Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Bern, Switzerland

I had the distinct pleasure of spending 2 weeks in beautiful Bern, Switzerland.  What an amazingly picturesque place!  The adorable little cobblestone streets flanked by swanky upscale shops with the occasional majestic belltower were right up my alley, so to speak.  However, traveller beware!  The prices are not for the faint of heart nor the light in the pocketbook.  An average meal will easily run you $40-$50 without extra courses like appetizer or dessert.  It may be cost prohibitive if you have a penchant for backpacking.

I stayed at the Best Western Bristol, not to be confused with the Best Western Baern which is right next door.  Their rooms are small, but quaint and perfectly adequate.  If you get a room on a higher floor, it may have a little balcony perfect for people-watching on early autumn afternoons.  The hotel has a breakfast buffet that is European continental: meats, cheeses, fruit, soft boiled eggs, and of course lots of breads.  I specifically wrote the hotel in advance and asked for my dietary needs to be accommodated.  Sure enough, they had a plate of three slices of gluten-free bread carefully wrapped in plastic wrap waiting for me every morning.

As I began to tackle the task of feeding myself, I found that many traditionally swiss restaurants will encourage you to choose a salad.  Most salads come with a few forms of sauerkraut mixed in with the greens, olives, tomatoes, and cheese.  The tangy accent made salad dressing peripheral if not unnecessary.  But if wetting your salad is a must, all restaurants will have oil and vinegar at the ready.  Honestly, the salads were so fresh, crisp, and flavorful, that it took a few days for me to seek out alternatives.

da Bucolo Ristorante
Amthausgasse  10
3011 Bern

In the first few days I had heard whisperings of a pizzeria that was fabled to sell gluten-free pies.  I renewed my quest for Celiac friendly offerings and sought out the 'da Bucolo' Ristorante.  It's a quaint little shop with a bright red facade and a warm yellow glow from the large picture window.  I found it like a beacon in the dark evening.  We entered full of anticipation!  The aroma of warm baked bread and Italian herbs filled the small gust of air displaced by our arrival.  But our gastronomic desires would quickly be denied, as all gluten-free pizza is by reservation 24 hours prior to dining time.  We, of course, made a reservation for the next night and moved on to another establishment.

The time finally came for us to enjoy the offerings of 'da Bucolo'.  This time when we walked in, our table was ready for us and the dough for my pizza had been prepared.  I was given an abbreviated gluten-free pizza menu with the choices that are celiac safe.  Apparently many of the meats in Switzerland are somehow considered off-limits for folks who are wheat sensitive.  So, the toppings for the pies are different combinations on the gluten-free menu than on the standard one.  Regardless, there was a reasonable selection of about 12 different choices.

I chose a pizza consisting of prosciutto, tomatoes, cheese, and spinach.  As with every meal I had in Bern, the ingredients were fresh and the flavors intense.  The dough was a good consistency and was moist and mildly stretchy; one of the best gluten-free pies I've had!  This place is a must-see when making your way through the capital city.  If for any reason you miss the bright red window and door, you're sure to notice the chalkboard A-frame sidewalk sign advertising their gluten-free option.  But don't forget in all of your excitement to make a reservation in advanced. It's a great disappointment to be turned away at the door.

China Imperial
Bärenplatz 21
3011 Bern, Switzerland
031 312 54 00  

Another restaurant that I found through trial and error was the China Imperial.  It's a unique dining style that consists of a self-serve bar of dozens of uncooked meats and vegetables.  For 20 Francs you can pile as many items on a single plate as you can balance and bring them to the open grill for stir-frying.  The options are endless...chicken, beef, pork, lamb, shrimp, tuna, squid, lettuce, carrots, onions, peppers, mushrooms, tomatoes, and surely many other items I can't remember.  Once your plate is full, you choose the cooking oils in which the plate contents will be fried.  There's ginger oil, pepper oil, and sesame oil.  Mix and match at will.  You then hand over your oily uncooked concoction to the grill master who then stir-fries it up for you.  BEWARE:  The same grill surface is used for everyone and adding wheat noodles to the dish is an option.  Although they scrape the grill surface between dishes, there's a huge possibility for cross-contamination.  I'm not that sensitive to CC, so I experienced no problems.  There are also a bunch of sauces that can be added after-the-fact.  I chose to stay away from the sauces, as I was unsure which were safe and which contained soy sauce or some other hidden contaminant.  Since I wasn't getting noodles, I took advantage of the two large pots of rice: fried and white.  Of course I was limited to the white rice, but a perfect healthy complement to my heaping stirfry.  I ate here twice during my two weeks and was completely satisfied every time.  I found it refreshing to have control over which exact ingredients were going on my plate, ultimately prepared by me.

Jungfraujoch - Mönchsjoch Hut
When the weekend came, we escaped the capital and ascended to the highest train stop in Europe: Jungfraujoch - Top of Europe.  It take about 3 hours from Bern to reach the summit and you have to change trains 3 or 4 times.  Once you reach the top, you'll find yourself in a large complex of pathways.  My coworker and I decided to walk from the main complex through the snow trail to the Mönchsjoch Hut to get lunch.  It was advertised as a 30 minute walk.  Apparently the Swiss are much more acclimated to the altitude, wind, and temperature than we were.  It took us upwards of an hour to finally reach our destination.  By this time we were starving, exhausted, and thrilled to sit down.  

The small hut on the mountain side offers traditional Swiss fare.  When I produced my food restriction card, the two proprietors sadly told me that the beef broth soup was all I could have.  Luckily, they also had some impulse buy candy bars displayed, and Snickers was available.  So alas, after some serious hiking for my pathetic out-of-shape self, all I was rewarded with was a bowl of broth and candy bar.  I don't post this because I regret the experience, but merely as a head's up that if you're planning lunch here, bring your own snacks to supplement your meal of broth.

Loeb Department Store
When I began to feel that I was going bankrupt by the ridiculously expensive salads I was eating, I began seeking more frugal alternatives.  Across the street from my hotel was a grocery mart run by the Loeb Department Store.  With zero knowledge of Swiss German, I poked through the aisles and shelves to see what kind of meal I could procure for myself.  

There was a premade salad selection that included an Insalada Caprese...basically tomatoes, basil, and mozzarella.  I found a Fage Total yogurt with honey, Tyrrell's salt and vinegar potato chips.  These items made for a very filling and fairly healthy meal for a good price.  Way less than if I had gone out to a restaurant.  I added some gluten-free chocolate chip cookies provided to me by a Swiss friend, and the meal was complete.  The package of cookies didn't seem to have a brand name on them, so I've included them in the photo so that maybe someone can identify them.

I hope this inspires everyone to go to Switzerland!  It was fantastic!