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!