A little piece of cheese and chocolate heaven in Fribourg
Switzerland offers diverse gastronomic experiences across its 26 states or cantons as they are known, from fine-dining restaurants to brasseries serving Swiss favourites such as cheese fondues.
Some of the country's finest dairy produce, including the cheese and chocolate Switzerland is renowned for worldwide, is produced in the French-speaking canton of Fribourg.
Founded in 1157, the town of Fribourg is a cultural bridge between the German and French-speaking regions of Switzerland, and a treasure trove of Gothic architecture, a superbly preserved Old Town with many glorious old bridges spanning the River Sarine.
Situated 36 kilometres south-west of Berne, the canton is home to Swiss icons like the Villars chocolate factory, in business since 1901, and Maison Cailler, the first Swiss chocolate producer in 1819, along with several artisan producers.
In Fribourg's lovely Old Town I join chocolate maker John Lehmann at his Atelier-Chocolat shop to watch his prowess at making fine chocolate.
Chocolatey aromas fill John's shop as we melt cocoa butter, pure cacao powder and sugar over a small stove, as the chocolatier explains that he sources cacao beans from South America and Indonesia for his ambrosian chocolate almonds and silky truffles.
The Swiss are considered world leaders in chocolate-making. However John points out that it’s not the quality of the chocolate that sets them apart, it is actually the cutting edge technology and machinery used to grind cacao into the finest powder that makes the creamiest, smoothest chocolate.
There are no guesses as to what makes Gruyères, 35 kilometres from Fribourg, famous on the culinary map. The grand towered and turreted Gruyères Castle, dating from the 12th century, sits high above the splendid medieval town of the same name.
Gruyères is home to black and white Fribourg cows whose milk is made into the tasty Gruyère cheese.
Fribourg’s most famous dish is the moitié-moitié fondue, made with half Gruyère and half local Vacherin Fribourgeois, served with chunks of bread or little chat potatoes, which my companions and I demolish on the terrace of one of the town's ancient buildings.
From Charmey we take the Rapido Sky cable car up the steep Vountez mountain, busy with skiers during the winter months, to one of 50 Alpine dairies in the region that produce this much-loved Swiss cheese during the summer months.
The Pillers family, whose summer home is a wooden-slatted hut with spectacular views across the mountains, have been making traditional Le Gruyère d’Alpage AOC – handmade in Alpine huts and the most traditional version of the prized cheese - for generations.
Béat Pillers heats milk in a huge copper cauldron sizzling over a wood fire – an important aspect of the flavour – to which rennet is added. He braces a cheesecloth and leans into the hot milk to gather the curds that will be pressed, turned, brined, and matured for up to two years.
Watching all that hard work is enough to make anyone hungry, so we head back down the mountain to the restaurant at our upmarket lodgings at the Hotel de l'Etoile, housed in a charming 17th century building in Charmey's main street.
The hotels' restaurant is a regional favourite for its fine cuisine, and particularly for its superb cheese fondue matched with Swiss wines.
A few minutes stroll from the hotel is Charmey's Spa des Bains de la Gruyère, a tranquil complex of hot mineral water pools, Turkish baths, steam rooms and day spa offering more than 50 treatments, from massages and facials to body wraps.
A swim in the pool, followed by a turn around the village in the pristine mountain air, filled with the tinkling of cowbells as they make their way across the fields, is just the ticket to remedy all that fine dining, and prepare for another day of foodie foraging in this beautiful corner of Switzerland.
- With a Swiss Pass you can travel across the country by train, bus, or ferry. Representing great value, passes include entry to more than 450 museums and local transport in 75 cities and towns. Five-day passes from $494 from Rail Europe, go to myswitzerland.com/rail or raileurope.com.au.
- John Lehmann's Atelier Chocolat is situated at 31 Rue de la Sumaritaine, Fribourg, patisserie.ch
- Hotel de l’Etoile in Charmey has double rooms CHF 195 (AU$238) per double, including breakfast, more at etoile.ch.
For all information on travelling in Switzerland visit myswitzerland.com.