Travel expands the culinary skills

Fondue on a table, bread on two forks dipping in

Classic Swiss fondue. Photo by Jerome, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

How our repertoire as cooks expands when we travel! What startling new ideas bombard us at cafes and restaurants in exotic places!

As a newlywed, I spent four years living in Geneva, from 1960–1963. This experience made a momentous impression on me, and as for the food, it was bouleversant.

My food background: post-war, English-style cooking

Bear in mind that we came from New Zealand, and in the 1960s we were just emerging from a very basic meat-and-three-veg policy for meals. (I’m not complaining: my mother’s cooking was tasty and economical, and gave me a sound basis in nutrition.)

A typical New Zealand salad was iceberg lettuce sliced finely like cole slaw, mixed with all manner of extras and smothered in pretend-mayonnaise that was essentially sweetened condensed milk plus malt vinegar. Yuck.

Before marriage I had taken a course in so-called “Continental cooking”, learning a new dish every week. They were yummy, but rich and heavy: think Hungarian goulash and coq au vin. What I learned: if in doubt add wine and cream.

My food education: eating, talking, eating, drinking

My education in Geneva was organic. We were asked to dinner many times by my boss Peggy and her husband Ray. They were gourmets extraordinaires (sorry, the French keeps bubbling up) with an excellent cook, and they also introduced us to the glorious specificity of cafe life. Local specialties and celebrated chefs abounded, even in the smallest village. You went to Cafe X in the month of Y and ordered dish Z, which was famous throughout the land: everyone else knew that, but we had to be told—and taken.

Of course there were numerous cafe outings with other friends, and we did indeed frequently eat cheese fondue, raclette with small potatoes and gherkins, sauerkraut with  special and specific sausages (depending on the date and location), and so on. Wine, wine, wine, and kirsch featured strongly.

I lapped up these strange new comestibles and styles.

What I learned and never forgot

Back  home in New Zealand, we continued to have fondue parties for some years: they were fun. That’s a hefty dish, good for snow-bound winters in the mountains. Also, for years I made my own sauerkraut and croissants—because nobody else did.

But the most important things I learned were very different, and extraordinarily modern:

  • to include a side salad with every meal
  • to honour simple ingredients as an entree in themselves, without mash-up, for example asparagus or radishes
  • to respect freshness and simplicity
  • to serve smaller helpings
  • to pay attention when eating
  • to experiment when cooking.

These culinary principles influence me to this day. Thank you, Geneva!

Rachel on ski-slope in Switzerland 1962

That’s me, ready for my apres-ski treat. Every snack an adventure in Switzerland!


21 thoughts on “Travel expands the culinary skills

  1. What poignant memories and sound culinary advice! I particularly like the inclusion of salad with every meal (I even have one for breakfast) and smaller helpings. 🙂

    1. Oh a salad for breakfast: I like the sound of that. Does fruit salad count?

  2. Well, the mention of the classic salad with the condensed milk based dressing brought memories back of raiding that tin for a slurp of that sickly thick sauce. I was under 10, I was in heaven!! Until my mother found that I had consumed half the tin and the reason for my not feeling so well 🙂

    1. And one time honoured cure for an upset tummy back in the olden days was… grated apple and sweetened condensed milk!

      1. Haven’t heard that one. Marmite on toast was our family remedy for an upset stomach!

      2. That makes more sense.

  3. toutparmoi says:

    Oh, those early salads! Not so bad with just a smidgeon of that sickly “mayonnaise”, but even so…

  4. Donnalee says:

    Those basic lessons seem very sound: good quality food and appreciating what there is. Can’t do better than that–and fondue is great too!

    1. We were a lucky generation back home, with wholesome home made food, the only takeaways an occasional fish and chips. That was the cake; Geneva was the icing. Terrible metaphor, sorry.

      1. Donnalee says:

        It’s perfectly fine. I grew up in the uS, 1960s onward and rather poor, and our food was pretty dreadful. Somethings were good-enough nutritionally like beef stew (although it did make me vegetarian!), but then tv dinners came into vogue and we bought the cheapest and worst and ate those. Yuck.

      2. Thanks for the salad verdict! I see that some food can motivate a swerve in the opposite direction!

  5. Robyn Haynes says:

    My own food experience growing up was similar Rachel. But there’s nothing old fashioned about the advice you give. How is it the ‘new thing’ nowadays? Who even says nowadays any more 🙁

    1. New because an entire generation has grown up on plastic snacks and takeaways: maybe the thrill is in the making? Dammit, I’m going to say nowadays. I’ve earned the right to say it.

      1. Robyn Haynes says:

        Haha. Me too! Whoops! Seems that tag is taken

  6. Anabel Marsh says:

    We ate fondue half way up a mountain in Canada last summer – such bliss that we resurrected our own fondue set when we got home. Thanks for visiting The Glasgow Gallivanter – i’ve enjoyed my return visit.

    1. Thanks Anabel. I’m so glad to hear that fondue is not just a nostalgic memory, but still a real thing.

  7. I remember when my mother got on a big fondue kick… I’m pretty sure she picked it up on one of her traveling adventures with my father. I loved it… but I’ve always had a fondness for cheese. My husband and I will often try to recreate a dish or two when we return from a foreign country (with mixed results 🙂 ). I really appreciate your list of culinary principles, and follow most of them (we are pretty bad about eating in front of the TV so it’s easy to get distracted). Pretend-mayonnaise sounds awful… my usual dressing is a good quality balsamic vinegar.

    1. Fondue making in Geneva in the 1960s was a competitive sport-cum religious cult! I forgot to mention vinaigrette as a big takeaway from my sojourn in Switzerland.

  8. cedar51 says:

    my memory is condensed milk – that creamy stuff than came in a can…but this memory wasn’t from childhood.

    when I was in 5/6th form at boarding school – I had a shared room in the annex, behind the main kitchens – and Matron had her personal fridge in back of kitchen AND she often had a tin of c/milk open – we would all go there usually after dark, and take finger full…

    all being about 5 of us, so the tin would certainly be showing signs of midnight munchies…finally 6 months later, we found a hasp and padlock – and that was the end…

    over the years, since I would buy a tin, keep it in the pantry for an occasion…and then use the same method of eating – but now I had the luxury of removing the contents to a proper container…and to make sure I didn’t miss anything from the tin, spend an luxurious ummmmmmmmm day, getting it all out with my finger 🙂

    ummmmmmmmmmmm maybe I need to get a tin of it again!

    1. I wonder if the product even exists any more. It was perfect for midnight feasts.

      1. cedar51 says:

        according to my online grocery story – yep, Highlander Classic is still available as is Caramel & heaven forbid Lite… (oh darn there’s a Nestle one in a tube…) – hopefully when I next shop – my grocery list hasn’t got it on it 🙂