Searching for the perfect Pinte

August 15, 2010 § Leave a comment

No, not another piece enthusing about English beer but a story of trying to find something simple to eat in Vevey, a market town on the shores of Lac Léman (Lake Geneva) in the Swiss canton of Vaud.

During our summer tour of Switzerland I decided it was time to revisit some of my old haunts. Back in the late 80’s and early 90’s, I spent 4 winters in Vevey working in the offices of a certain international food company. There was a whole team of us out there (referred to unimaginatively as the Equipe) and we must have dined at pretty much every half-decent restaurant within a 15 mile radius of the town.

Back then, the gastronomical heights were occupied by the legendary Frédy Girardet in his restaurant in Crissier above Lausanne. Just about everywhere else was readily accessible and welcoming, serving up generous portions of Suisse Romande cuisine. It was here that I first encountered the Swiss custom of the deuxième service: finish one plate of steak, potatoes, vegetables or whatever and it is whisked away and replaced with an identical one! A blessing or a curse, depending on your point of view.

Something has happened in Vevey in the last 25 years. It’s come out in a rash of Michelin stars and Gault Millau points. For example, I remember Brent as a sleepy little village just above Vevey’s brash neighbour Montreux. It’s now home to Le Pont de Brent, celebrity chef Gérard Rabaey’s 3 Michelin star 19 Gault Millau points restaurant.

Vevey itself is home to Switzerland’s answer to Heston Blumenthal, Denis Martin, whose 2 Michelin star 18 Gault Millau point restaurant is in the Rue du Château, close to the swanky lakeside Trois Couronnes hotel.

With 2 boys in tow (one teenage and one nearly so), we weren’t really in the market for a lengthy candlelit molecular gastronomy session. We were looking for something simpler, a pinte Vaudoise in fact.

What’s a pinte Vaudoise I hear you ask. This is what the official website of the Office of Vaudois Wines www.vins-vaudois.com has to say:

“A recommended pinte vaudoise is a public establishment, all or part of which constitutes a welcoming village inn where you can have wine and a meal. Its primary purpose is to feature Vaudois terroirs, food specialties and A.O.C. wines. Their managers pay great attention to welcoming guests and training their staff to be Vaudois terroir experts. Recommended pintes vaudoises are friendly, so that guests feel like coming back and recommending them to friends.”

Talking of local wines and vineyards, even these have moved upmarket with the intricately terraced Lavaux vineyards becoming a UNESCO world heritage site in 2007. The Lavaux is the 30 km long lakeside strip of land running from the picturesque Château de Chillon in the East to the outskirts of Lausanne in the West.

Scanning the list of pintes available both from the tourist office and the Office of Vaudois wines website, we discovered that we were in luck. Included was the restaurant of our hotel, the Hôtellerie de Châtonneyre, right in the middle of the wine village of Corseaux. The Chât, as we English had christened the hotel, hadn’t changed a bit in 25 odd years. As far as décor and plumbing went, this was not necessarily a good thing, but it was good to see the menu just as I remember it. For a first night in Vevey, there was only one thing to order: Filets de perche, frais du lac:

These small lake fish are found on most of the local restaurant menus. There was only one option to drink with them, a bottle of crisp white Chardonne from grapes grown on the hillside beneath which we were sitting on our sunny terrace.

The boys both ordered duck breast with potato galettes, equally delicious. Pudding was a rather wonderful gratin of raspberries (sabayon poured over fresh raspberries then the dish flashed under the grill to brown and caramelise just a little) served with a melon sorbet.

The next even we decided to visit another old haunt, the Auberge de l’Onde in the neighbouring wine village of St Saphorin. The lakeside village with traditional buildings and narrow winding streets is impossibly picturesque but not designed for the modern motor car as we discovered in an a frank exchange of views with a German registered SUV. You can sit outside on warm evenings:

We opted for the cosy dark wood panelled pinte dining room. It had about as much in common with a true traditional pinte as Heston Blumenthal’s pub does to a traditional British boozer. Why so? With the arrival of ambitious chef Patrick Zimmerman, the Auberge has been taken relentlessly upmarket and has gained a Michelin star and 15 Gault Millau points along the way. This means you won’t find many horny-handed locals supping here. On the night we dined, pretty much all the clientele were, like ourselves, tourists, from the UK, US and Italy.

Although the place felt rather precious, food and service were top class. I opted for the good value Menu du Jour featuring more lake fish, this time the féra (as far as I know unknown in the UK, Latin name Coregonus fera). This is a larger fish than the perch with firm white delicate tasting fillets, just right with the braised leeks, steamed potatoes and beurre blank type sauce with which it was served.

All well and good, but not truly authentic. It was not until we went back to the village of Chardonne where I rented apartment within the village house of Clos Jean-Louis that I spotted what I’d been looking for all along, the unassuming Café au Bon Vin. The menu features typical Vaudois dishes including the mysterious Malakoff. Apparently you can have two of these as a main course and if you like, a third in place of pudding. What were these things?

Thanks to the rather wonderful Swiss-authored food blog www.fxcuisine.com I discovered both that a malakoff is a deep-fried cheese stick and also found detailed instructions, photos and a recipe for whipping some up back home. I commend the blog to you.

Sadly, our discovery of the Café au Bon Vin was too late. We didn’t have time to try it out as we were en route to our mountaintop Mongolian yurt experience…

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