Chickens Don’t Fart

I’m just reading my village newspaper and I’m not feeling very well. I have been shocked to find that my local Farmers’ Wives Group (Les Dames Paysannes) no longer exists. The reason given is that the population has increased, mentalities have changed, and modern people have different interests. Bah Humbug.

I had always dreamed of joining the farming ladies. Even though I’m not married to a farmer, I thought I could have somehow swung it due to my obvious love of nature and knowing the names of at least three sorts of birds that live in my garden.

I was looking forward to baking my famous lemon cake and banana bread for countryside fêtes, and tastefully wrapping Christmas presents in St Bernard dog wrapping paper for the schoolchildren.

All across Switzerland these groups of women were created towards the end of WWII, as the girls had been running the farming show while the menfolk were away defending the Swiss borders.

Instead of Rosie the Riveter, Switzerland had Heidi the Hay-Flipper. 

dames paysanneNow, of course, the new vocabulary surrounding this still-extant society has to do with sustainable agriculture, promoting countryside values, and offering local produce for sale.

All of this comes on the day that six little cows have been placed in the next-door field by the farmer from up the hill. They are cute. They are clean. They have friendly long tongues. They are also extremely smelly.  Cows in this world produce enough methane to be responsible for 14% of global warming. (This is a true fact).  Of course six little baby bulls do not constitute industrial farming and I’m sure that they only burp and fart when they really have to, but they do make a difference in the air quality at this end of the village.

Of course we should eat vegetables to save the planet as the carbon footprint of a carrot is zero, and chickens are recommended as a protein source as they do not have four stomachs all bubbling away simultaneously. They (and fish one presumes) are prone to much less anti-social gassiness than cows.

So, back to the village brochure after these agricultural ruminations, I study the photos of last year’s Hallowe’en festivities, followed closely by the Escalade party, all the monthly pot-luck brunches, and revel in the exciting news that Sunday dances are perhaps going to be organized. A small brewery has been opened, the village won second prize for its floral displays, and a week without television is being organized.

Well, let’s forget about the disbanded Farmer’s Wives Group. I’m modern. I’m progressive.  I’m moving into the future.

With a clothes pin on my nose I’m planting flowers, practising my dance moves, and not watching TV.

And when I’m finished, I’m going out to find that new brewery.



The Grandmother Warrior vs the Highway Robber

I almost didn’t make it to Japan. The Geneva countryside holds many surprises–not all of them pleasant.

If you ever are approached by a man suddenly running, then crouching, behind your car breathlessly explaining that he has seen flames shooting out the back of it, don’t believe him for a minute. He is a crook and wants to steal your car, your handbag, and your groceries. He has an evil friend hiding in the bushes. You and your car and your pork chops are all dead ducks.

However, last Saturday, I DID believe him. I grew up watching Cannonball, 12 O’Clock High, Combat! and Highway Patrol. Despite (or because of) extremely restricted TV-time I have retained much crucial information. Based on realistic action TV and Gerry movies in my formative years, I still seriously believe in spontaneously exploding cars, trucks, helicopters and airplanhelicopter explosiones.

I believe in fireballs.

When the man urged me to get back into my car and turn on the ignition while he fixed the problem of the alarming dangling wires, I point-blank refused.

When he insisted that I get some water for him to throw on the smouldering ashes of the car’s undersides, I knew that this was wrong. One needs foam, sand, perhaps a fire-blanket or a thick leather bomber jacket. Not water.

So, secure in my ancient knowledge of 1960s television I held firm. I got my purse, I locked the car, and told the near-hysterical man that I was phoning the Swiss Touring Club, and he’d better get away if he didn’t want to be melted into a red-hot puddle in the middle of the road.

Turns out, this was a well-known sting operation. Lone women pulling into countryside drives are targeted. Lone women in parking lots are targeted. A mechanical problem involving drama and confusion is created. Dangling wires are attached. If all goes well for the villain, the car key is placed in the ignition. The panic-stricken lady runs off to get some water from somewhere. A car and credit cards and a sack of groceries are lost forever.

But, girls, do not fear. Forewarned is forearmed. Snap a photo of the villain as he supposedly fiddles with your car. Lock yourself in and call the cops at 117. If he gets too close grab a finger and snap it back. Run in circles, scream and shout. Be brave. If worse comes to worse, slap him with a pork chop.

Be a red-hot grand-mother warrior.

(Con)fusion Food — Boudin (noir) and Whale Soup

I have just learned that Japanese people don’t really like to eat whale. I, personally, have always found it over-rated. The meat is fishy and chewy – exactly as one would expect.

It seems that whales were eaten as a last resort when the country was hungry after WWII, and the hunting of whales today is just a bureaucratic remnant of that trying time. For a generation of kids (of about my age), whale soup was a staple of school lunch.

Normally-constituted Japanese people today prefer beef or chicken or shrimp and there are only two whale meat sellers left in the Tokyo fish market. No one cooks whale at home; it would take months to get the deep dark smell of the sea out of the apartment.

whale-restaurantOf course, the good things you eat as a child are what you like and, thus, certain traditions are established and preserved until they die a generational death. My daughter is a pure cultural-fusion product and her food choices are totally outlandish and at first glance incomprehensible.

From the Swiss side of her family she has picked up an abiding love of boudin (noir). I used to serve this once a week in winter blood-sausage season. I, personally, ate only the boiled potatoes and apple sauce. One extremely embarrassing day, I was pulled over by the lady running the crèche as the morning’s diaper had revealed a product of the most alarming colour. I explained about it being Wednesday, and boudin day was Tuesday. I believe I was put on some sort of Crèche Culinary Watch List.

From my side of the family comes that old Canadian staple of wieners and beans on toast. This was eaten with my daughter exclusively when Swiss husband was absent – preferably out of the country and as far away as possible. Always a bit of a food snob, only Heinz beans were served and the best brand of wieners cut into perfect rounds. A little Swiss friend was brought home for lunch one day; she had never had such a wondrous meal. Departing for school she thanked me effusively for the nice soft meat.

Anyway, from where I come from whales, rabbits and horses are all left to roam around uncooked. Instead Sloppy Joes, shepherd’s pie, fish-fingers, macaroni & cheese, Yorkshire pudding, hamburgers and hotdogs and scrambled eggs with ketchup are grist for my version of the Canadian food mill. Coming originally from the north of England potatoes figure at least once a day; and the existence of Swiss rösti has contributed greatly to my perfect cultural integration and happiness.

Yes. We are what we eat—individual memories and comforting confusion. Whales included, one presumes.

The Real Twitter

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It has finally snowed and I can feed the birds. The bird balls (seeds and suet packed into a net) and the bulk bag of bird food were purchased a month ago. The feeding houses have been hung from the apricot and the cherry trees. The old Christmas tree has been placed on the strawberry boxes. Let the banquet begin!

It has been too warm so far this winter to feed the birds. If the ground is not snow-covered or frozen you should let the birds fend for themselves. If you spoil them they become too fat to fly. As a member of the Swiss Ornithological Institute in Sempach (I buy their calendar every year) I know this to be a true scientific fact.

So, I put on my boots, found the bird balls on the kitchen windowsill, and trudged into the garden to begin the hanging of the balls. They had been waiting. No sooner had I started, than they rose up in a great twittering chorus. I don’t know if they all spoke the same language, but I clearly distinguished robin, chaffinch, sparrow, and goldfinch. On the ground the resident blackbird couple was silently, sulkily, looking for worms in the snow.

st francisbirds

St Francis preaching to the birds, Giotto, 1297

They flew in from all directions. My bird-balls had gone viral; they got millions of hits. Even the woodpecker on the walnut tree stopped bashing his head against the bark to see what was up.

Now, I’m not particularly sentimental about birds. I like to see them out and about: turquoise kingfishers flitting over the Rhone River and cormorants drying their wings in the weak winter sun; jays squawking from the trees; and I’ll even tolerate a redstart building her nest in the tool shed. But on a snowy morning to be greeted by a whole inter-racial bird crowd and thanked for a bird-ball feast I found to be most moving.

I now understand Saint Francis of Assisi preaching to the birds and Dr Doolittle talking to the animals. They must have had bird balls in their pockets.

The Ex-Xmas Tree

Everyone knows about Christmas left-overs. With the turkey, you make sandwiches, stews, and a final swan-song turkey-noodle soup. The rest gets given to the cat until not even he will touch it any more. The carcass is unsentimentally thrown out with the garbage.  Leftover champagne, on the other hand, becomes a delightfully refreshing breakfast beverage.

However, left-over Christmas trees are a different story. They have had a moment of true glory and domestic beauty. They have been bought, created, and imbued with those most powerful of emotions: delight, nostalgia, and wonder. They have become your friend.

When I first came to Switzerland, my Swiss-German mother-in-law had real candles and wicked sparklers on her Christmas tree. I was terrified, and in pitying tones was assured that the tree was so fresh that not even a blow torch could catch it alight.

burned treeThis was seriously confusing, as in Canada the tree is brought into the house any time after the first of November. There used to be coloured light bulbs that got hot enough to singe the branches. By Christmas Day, the thing was well on its way to being a piece of naked tinder with a few forlorn candy canes and bits of tinsel. There were needles everywhere.

Not wanting to be thought of as wimpy Canadian, I, too, took up this Swiss naked-flame tradition, and it was found so charming and delightful by English friends that they did manage to burn out their London living-room. After this event, I slowly and craftily changed to electrical lights and the big Christmas tree water bucket (a tasteful green) became redundant.

There are no community January Christmas tree-burning ceremonies here, instead the individual trees are dragged in the direction of the compost bin. They can be seen littering the sidewalks and poking out of garbage chutes. They have angel hair and golden ties from the chocolate ornaments that used to be on them. In this post-Christmas world it is a depressing and sorry sight.

Not in this house. We don’t abandon old dead things so easily. Dec 31st finds our Christmas tree stripped of its chintzy ornaments and gutless electrical lights and sporting real burning candles out in the garden. If it survives that, it is hung with bird balls and becomes a huge bird-feeder. The birds, the turkey-stuffed cat and our grand-daughter find this most interesting.

Eventually. Christmas magic melts away, and the tree becomes part of the springtime garden clean-up. The tree has been a virgin, a bride, an acrobat, a servant and finally a corpse. Spring comes and the dead tree goes. The circle is complete.

The Stollen

A few weeks back I bought a nifty little German Christmas cake: a stollen. It was made in Dresden and was completely authentic. It even had a seal and was signed by someone. It was expensive and wrapped in golden foil.

Unfortunately, it accidentally got eaten shortly after its arrival due to a social emergency that featured family members, little cups of espresso, Japanese roasted-rice tea and a Sunday afternoon. The cake wasn’t all that wonderful – in fact, it was dry as saw-dust and I seem to remember my grand-daughter licking up piles of crumbs from the table.

Where I come from, baking a Christmas cake is a spiritual experience. You need a spell of “fruitcake weather” and a Christmas cake happens. The cook, inspired by the cold and snow, has sudden visions of a good solid piece of heavy sticky fruitcake in her hand. This year’s weather has been too warm, the cook (in her shorts and sandals) was uninspired.

Feeling I could improve on the Dresden stollen, I consulted my husband’s family-heritage Koch Buch written in 1966 by Elisabeth Fülscher in Zürich. This door-stopper features 656 pages of delicious Swiss German food – geschnetzeltes Kalbfleisch, Haferauflauf flockensuppe, and Dampfkochtopf—but, sadly, is written in German, so a person has to invent bits of information from time to time.

I found Weihnachtsstollen (Recipe #1651) on page 560 – tucked away between the Hamburger Kloeben and the Streuselkuchen. Seemed like a piece of cake – a sort of fruit bread that needed to rise twice then be baked in a medium oven for about an hour then covered in powdered sugar.

Well, I don’t know what Elizabeth was smoking back in 1966, but in her recipe, after kneading for hours, you divide the dough in two, roll them to the size of plates, then take one, fold it over itself and let it rise again. It seems the other half is discarded.

I checked on tBakingdisaster_thumbhe web, and that side-tracked me even further, as other people add other things to make their stollens even more delicious. The most fascinating addition was the clump of marzipan that could be lodged in the middle and would make a wondrous surprise.

So I have made a super-stollen. It has everything in it – both halves of the dough, rum-soaked currants and raisins, three sorts of candied fruit, and a hunk of marzipan. The only thing I didn’t add was the drop of rose-water because I didn’t have any.

Well, the stollen rose reluctantly overnight down the basement. I then placed it on a chair in front of the oven so it could watch the Christmas cookies baking and get into the mood. It rose a tiny little bit.

I have just taken it out of the oven, and it’s not a pretty sight. While baking it has to be basted with butter (much like a turkey) several times so became quite a dark brown on top. One of the side walls split into a strange geode-type formation and quite a bit of fruit spilled out and burned. It has a mysterious crack through the middle on the diagonal.

The powdered sugar worked wonders, however, and the brown lump is looking quite a bit more festive. Now I just have to add the holly sprig and hope.

Fondue Weather

Well, the cold winds of the north are with us, finally, and it’s time to dust out the fondue pot, locate the matches, and glue the fondue forks back together. Much like BBQs, Swiss fondues seem to be a man’s job. This must have something to do with a genetic throw-back to the Stone Age Alpine cave, a dead mammoth, and a roaring fire.

Sadly, today’s fondue fire has been reduced to a little aluminum cupcake tin filled with blue jelly. The exciting potential for burning down the house is much reduced.

A fondue outside Switzerland is just not the same. Whether it is the cheese, the wine, the bread, the stirring spatula, or the weather, it is a weak imitation of its big Swiss sister. I have an English cookbook that lists milk as one of the key ingredients. Say no more.

A fondue is all about attitude and ritual. It is considered a highly nutritious, celebratory dish. There are no guilty qualms concerning gluten, cholesterol, dairy fats, or alcohol. The event is embraced with gusto and the white Swiss wine, Fendant, flows freely. Kirsch is actually a medical necessity to avoid the formation of the dreaded cheese-ball.
Losing your piece of bread in the pot is a cause for hilarity, and getting a bit of the burnt cheese at the bottom is a solemn honour. It takes years to learn all this, and get the fondue patter smooth.

There is the first fondue of the year and the last. There are the small personal touches concerning the cheeses involved, the use of binding / fluffing agents, the amount of kirsch, the (highly controversial) offering of pickles and/or dried meat.

My own personal fondue tip involves a St Bernard dog’s licking out the pot at the end which cuts down almost completely on the washing-up process. And in this house the bread (pain bis) is carefully cut into perfectly mouth-sized morsels. Plus, the very idea of adding mushrooms or dried tomatoes is greeted with cries of derision and revulsion. Our fondues are pure.

Our grand-daughter, normally Swissly constituted in every other way, has not yet developed a taste for fondue. Last Christmas we found a miniature fondue set specially conceived for that most radical of fondues – the chocolate fondue. Carefully wrapped, it was presented to her grandfather and has been peacefully been slumbering in its wrapping ever since.

I have yet to find the miniature marshmallows.


A young Canadian enjoying a fondue on Grouse Mountain, British Colombia. Note the too-large bread pieces, the boiled potatoes, the pickles, and that glass that looks suspiciously like root beer.

A Mouse in the Chuchichäschtli

Well, you can’t go away for five minutes without all hell breaking loose.

Battling the usual post-trip miasma of fragility (brought on by the airplane-induced cough and cold, the suitcase full of dampish clothes smelling vaguely of fish, and the towering heaps of unlovely mail) there is a new and unwanted twist to the tale. A mouse family has moved into the kitchen.

Understandable as this may be in the coolish days of late September, it will not do at all.

There is a definite moral dimension to having a mouse in a Swiss house. It implies bad housekeeping, slatternly ways, possible plague, and total chaos. It is a matter only discussed amongst family and with closest friends. It is a sign of domestic defeat.

There are several stages that lead to mouse awareness and acceptance. The first is denial: that rustling sound is just the onions resettling themselves in their basket. The second is terror: this usually involves the actual sighting of a small rodent scurrying along the edge of the counter. The third is victory through death.

The mice have been living in the kitchen cupboard. This is the most sacrosanct of places. As a matter of fact, in WWII if a suspected German was claiming to be Swiss they made him say “Chuchichäschtli” (gargle it right at the back of your throat). The word means kitchen cupboard in Swiss German dialect and if the accent and inflection were wrong some sort of giant mouse-trap was presumably used on the culprit.


There are different ways of managing a mouse problem. A traumatized French-Swiss friend came across a mouse in her upstairs bedroom. She methodically removed every piece of furniture and clothing from the room; examined, cleaned, washed and ironed every object; then replaced them all carefully. It took weeks, but the mouse had been cleaned out of existence. I like to think of it reduced to a wafer-thin shadow-mouse folded somewhere in her underwear drawer.

A bachelor buddy of my husband’s, living in an old manor house near Zurich, was tolerant of mice if they stayed INSIDE the bread box. Guests who thought they had been eating seeded bread for breakfast quickly changed to yogurt.

And then there is my brother-in-law’s famous mouse tale. Many decades back, Stanley came down to make his breakfast in a Southern Ontario hippie haze. He put eggs on to boil, and toast in the toaster. A mouse, obviously cleaning up the crumbs at the bottom of the toaster ran out, hit the gas flame and jumped into the pan of boiling water. Told with brio (and sometimes with several additional steps) this has become a family mouse mantra passed down through the generations.

With a battery of traps, I have captured three, and Elena (the cat-minder) two. The plastic Swiss traps were craftily named Power Cat. Henry, the real cat of the house, is pathologically frightened of mice, and makes huge, exaggerated, scaredy-cat steps through the kitchen when there are mice in residence. The Canadian traps were called Victor. Peanut butter was the bait of choice.
The kitchen is now a mouse-free zone.

I think.