Thursday, August 30, 2007

Nature's Candy

When we eventually leave Switzerland for our next adventure, it is hard to say what I will miss most about this enchanting little landlocked nation. Mickey wouldn't hesitate to say that he'll miss the car-less lifestyle: going about your day without mood-draining traffic jams, without the stress of hunting for parking and unconcerned about the price per gallon (or liter) of gasoline. I too will miss the ease of public transportation. Indeed, there is something truly liberating about making plans to meet friends in town without arranging a carpool or appointing a designated driver. What will stay with me long after I've readjusted to my dependence on a car, however, is the wholesomeness of this place.

When I returned from our two week tour through Italy, I was surprised by how glad I was to be back in Switzerland. It was refreshing to not see trash on the ground and to get friendly service again. Even just breathing felt different because the air is so much cleaner here. In some ways it felt like we had experienced two European extremes; whereas Italy was hot, crowded, dirty, spicy and flavorful, Switzerland was cooler, calmer, cleaner, blander and more wholesome. I've played around with a lot of different adjectives for a feeling that accompanies blue skies, white peaks, green hills, shimmering lakes and cheerful hikers and 'wholesome' fits. Wholesome is not letting your kids watch TV and slicing your own fresh loaf of nutty wheat bread. Wholesome is creamy, fatty dairy products from pretty brown and white spotted cows with giant, clanging bells around their necks. Wholesome is daily trips to the market, buying farm fresh, hormone-free eggs and toting them home in your own basket or canvas bag. Wholesome is Switzerland.

It's funny that this notion of Switzerland as a tidy, healthy, natural utopia prevails even when reality suggests otherwise. Switzerland is known to the rest of the world as the home of fondue and many Swiss do in fact enjoy this national dish apr├ęs ski in the winter. When foreigners partake in the national tradition, however, they glance at the trim Swiss and get tricked into thinking they've chosen a wholesome, healthy menu option. 'The bread is so warm and yeasty and the cheese is local so how could I go wrong?' they naively wonder. As is the case with another Swiss national favorite, raclette (cheese on potatoes), you never put the portion you plan to eat all on your plate at one time. You stab a cube of bread, dip into the communal pot of melted, stinky goodness, eat and repeat. It's only twenty minutes later that you realize that you just downed the equivalent of have a loaf of bread and a quarter pound of cheese. You look around again at the slim Swiss ladies and scratch your head, puzzled. Sigh. I guess wholesome doesn't indicate healthy, but instead cheese made from 'whole' milk served with a 'whole' lot of carbs. Likewise, even I got fooled into bragging about Switzerland's clean air in the paragraph above before recalling that Switzerland's anti-smoking laws are years behind those of other smoker-friendly European nations. (Cough, cough). But now I'm on to you, Switzerland.

Whether the wholesomeness of this country is real or an illusion almost doesn't matter to me, though. The natural beauty of the village in which I work has bewitched me completely and nothing can tarnish the memories I've already made here. It was spectacular in the winter because of the way the snow blanketed the hills and frosted the branches of every tree, but summer and its bounty give this quiet village another appeal.

First came the cherries; it was early June when boxes of dark, plump cherries appeared at the farm house for four francs a box. Paola suggested I pick up a box for Elena and the family, but there were none left for anyone by the time we got home. These were the best cherries I had ever tasted not only because they were ripe, but because they were incredibly fresh. The farmer picked them, brought them less than 100 yards away to the farm house, boxed them and sold them to me. When produce needs to travel long distances, growers chemically treat the fruits and veggies to help them survive the journey. My cherries didn't require any treatment and thus had the softest flesh and bursted with sweet flavor at the first bite. I couldn't get enough of these cherries and started to pick a couple off my employer's neighbor's tree every time I walked by. Getting caught by the neighbor made me feel a little bit like Peter Rabbit when Mr. McGreggor catches him in his garden; I wanted to hide in a watering can. The situation became more awkward when we realized that we didn't speak a common language and I was her neighbor's employee. She rung Paola as soon as she got back in the house and graciously offered to let me and the children pick cherries any time we liked. Whew!

I was disappointed when cherry season came to an end, but I wasted no time in taking advantage of plum season. Paola had warned me about how good the cherries were, but I was not prepared for the quality of the plums. The plums I was used to had a brownish flesh with patches of red and pink and the pit was difficult to remove. The plums I bought at the farmhouse, on the other hand, were in another league. The flesh was a golden color shocked with a hint of lime that complemented the deep purple of the skin beautifully. The hue was so striking that I decided they should change the color 'plum' to refer not to the skin of the fruit, but the flesh.

Now that plum season is also over, I have moved on to wild blackberries. Eating blackberries is much more fun than even the delicious cherries or plums because you cannot purchase them at the farm house. You have to pick them yourself off of prickly bushes covered with spider webs. You may be wondering where the fun part is in that, but there is nothing like pulling a living, growing thing off of a plant and popping it into your mouth. The pleasure inherent in this abbreviation of the food chain feels completely natural, like something from our hunting/gathering past. I've gotten really good at identifying which berries are ripe. My secret is to look for those that are uniformly black (dark, dark purple), extremely plump and have a slightly wrinkled texture. If they are truly ripe, they will give easily when you pull them off the vine. I perfected my technique on a vine with hundreds of blackberries on a pedestrian pathway near Paola's house. Elena and I would stuff our faces until we couldn't find any more ripe berries.

Unfortunately, our days of blackberry picking bliss came to an abrupt halt when we got caught red-handed (or purple-handed). Yeah, I probably should have learned my lesson the first time and of course, the fact that this little area where the vine grew was gated should have been a clue that the blackberries were private property. Two middle aged people, first a man and then a woman leaned out from their balcony to shout at us. I couldn't understand exactly what they said, but I can make a pretty good guess. I considered acting like a complete jerk and shouting back 'ich verstiehe nicht' (I don't understand), but that would have only made things worse. It's funny that I was the one stealing, but still felt like they were in the wrong. They would have never been able to eat all those blackberries alone; in fact, some were rotting on the vine. As I walked away I wondered who felt like the bigger idiot, me for stealing fruit again from my employer's neighbors or them for shouting at a foreign au pair for sharing their blackberries with two little girls.

That was three weeks ago and I still haven't learned my lesson. I found a blueberry and a raspberry bush near Hannah's place and I cannot resist plucking a few scrumptious berries every time I visit. The risk of getting caught again somehow doesn't outweigh my addiction to the instant gratification of berry picking. Still, my karma has and will catch up with me. Two months ago I became so enamored with the novelty of ready to eat food growing on trees that I tried almost anything that looked like a berry. Not far from the blueberry and raspberry bushes grows a red currant berry plant. I suspected these were in fact red currants, but wasn't positive so I popped one in my mouth to find out and was pleasantly surprised. I found a similar bush with a similar berry near the old kindergarten building and eagerly gave these a taste test. The sharp, bitter flavor told me straightaway that these were not red currants. What if they are poisonous? I started to panic and spit them out.

It is a mystery even to me why I can't stay away from berry bushes after getting yelled at and nearly poisoned. I think it has something to do with the fact that I grew up in a suburb of Los Angeles, in a climate too hot for many berries and land too precious to be used on anything but housing and roads. It is ironic that my home state is one of the most productive agriculturally and yet industrial farming allows many California residents to remain oblivious to how food arrives at their local supermarkets. When I pick berries in Switzerland I can understand why farming is romanticized in literature and for political purposes; I can see why all those hippies wanted to give up their worldly possessions and move to kibbutzes in the 1970s. Modern and especially urban life demands that we keep a safe distance from our food. We almost don't want to know what farmers have to do (genetic modification, pesticides, unfair labor practices, etc.) to bring us large quantities of food so cheaply. And I guess that is why I find this little village in Switzerland so wholesome and irresistible. Buying my fruit directly from the farmhouse and picking berries allows me to reconnect with the land and nature, and I hope I never forget this sensation of feeling so wonderfully... human.

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