I have long bought into the myth that surrounding yourself with something means you can never become allergic to it. My extra-fluffy Norwegian Forest Cat sleeps on the bed with me and doesn’t make me sneeze, and my carb-intensive diet has so far warded off any signs of gluten intolerance. But I live in constant fear of developing “a Jewish stomach,” otherwise known as lactose intolerance. I was raised on American cheese, which is more plastic than dairy product, and had a mother whose horror of osteoporosis forced me to down a glass of milk with every meal, even Caesar salad. The day I realized that parmesan came in big dusty blocks and not from antiseptic green cans was a bona fide spiritual experience. To truly complete my lifelong quest to surround myself with cheese, though, there was only one solution: a trip to Switzerland.
My travels took me to Zurich and then, an hour away, to the town of Lucerne, where my French-Swiss friend Seghi lived. While organizing the logistics of my visit, I'd casually mentioned an interest in milk-related products. I arrived at her house with a pile of unpronounceable, elegant chocolates waiting for me like an old friend. This country, I thought, is something I could really get the hang of.
Like every meal in Switzerland, breakfast is a vehicle for getting cheese into your face. After a dinner of fondue (Emmenthaler, Gruyère, Vacherin, and Tilsiter, with some Kir royale for liveliness) or raclette (that would be “cheese dumped on potatoes and vegetables” in English), the best way to start again the next morning is with even more cheese. Before my visit, I’d had an idea of Swiss people as healthy, with their lungs full of crisp mountain air and their breakfast trays tastefully filled with muesli and fresh juices. Instead, there was zopf, a.k.a. butterzopf, a sort of secular, butter-drenched challah that Seghi described as “sacred" and specifically reserved for Sundays.
While Americans may think of Switzerland as one singular country—a gleaming, green-and-white land of neutrality—the Swiss are fiercely loyal to their hometowns. Each one has its own slightly different take on fondue, or a local cheese whose maker is venerated like a saint. My gateway drug to unpasteurized cheese, Vacherin Fribourgeois, is a soft cow’s milk (vache is French for “cow”) cheese from Fribourg in the west of the country. For breakfast, Seghi and I pulled apart the braids of zopf and coated them in vacherin. I had tea; she had a cigarette.
When I was packing up ahead of my train to Geneva, Seghi presented me with some nibbles for the ride: three triangular sandwiches of nothing but bread and soft cheese held together with butter. I made it about ten minutes into the train trip before scarfing them down in what may have been a single bite.
Although I did see one of the lovely customary lakes and hike one of the lovely customary mountains, I can't say that I learned a lot about Switzerland, geographically speaking. But if the only thing I left with was a full stomach and a suitcase packed with cheeses, the Swiss tourism board can certainly say it did its job.