Life meanders at an unhurried pace in Appenzell, one of the most traditional of Swiss cantons, or districts. This small village on the eastern edge of Switzerland charms not just with its stunning landscape but with its sweets, meats, cheese and drinks.
My first taste of Appenzell was not the famous Swiss chocolates but a biscuit called biber. These biscuits owe their unique taste to the honey which is mixed into the dough and a blend of spices. The beautiful shape and patterns come from the hand carved wooden mould they are pressed into (usually a typical Swiss symbol). Locals carry this almond-filled biscuit for a snack at the lake or on their hikes or while trail-running. It’s quite a treat with a cup of coffee.
Appenzell is most popular for its cheese. Unlike Emmental cheese, which can be made anywhere in the world, Appenzell cheese is patented and can come only from this canton. This Swiss cheese is made from raw cow’s milk left to mature for three months. And while the cheese is maturing, it’s regularly washed with a herbal brine. The longer it matures, the spicier it becomes. This cheese really shines when buried in a sandwich or in a traditional dish called Chäshörnli—the Swiss version of macaroni and cheese. I was told the recipe of the cheese is a well-guarded secret known only to two Appenzell men. A written recipe is kept in a vault at the Appenzeller Kantonalbank!
Cheese is at the heart of many of the dishes here. Chaasflade, for instance, is a cheesecake spiced with coriander and aniseed and served with apple cider.
As I wandered the picturesque streets dotted with colourful homes and shops with wrought-iron signs, I am invited by Laimbacher, the oldest confectionery and the first café in the village, to try Landsgmendchrempfli. This delicious sugar-egg pastry is filled with hazelnuts. Traditionally these pastries were never baked at home. They were either produced in monasteries or by professional bakers. On the last Sunday of April, men who went to vote in the central square often brought Landsgmendchrempfli home for their wives (women were not allowed to vote in Appenzell till 1991). Today, they are available year-round. Brinweggen is another Swiss pastry filled with dried pears, walnuts, raisins, some brandy and spices. It’s typically prepared by spreading the filling on the dough, then rolling the whole thing like a roulade.
Richly decorated panels and emblems on Appenzell’s buildings tell their stories. A Hershey’s bar emblem stands alongside gnomes and bubble-blowing teddy bear atop the store Bazar Hersche as a reminder that Milton Hershey’s family came from Appenzell and milk chocolate was founded here.
Dried, cured meats and sausages make their way onto cheese boards and into lunchtime sandwiches. Prominent among them is the Mostbröckli, where the meat is pickled, dried and then smoked for several hours, which produces an intense, smoky flavour. It’s sold in large rolls at butcher shops, but is served as wafer-thin slices on cheese boards along with dark bread and red wine. Siedwurst a white sausage spiced with caraway seeds is Appenzell’s answer to the Bavarian Weisswurst. It’s typically served with a potato salad and bolleschweizi (fried onions) and apple sauce.
Most meals in the village are washed down with a glass of Quöllfrisch beer. The Locher family has been brewing this beer using spring waters from the Alpstein since 1886. The lovely lager is very smooth, not particularly strong.
Surprisingly, Switzerland also makes a fine whisky. Säntis Malt whisky from Appenzell has been beating Scottish whiskies in recent tastings. The spirit is aged in old beer barrels and has distinct caramel and honey notes. However, my vote goes to Alpenbitter, a dark liqueur made with a blend of 42 herbs and spices. It has a wonderfully herbal finish and a pleasantly elegant bitterness. It’s like the whole of the Alps in a glass.
The Swiss like Alpenbitter neat as a digestif after a meal. I preferred to have it with a cube of ice as it took away the bite of the 30 percent alcohol. Interestingly, I had my taste of the bitter at one of the oldest pharmacies, Löwen Drogerie, in the village.
For its size, Appenzell is packed with a remarkable number of restaurants serving hearty country food. In the afternoon when the sun is out, the locals huddle around small tables with tall, sloppy mugs of beer and rosti (pronounced roosh-ti)—a dish of shredded, fried potatoes. It is often enhanced with ham, bacon or gloriously melted cheese. The posh version is garnished with smoked salmon, sour cream and a poached egg. But nothing beats the humble rosti served with a fried egg on top at Gasthaus Bollenwees, a popular Alpine guesthouse, which comes with a side of stunning views of lake Fahlensee.
Nivedita Jayaram Pawar is a Mumbai-based food writer. Pawar was in Switzerland at the invitation of Switzerland Tourism Board.