final 25 years of his life here with fourth wife Oona, and their eight children.
Now it’s home to Chaplin’s World, an interactive museum in his house and converted outbuildings which have been transformed into a replica of his studios. It comes complete with a cabin teetering on the edge of a cliff, reminiscent of the one in Gold Rush (it’s a bit like a see saw and moves from side to side depending on where you place your weight) and a cinema where the screen opens to reveal Easy Street, similar to East Street, in Southwark, London, from Chaplin’s impoverished childhood and the inspiration for the 1921 film, The Kid.
Chaplin became the film industry’s first international star with his genius character, The Tramp, which sparked a cult-like global following. ‘I I wanted everything to be a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large,’ he said of his famous character.’ I added a small moustache, which, I reasoned, would add age without hiding my expression. I had no idea of the character. But the moment I was dressed, the clothes and the makeup made me feel the person he was. I began to know him, and by the time I walked on stage he was fully born.’
Wandering around, we watch original home movies flickering against the walls of Chaplin’s beautiful home, along with clips from his most popular films. They show that even at 68, the perfectionist Oscar winner – who would film scenes more than 50 times before he was happy – was still agile, somersaulting into a bath for A Countess from Hong Kong, the 1967 romantic comedy he shot with Sophia Loren.
Knighted in 1975, Chaplin died two years later on Christmas Day, aged 88. He was said to have hated the festive holidays, but Christmas is one of the reasons I’m here. Switzerland is known for its Christmas markets and we’d already visited the one in Lausanne, along with the Lausanne Lights festival, which has every corner of this pretty city shimmering and twinkling at night.
After peeking at more than 160 stands of food, drinks and artisan crafts, jewellery and chocolates, we went for a fondue in the Bo Noel Igloo at the market. Warm, cosy, and flooded with lights, the waft of cheese had us all salivating, and soon we were dipping bits of crusty bread into the bubbling gruyere. It was beyond delicious and very moorish – which meant that two fondues between five vanished within ten minutes.
It meant I slept well, which wasn’t difficult in the Royal Savoy Hotel & Spa – the largest hotel in Lausanne – overlooking Lake Geneva. Opened in 1910, this historic hotel has entertained royalty, celebrities, and sporting champions as Lausanne is the Olympic Games capital, and is hosting the 2020 Winter Youth Olympics.
The ski season is being affected by global warming – there wasn’t much snow last year, and the Lake Geneva region is aware it must branch out as climate change means less cold play. Now Vaud is a wine-growing region, and has the most Michelin stars of any region in Switzerland.
The Royal Savoy has its own honey, thanks to 40,000 bees it has in three hives in the garden among the 100-year-old trees. In the distance, across the lake, is Evian, home of the famous water, which is just 35 minutes away by boat.
All That Jazz
Switzerland is also home to the second largest jazz festival in the world, which is held in July each year in Montreux, on the Lake Geneva shoreline. The Fairmont Le Montreux Palace, our next home from home, has the Montreux Jazz Café, and has played host to famous musicians and actors who have played at the festival.
Alice Cooper, Seal and Quincy Jones, have all stayed at this luxury Belle Epoch hotel, which opened in 1906. Strolling through its understated walls – where hallways had to be extra wide so that ladies in their wide gowns with bustles could pass side by side – is like taking a walk through history. Elizabeth Taylor, Ella Fitzgerald and David Niven have all been guests here, and the legacy of jazz festival founder Claude Nobs is everywhere.
Vintage records, photos of jazz icons, and pieces from his private collection are all on display in the hotel’s café where we tuck into potato pancakes with salad.
It’s our last few hours in Montreux before jumping on the train to Geneva to fly home. It’s been a fascinating stay without a snowflake in sight. Rich in history, with a thriving music and culinary scene, Switzerland is much more than the Alpine slopes and cold play. With the Christmas markets, cheese fondues and such delicious chocolates it’s a sweet life.
SWISS flies from Dubai to Geneva, with economy flights starting from AED 1,610. Rooms at Royal Savoy Hotel & Spa start from 360 CHF (AED1, 342) per night, B & B based on two adults sharing. The Fairmont Le Montreux Palace is available from 409 CHF (AED1, 525), B & B, based on two adults sharing. I was a guest of The Lake Geneva Region.