Under My Foreign Vine and Fig Tree – Switzerland

This is the second article in January of the School for Housewives 1907 series published on January 13, 1907, and is a continuation of last year’s talk on keeping house in foreign countries and what can be learned from Switzerland.

Transcribed from the Sunday edition of Boston Sunday Post.

Under My Foreign Vine and Fig Tree


NO CONDITION, or combination of untoward conditions, is intolerable when once one has seen the ridiculous side of it. A laugh salves the smart of defeat and blunts the edge of an insult.

The funny side of our initial experiences in Swiss cookery was quick in coming to the front. It lay in the discovery that not one of our family party could speak the language of the region in which we had pitched our moving tent for six months. And this although a year in Italy had given half of the number a colloquial acquaintance with the musical, facile tongue. Granted a tolerable familiarity with spoken and written French and a substratum of Latin, and Italian was the easiest of lingual tasks. We had furbished up our French in anticipation of the year in the Swiss Republic, for was it not the vernacular of the free-born Switzer?

A Trying Lingual Experience

“Boy,” now 5 years of age, and a glib chatterbox in three languages, was one of the first to proclaim our formidable disability. Returning, red of face and swelling with rage, from a visit to the excellent fruit market on the shore of the lake along which ran the crooked streets of the historic town, he thus relieved his humble soul: “I asked an old woman how she sold her grapes, and she said a long nonsense I had never heard before. And when I told her ‘Non capisco Tedesco,’ she laughed at me. It was good Italian, and meant I don’t understand your horrid old Dutch!”

We laughed, too, at the small man’s discomfiture, and brought our proverbial family philosophy to bear upon countless similar experiences no less surprising and inconvenient, the unlooked-for obstacles to settling down comfortably in our chosen nest. The speech of the common people of Lucerne and the surrounding region is a wretched patois of blended German and French, with a smack of Italian, introduced, as our disgusted Parisian professor used to say—“pour la rendre plus difficile.” As if it were not difficult enough already to make the earlier weeks of our sojourn in Helvetian lodgings a series of distractions!

From first to last, the fruit market in which “Boy” had his hard lesson was a surprise and a delight. Grapes, figs, oranges, pears, nespolis (a novelty to us) and berries were a delicious jumble that set season at defiance. We ate Alpine strawberries in November and grapes and pears at the same meal.

In September of the next year we reached Geneva just in time for the autumnal “grape-cure,” of which I have written somewhat at length in our Exchange. We “took” the cure conscientiously, but neither then, nor ever, did we learn to like the much-lauded grapes of Switzerland and Germany. They were fair to view, and, we thought, at first sight, preposterously cheap. The latter opinion we changed after sampling every variety we could lay hands upon. They were sour when fully ripe, even those that blushed rosily on the side of the cluster kissed by the sun. The purple-and-gold of the finest varieties was a delusion and a snare to eye and taste, until we came to know them well.

The berries, including currants and gooseberries, were delicious, and, as I have said, phenomenal in the length of seasonableness, in consequence of the wide range of altitudes in the mountain lands.

Here, as in Italy, our rooms were lofty as to ceiling; the windows were casements, opening down to the floor, and the floors were of brick in the chambers, stone in the salon and dining-room. When we got to Geneva we entered upon the realm of parquetries and rugs. The stairs were of stone, everywhere, and uncarpeted.

The Swiss are, as a nation, notably clean, and their thrift sets an object lesson to all Christendom. In none of our bedrooms was there any provision for a fire, and the steady wood-blaze that never went out in our big salon was a continual marvel—and I suspect a scandal—to our landlady and native visitors. This when the snow that lay on the mountain tops the year round cloaked the lower heights, and fierce winds filled the air with whirling white and drove long lines of fine flakes between the ill-fitting leaves of the long casements. We had fallen into the practice in Italy of tucking hot-water jugs between our sheets nightly to temper the chill of the beds. An assortment of tall round water jugs, used for this purpose and none other, is as regularly apart of household plenishing as cups and saucers and knives and forks. There was running water, hot and cold, in the kitchen, and cold in the bathroom, the primitive appointments of which would have moved us to active discontent had there been any hope of altering them. Since there was none, we pushed the family philosophy hard in that direction, and got many a laugh out of this and dozens of other discomforts.

Europe is Late Breakfasting

America leads the world in the matter of early breakfasts. In Switzerland, as in Italy, France, Germany and England, we arose at the hour at which we would have sat down to the first meal of the day at home. Not a shop in the business portion of Lucerne, Lausanne or Geneva was opened before 9 o’clock. To desert one’s pillow before 8 would be to invite remark, and the inconveniences of an uncleaned, unwarmed apartment. Not a drop of hot water could be had at 7, or at 7.30. We were lucky if we could secure a pint apiece for our matutinal ablutions at 8, and early in the season began to utilize the embers of the extravagant salon fire for heating a kettleful shaving water and to take the chill from boy’s bath. Firewood was the most expensive it m in our weekly bills. We computed that the short billets cut from small trees we would call saplings at home and the bunches of dried twigs bound into fagots for kindling cost at least $20 a cord. And this in a house that had no furnace to make, as it were, a background of heat for the ceaseless flare of our ruinous wood fire!

An Uncomplaining Maid

Breakfast was served in the salon upon a table drawn directly in front of the hearth. It was brought up from the lodging-house kitchen, three flights below, upon a huge tray, borne by a pretty maid about five feet two inches in height. When Marie comes to America she will not “engage” in a house where there is not a dumb-waiter from the kitchen to the dining room, one floor above. For four months she lugged the loaded tray up three flights of stone stairs with never a murmur, except on one dreadful morning when an incautious step on the topmost stair brought the corner of the tray in to contact with the railing, and tray and contents —coffee, cocoa, rolls, eggs, marmalade, cups, saucers and plates—went hurtling down the abysmal well of the lofty stairways and crashed upon the stone floor of the basement. What wonder that the poor little maiden, all forlorn, sat herself down on the upper stair and wailed aloud!

“For it is I who will have to pay for all that is broken!” was the burden of her plaint.

Of course, as “soft” foreigners, we made ourselves responsible for the breakages—deliverance for which we suffered in the esteem of our landlady—“padrona,” as we had learned to call her in Italy. Nor will Marie set it down to the account of some other American mistress when she emigrates.

The Swiss breakfast differed from the usual continental pattern in nothing save that marmalade of some kind was an invariable accompaniment of rolls and coffee, and that a slab of tough Swiss cheese balanced the butter. Nobody ever ate it, and, for all we know, the same slab may have mounted guard the season through. The Swiss are as strong on cheese as are the Netherlanders. I do not recollect that it ever failed to appear in some form at every meal to which we sat down during the eight months we passed in the tight little republic. Nor that breakfast or luncheon was ever set before us that did not display a glass dish of “confitures,” alias jam, alias marmalade. The abundance and all-the-year-around supply of fruits may account for the craze in this line. Every housewife puts up her own fruit. “Canned goods” have no harbor in her larder. The Swiss honey also goes with the simple breakfast. Sometimes it is strained; oftener it is served in the comb, clear as amber, and fragrant with the distilled breath of mountain thyme and other wild blossoms that help to make the Swiss flora the richest in the world.

We became, in time, so fond of the native bread as to find the fine white rolls sent in from a French bakery insipid by comparison. The Swiss housewife rarely makes fresh yeast, or sponge. She carries it from one baking to another for weeks together. It may be that this custom accounts for the slight “tang,” sometimes sharpening into sourness, that is seldom absent from the loaf. It is a mammoth loaf, and round and high. Thick slices were hewn from it as it was called for at table. It had a stand all to itself, at luncheon; it was a creamy brunette in complexion, being made from whole wheat, and was, altogether, so wholesome and whole-souled, that we gave it a distinguished place in our regard.

Luncheon was spread in the dining-room at 12.30. Besides the big loaf we had a dish of hot meat—as often as not, kid or chamois, roast or braised. In spite of classic allusions to Ambracian kid carved to slow music, and winter rights in the mountain hut where the “kid turns on the spit” —we did not take kindly to him, or to his country cousin, the chamois.

Condiments Disguised the Meat

The meat came on the table, dark, almost black—colored, doubtless, by the spices cooked with it—and whatever native flavor it might have had disguised beyond recognition by the condiments. Ragouts were also frequent; we had potatoes-boiled in their jackets—always a salad, and cheese, of course. Light wine was the common beverage. For sweets there was pastry, or a layer cake of rounds of pastry separated, yet cemented by rounds of “confitures.”

Dinner was served at 6.30. Having taken up the English fashion of afternoon tea early in our pilgrimage, we were comparatively indifferent to the defects of our luncheons, solacing ourselves at 4 o’clock with the most informal, social and refreshing function of the day. Other exiles from the homeland and resident English soon fell into the habit of dropping in at teatime, until our modest salon became the rendezvous for a coterie of the most charming people I have ever had the good fortune to know. We brewed the tea in our own quarters, made cozy on the stormiest day by the American innovation of the open fire. The silver teakettle bubbled gayly over the alcohol lamp; we had light cakes and biscuits, thin bread and butter, lemon for those who preferred tea a la Russe to tea with sugar and cream—and this was all! Some of my happiest reminiscences of foreign life are of the winter spent in dear old Geneva, and the reunions of English-speaking folk in the salon overlooking the Lake Leman, of Byron, Shelley and Bonnivard, the snow-capped Juras forming the horizon line.

The Dinner Menu

Our chat was usually prolonged until we had just time to dress hurriedly for dinner. The first course was soup— sometimes a thin bouillon floating noodles or rice or manestra. A broth of lentils suggested “Tedesco” kinship about twice a week. Sometimes we had a “potage a la bonne femme,” which had squares of toasted bread a drift upon a sea of consomme besprinkled will parsley.

Fish followed the soup. The lake furnished a fair variety, and it was invariably breaded and fried. Potatoes went around with it. Next appeared a solitary vegetable—cabbage, with a cheese sauce; fried celery; or stewed celery root, or artichokes eaten with a sauce tartare or dipped in melted butter, an entree of sweetbreads, or, maybe, of boiled “bolognas,” attended by greens of unknown name and family. The roast was, three or four times a week, chickens. Turkeys and ducks appeared so rarely as hardly to deserve a notice. We got up an American Thanksgiving dinner in Geneva, even achieving a mince pie.

Fowls were cooked with their heads on. The somewhat gruesome fashion had crept across the frontier from the country that had lent gutturals to the French the natives assume to speak. Salad of some kind—chickory and endives being favorites of our housemother—was served with the roast. It is an uncomely custom, to my notion. The salad cools the fowls, and the hot meat wilts the crispness of the salad, but it has been adopted in America since we made our daily protest against it in Switzerland.

Biscuits and the inevitable cheese succeeded a course of fruit, pastry, custard or cream, wrought into fantastic shapes.

We affected especially “crema montata,” or goat’s milk, whipped to a standing froth and sweetened. Served with strawberries, fresh or preserved, it found signal favor in our eyes and mouths.

Black coffee wound up the list of courses.

The only time I ever saw snails on the table, and eaten, was in Switzerland. We had seen them by the barrelful in Parisian shops, and, after one shuddering gaze, turned away our eyes from beholding what was so abhorrent to transatlantic gastronomic prejudices. They are put up for the market, boiled in the shell, and shrinking in the process to a greenish paste. Gamins buy them by the handful, and dig out the paste with finger-mails and pins, devouring it greedily at the street corners.

During our temporary residence at a Genevan pension, I chanced, one day, to meet the proprietress in the corridor with a basket of snails in her hands. At my inquiring look she stopped to explain:

“M.B” (a Russian boarder) “has weak lungs, and is advised by the physicians to eat des coquilles for the malady.”

“M.B.” sat opposite to me at luncheon, and in front of him was a bowl of what might have been long clams, boiled down to a gray, thick broth. I tried hard not to witness his consumption of the mess, and harder still, to swallow my own food.

Tuberculosis in France and Switzerland took on, for me, new horrors from the incident.

Yet why not snails as well as frog’s legs, raw oysters, clams and oyster crabs?


Potato Salad Dressing

Make a good mayonnaise in the usual way, and to a cupful add two large potatoes prepared thus: Boil in their jackets, peel while hot and rub through a fine colander or vegetable press. Whip, when cold, into the mayonnaise gradually, stirring until the creamy mixture is smooth. Season with salt, pepper and a dash of onion juice, and just before serving, stir into the mayonnaise the white of an egg whipped stiff.

This is an excellent dressing for a macedoine salad, one of tomatoes, or of fish. It is best suited for a side dish at luncheon or supper. Eat with brown and cheese.

Baked Eggs

Into a bakedish which has been warmed and generously buttered pour a cupful of milk which has been made a little more than lukewarm. Add a teaspoonful of strained onion juice, set in the oven and, a minute later, drop carefully into the milk five or six eggs, or as many as will lie in the dish without crowding. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and bake until the eggs are “set,” but not hard.

Berry Mousse

To a pint of the squeezed and strained juice of currants, raspberries or strawberries add a pound of white sugar. Stir until dissolved and bring to a boil. Keep this up for five minutes, taking off the rising scum. Meanwhile, beat six eggs light in a bowl and pour the boiling syrup slowly upon them, stirring all the time. Put back over the fire and cook until it thickens, not intermitting the stirring for one second. Turn out to cool, stirring still for two minutes, and when cold set on ice until you are ready to use it.

Marion Harland

Housemothers’ Exchange

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