Three Swiss Inns
I remember three restaurants in Switzerland with a special clearness: one on the lake near Lausanne, another behind it in the high hills toward Berne, and the last on the road to Lucerne, in German speaking country.
When we went back, in June of 1939, to pack our furniture and bolt the shutters, we could not believe our friends were right to make us do it. All of Europe stretched and sang under a warm sun; the crops were good; people walked about and ate and drank and smiled dreamily, like drugged cancer sufferers. Everyone was kind to us, not consciously thinking that we might never meet again, but actually knowing that it was so.
We drove toward Lucerne one day. Children were selling the first early Alpine roses along the roads—tight ugly posies, the same color as the mottled purple that the little girls’ cheeks had.
At Malters, one of the few villages of that part of the country not almost overpoweringly quaint and pretty, we stopped at the Gasthaus zum Kreuz. We wondered if Frau Weber would remember us, and if her neurasthenic daughter Anneli would be yearning still to be a chamber-maid in London, and if—most important—if there would still be trout swimming in the little tank of icy water that stood in the dining room.
Frau Weber, looking more than ever like a virile Queen Victoria, did indeed remember us, discreetly, at first, and then with floods of questions and handshakings and general delight. Anneli was there, fat, pale, still yearning, but this time for Croydon, where she hoped to exchange her Cockney accent for a more refined one. And the trout still darted behind glass in the bubbling water.
We stayed there for many hours, eating and drinking and remembering incredulously that once we had almost driven past the Kreuz without stopping.
That incident was several years ago, when my husband and I were roaming about the country with my parents. The chauffeur was sleepy after a night spent in a hotel filled with unusually pretty kitchen maids, and he lost the way. We went along roads, mazily, that led where we did not want to go at all; and we all got very hungry and perhaps a little too polite.
Finally we said to stop at the first gasthaus, no matter what it looked like. We could certainly count on beer and cheese, at the least.
Pierre stifled a yawn, and his neck got a little pinker; and in perhaps a minute we had come to an impressive stop in front of one of the least attractive buildings of German Switzerland, in the tight village of Malters.
The place had a sharp peaked roof and many little windows; but there were no flowers on the wooden ledges, and a smell of blood came from the sausage shop on the ground floor. Dark stairs led up from the street through a forbidding hallway.
We wanted to go on. It was late, though; and we were hungry and cramped and full of latent snarls. I told Pierre to see what the place looked like.
He yawned again, painfully, and went with false briskness up the dour, dark stairs. Soon he was back, beaming, no longer sleepy. We crawled out, not caring how many pretty girls he had found if there was something in their kitchen for us, too.
Soon life looked better. Frau Weber herself had led us solicitously to ancient but sparkling toilets, and we had washed in a porcelain bowl enameled with swans and lavender chrysanthemums, and were all met again in a little piney honey-colored room full of family photographs. There was a long table with chairs primly about it, and cupboards and a beautiful rococo couch. We felt happy, and toasted one another with small glasses of a strange, potent bitters.
“Whatever you have,” we said to Frau Weber, and sat back complacently waiting for some sausage from her shop and maybe a salad. We watched the trout swimming in a tank by one of the windows, and thought them an odd, enormous decoration.
Anneli came in. She was pretty, in a discontented way; and we knew Pierre would have a pleasant lunch. We talked to her about England, which she apparently loved as some women love men or some men the bottle. She set the table, and then came back with a net and a platter. She swooped up a trout, held it by the tail, and before we could close our ears or even wince, had cracked its skull smartly on the sideboard.
My mother lay back farther on the couch and gulped wanly at her bitters; and Father muttered with a kind of sick admiration, “That’s the way! By George, that’s the way!” as Anneli whacked the brains loose in some ten trout.
She smiled and said, “You ’aven’t long to wite naow,” and hurried from the room.
By then we were eating slices of various strange sausages, surprisingly delicate, and drinking cold, thin white wine of the country. Nothing else much mattered.
Frau Weber and her daughter came in carrying a long shallow copper pan between them. They set it down carefully; and Anneli stood back puffing while the older woman lifted the lid, her white hair bristling upward in a regal pompadour, and her face flushed and dewy.
The trout lay staring up at us, their eyes hard and yet somehow benevolent. Our heads drew nearer to the pan, willy-nilly, pulled by one of the finest smells we had ever met. We sniffed and murmured. Frau Weber beamed. Then she scolded at the girl, who ran from the room for little white potatoes and a great bowl of hot buttered peas from the garden. The mother served the fish herself, and then disappeared proudly.
It was, of course, the most delicious dish that we had ever eaten. We knew that we were hungry, and that even if it had been bad it would have been good . . . but we knew, too, that nevertheless it was one of the subtlest, rarest things that had ever come our way. It was incredibly delicate, as fresh as clover.
We talked about it later, and Frau Weber told us willingly about it, but in such a vague way that all I can remember now is hot unsalted butter, herbs left in for a few seconds, cream, a shallot flicked over, the fish laid in, the cover put on. I can almost see it, smell it, taste it now; but I know that I could never copy it, nor could anyone alive, probably.
Finally we were eating large, fragrant strawberries and drinking quite a lot more wine. It amused Anneli that we wanted our coffee in the tall porcelain goblets we saw in the cupboard. But it is the trout that really mattered. They were more important than getting to Lucerne, or than the pride of Frau Weber, or than the girl Anneli, frustrated and yearning. They were, we felt, important like a grisaille window or the coming of Spring.
And we went back many times to the Kreuz, and the trout were always that way . . . important.
The second restaurant I remember now was near our old home in Châtel St. Denis, where the army used to send its ski-learners to use the fine, easy slopes all around. It was called the Hôtel des XIII Cantons.
We knew Mademoiselle Berthe there. Tall, she had a thin, spirited face; and her dark hair was rolled in odd corkscrews behind each ear, in the disappearing fashion of her village. She had hips that were wide and firm, hung low on her legs; and her feet, on which she always wore exotic beach sandals, were very long and flat. She flapped about on them, and was the best waitress that I have ever known, in Europe or America.
The upstairs room held perhaps fifty people on market days and times like Easter; yet Berthe was always alone and always unruffled. Sometimes in winter, when army officers were there, teasing and flirting and barking, she got more taciturn than usual. But no matter what kind of people she served, she was always skillful and the most impersonal woman I have ever watched.
She never made mistakes; and no matter how many people were tapping their empty glasses and calling, she would always see that plates were hot and platters properly bubbling above her innumerable alcohol lamps before she left one table for another. She sped about, flat-footed, heavy-hipped, unruffled, waiting for the day when her mother would die and she could renounce the dining room for the glories of the kitchen.
In the meantime, Madame reigned on the other side of the wide stairs which led to the square pine dining room with its mirrors and white linen curtains and window ledges heavy with hideous, meaty begonias.
Madame Mossu was famous for her trout, her frogs’ legs, and her shrimps. I have eaten them all many times. Some sticklers for gastronomic etiquette have criticized what she called truites meunières because the fish were always curled like truites au bleu. Once I asked Berthe why that was. She shrugged and said, “What of it? A trout dead not a minute curls with agony in hot butter. One can flatten him: I admit it. But Maman prefers to let him be as comfortable as possible.” There was nothing more that one could say.
The season for shrimps is short, and Madame Mossu paid well for all the boys and old men could find in their hundred icy streams. But there were never enough; so diplomats from Geneva and Bernese politicians and horny shepherds on their annual gastronomic bender in Châtel would make appointments in advance for cold shrimps in their shells, or in a court-bouillon.
There was a general who always had to unbutton his tunic, and at the bottom of the table a lieutenant with a gleam in his eye that meant, by God, some day he, too, would be a general. Once, on All Saints’ Day, there were three peasants in full black linen smocks, and two sat smiling quietly while the third stood up and sang a little mountain song. None of us listened, and yet we all heard; and probably we all remember his serious, still face flushed with feast day drinking, and the way he sat down after the song, and wiped his lips and put a piece of trout between them with complete un-self-consciousness. Then, besides all the diplomats and such, there were pensionnaires; a tall, beautiful girl dressed like a Paris mannequin, who played cards every night with the butcher and young Mossu, and then went away without a word; the lame pharmacist, who had widowed himself four times by his own vitality; a dried, mean, sad old woman who might have been the librarian if there had been a library.
One night a little woman with a black wig came in. She went straight to the long table usually reserved for the military and seated herself. Then a strange party of domestics sat down facing her. One was a woman who looked as though she took dictation daily from 10 until 2. Her hair was like mud, and she was probably a “companion.” One was a flirtatious man with a mouth too terribly sensitive; two others were poor, beaten-down maids with mean eyes and stringy skins; and last was a young, healthy, arrogant chauffeur. Berthe scuttled with her usual dexterity around this motley table. First of all, as if she well knew what to do, she brought one glass and a large dusty bottle of the finest Cognac to the old woman, who poured it out hastily for herself, all her dirty diamonds a-tremble. Then Berthe brought cheap wine for the others, who did not speak, but drank thirstily without looking at their mistress.
An enormous platter of twisted trout Berthe carried in next and put down before the old woman, who drained her glass for the fifth or sixth time and started shoveling fish onto the plates the others held out to her. While we all tried not to watch, the poor souls slashed and poked at the fish until each plate held its neat pile, with bones tidily put on a side dish. The clatter stopped.
Old Wig lifted her glass again, and tossed the brandy down. The servants stood up; and she looked at each plate with its heap of the best trout in Switzerland, boneless and delicate. She nodded finally; and the companion, the weak-mouthed secretary, the two maids, the chauffeur picked up their plates obediently and went out the door and down the stone stairs.
Berthe’s long face was expressionless, but her little ear-curls vibrated gently.
“Curiosity grips my bowels . . . excuse me,” my husband said. In a few minutes he was back, full of news: the five servants, solemnly, as though they were serving some obscene Mass, had filed out into the little square before the Soldiers’ Monument, and had stopped by three immense and antiquated limousines. In each car were three or four tiny feeble Mexican dogs, the shuddering hairless kind, yapping almost silently at the windows. The humans fed them, and then stood in the cold thin air for a minute, silent.
They came back to the dining room and ate well. The secretary flirted dispassionately with the companion and the less dreary of the maids, and the chauffeur stared arrogantly about. Old Wig ate little; but as the evening went on and the brandy warmed her, she smiled occasionally, and spoke to Berthe once about how cold she had been for the thirty years since she left Guatemala.
She makes me think of Fritz Kuhn’s sister, in the last of the three Swiss restaurants I remember so well.
Monsieur Kuhn ran the Hôtel du Ville et du Raisin at Cully, near Lausanne on the lake. He was quiet, with sad eyes and a long face. The only things in the world he cared about were fishing for perch and cooking his haul.
The inn itself was strange and secretive, like its keeper, with cold, high halls, dank air, and an enormous kitchen which never showed anything like a live fire or a sign of bustle. There was a gaunt dining room, always empty, and the café where we sat, a long, queer room with a big stove in the middle, local wine advertisements on the murky walls, and a paper rose in the vase that topped the elaborate coffee machine.
From that dead kitchen into that bleak, smoky room Monsieur Kuhn would send his wonderful filets. He ripped them from the live, stunned fish, as they were ordered. The filets were perhaps three inches long, always with a little crisp point of the tail left on.
Monsieur Kuhn would creep shyly into the dining room, after we had come to his café for a year or more, and bow and shake hands and smile painfully when we thanked him. His long, lined face was always sad and remote and we felt that we were wrong to distract him.
His sister and his wife were different, and grew to like us almost too much. At first we thought they were blood sisters: they both looked so virginal that we could not believe that one of them was married to Fritz Kuhn, even though he himself looked quite beyond such bothers as cohabitation. It took us some time to learn that the taller of the two women was his wife.
She was very thin, and something about her was out of a drawing, out of an El Greco. Her eyes were bigger than human eyes, and slipped upwards and sideways; and her mouth was pale and beautiful. She was shadowy—a bad liver probably—but mysterious-looking. She wore black always, and her long hands picked up sizzling platters as if they were distasteful leaves from a tree. She had a light voice; and there was something good and fine about her, so that I always warmed to her.
Her husband’s sister was quite different. She was short; and although she had a thin face, she looked puffy, with a white, thick skin, the kind that would bend a hypodermic needle. She wore her mole-colored hair in an elaborate girlish mass of curls, and her hands were small and pretty. She, too, dressed in black; but her sweaters had gold threads in them, and her skirts were broadcloth.
Madame Kuhn adored her more plainly than is often seen, and saved all the easy work for her, and did all the ugly jobs herself.
One time we took Michel to the Raisin. He was the kind of short, virile, fox-like Frenchman who seems to have been born in a beret, the kind who is equally ready to shoot a wild boar, make love, or say something which seems witty until you think about it. He was unconscious of Mademoiselle Kuhn.
She, on the other hand, was completely upset by him. She sidled and cooed, and put down our plate of bread as such a thing had never been put down before, and smiled again.
We finished our celestial filets, and drank more wine. Madame Kuhn hovered in the cold darkness near the kitchen, agonizing with her great dark eyes for the poor tortured sister. We paid the bill, cruel and wrapped in our own lives.
As we got into the car, Mademoiselle ran out with a knot of the first wild narcissuses, and thrust them loosely into Michel’s hand.
“Some are for you, Madame,” she cried, but she looked only at him, and his neat aristocratic bones and the power in his flesh. Then she ran back into the cold glare of the doorway and stood close against the stone, saying, “Oh, you are adorable, adorable . . .” in her bad Swiss-French.
Michel suddenly broke into a sweat, and wiped the flowers across his forehead. “Mon dieu!” he cried.
We drove away as fast as we could, leaving the poor soul there against the stone, with Madame watching her through the colored glass door, and the smell of the little filets all around.
But when we went back, that June of 1939, things were changed. Madame stood with a plate of bread in her long hands, and tears ran down her face. Mitzi was in a clinic. “Ah, she is not the same. My little dear will never be so sweet, so innocent again,” the woman said. And her eyes, as dead and haunted as something from a Spanish portrait, stared at the wine posters on the murky walls. “Nothing is the same. Nothing will ever be the same.”
She walked toward the cold, dank kitchen, truly grief-stricken; and we, sitting there in the café, felt lonely and afraid. The filets, though, were the same as always; and when Monsieur Kuhn came from the kitchen and smiled proudly at us, we forgot his foolish sister and why we were there at all, and remembered only that some dishes and some humans live forever—remembered it thankfully, as we do now.September 1941From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Endless Feasts by Edited and with an Introduction by Ruth Reichl. Copyright © 2002 by Edited and with an Introduction by Ruth Reichl Ruth Reichl, Series Editor. Excerpted by permission of Modern Library, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.