Jan 022019
 

Today is Berchtoldstag (also Bechtelistag, Bächtelistag, Berchtelistag, Bärzelistag, in Liechtenstein Bechtelstag, Bechtle) in parts of Switzerland and Liechtenstein. It is near New Year’s Day, during the latter part of the 12 days of Christmas, in Switzerland nearly always on 2 January (in Frauenfeld on the third Monday in January), with the status of a public holiday in a number of cantons. It is spoken of as an Alemannic holiday, meaning that it occurs in regions where Alemannic German dialects remain spoken, which include German Swabia and Baden, French Alsace, German-speaking Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Austrian Vorarlberg. Its observation is attested since the 14th century, although celebrations were limited after the Protestant Reformation.

Throughout pre-industrial Europe, agricultural laborers had a great deal of work to do before the midwinter break at Christmastide, so their annual round was quite different from the contemporary materialist mayhem that cranks up months before Christmas, resulting in a huge sigh of relief when Christmas can be left behind. Rather, pre-industrial laborers ground out tough, short, cold, days leading up to Christmas, and welcomed the relief that almost a fortnight of holiday afforded before getting back to ploughing and lambing in January. Consequently, they found excuses to extend the Christmas merriment as much as possible in different ways. Berchtoldstag is one such custom.

Various speculations exist concerning the holiday’s name. Blessed Berchtold of Engelberg abbey died circa 2nd November 1197, and the abbey could have been important enough to translate his feast out of advent. According to others, the name celebrates a hunting trip circa 1191 by Duke Berchtold V of Zähringen, who decided to name his new city after the first animal he killed on that trip, hence Bern, Switzerland. Another speculation associates the name with the verb “berchten,” which means “to walk around, asking for food.” The most likely explanation is offered by the Schweizerisches Idiotikon that considers it derived from Middle High German berhttac or berhteltac, which translated the Greek epiphanias. (Epiphany). Berchtoldstag especially occurs in Protestant regions where Epiphany has been abolished and replaced by a second day-off after New Year’s Day.

In the German-speaking cantons of Zurich, Thurgovia and some parts of Central Switzerland, families celebrate the holiday with meals at taverns or offered by traditional societies. The Argovian village of Hallwil holds a masked parade with entries symbolizing fertility, age, ugliness, wisdom, vice, etc. In the French-speaking Vaud, children celebrate Berchtoldstag with neighborhood parties which include traditional dancing and singing.

Nuts are associated with this holiday. They are both eaten in a “nut feast” and used for games. Children build “hocks” of four nuts close together on the ground with a fifth nut balanced on top. Here is Swiss nusstorte (nut tart) in keeping with the holiday.

Nusstorte

Ingredients

⅓ cup plus 1 tbsp whipping cream
¼ cup honey
1 tbsp unsalted butter
⅔ cup sugar
3 tbsp water
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 tsp vanilla extract
puff pastry
2 cups coarsely chopped walnuts
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk

Instructions

Stir 1/3 cup cream, honey and butter in small saucepan over medium heat until the butter melts. Set aside. Stir sugar, water and lemon juice in a heavy medium saucepan over low heat until sugar dissolves. Increase heat; boil without stirring until syrup turns golden, occasionally swirling pan and brushing down sides with wet pastry brush, about 12 minutes. Remove from heat. Add warm cream mixture (mixture will bubble up). Stir over very low heat until smooth. Add vanilla. Chill uncovered until cold, about 1 hour. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover; keep chilled.)

Roll out 1 pastry sheet on floured surface to 11-inch square. Using 10-inch-diameter cake pan bottom as guide, trim to 10-inch round. Transfer to ungreased baking sheet. Roll out second pastry sheet to 11-inch square. Using 11-inch-diameter tart pan bottom as guide, trim to 11-inch round. Using fork, score design on 11-inch round; cut out small hole from center.

Mix nuts into cold caramel. Brush beaten egg in 1-inch border on pastry on baking sheet. Spread filling over pastry, mounding in center and leaving 1-inch border. Cover with 11-inch round. Press to seal. Fold edge of bottom pastry over top pastry. Seal edge tightly. Mix 1 tablespoon cream and yolk into remaining beaten egg. Brush top of tart with egg mixture. Chill tart on baking sheet 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 400°F.

Bake tart until golden, about 25 minutes. Cool. (Can be made 8 hours ahead.)

Aug 092016
 

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Today is the birthday (1896) of Jean Piaget, a Swiss clinical psychologist best known for pioneering work in child development, based on his theories of cognitive development and epistemology. His work has had a huge impact on the theory of education down to the present day.

Piaget’s model of childhood maturation is a biological developmental stage theory somewhat akin to Freudian theory, evolving out of the same intellectual milieu. The theory deals with the nature of knowledge itself and how humans gradually come to acquire, construct, and use it. For Piaget, cognitive development was a progressive reorganization of mental processes resulting from biological maturation and environmental experience. He believed that children construct an understanding of the world around them, experience discrepancies between what they already know and what they discover in their environment, then adjust their ideas accordingly.

Piaget proposed the existence of four stages of cognitive development: the sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational.

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The sensorimotor stage is the first of the four stages in cognitive development extending roughly from birth to the acquisition of language. In this stage, infants progressively construct knowledge and understanding of the world by coordinating experiences (such as vision and hearing) with physical interactions with objects (such as grasping, sucking, and stepping). Infants gain knowledge of the world from the physical actions they perform within it. They progress from reflexive, instinctual action at birth to the beginning of symbolic thought toward the end of the stage.

At this stage children learn that they are separate from their environment. They can think about aspects of the environment, even though these things may be outside the reach of the child’s senses. In this stage, according to Piaget, the development of object permanence is one of the most important accomplishments. Object permanence is a child’s understanding that objects continue to exist even though he or she cannot see or hear them. Peek-a-boo is a good test, and important game in this period. By the end of the sensorimotor period, children develop a permanent sense of self and other.

Piaget’s second stage, the pre-operational stage, starts when the child begins to learn to speak at age two and lasts up until around the age of seven. During the pre-operational stage, Piaget noted that children do not yet understand concrete logic and cannot mentally manipulate information. Children’s increase in playing and pretending takes place in this stage. However, the child still has trouble seeing things from different points of view.  Children’s play is mainly categorized by symbolic play and manipulating symbols. So, for example, a child at this stage can easily play with a box as a car or a table.

Piaget argued that children see causality in three ways at this stage: animism, artificialism, and transductive reasoning. Animism is the belief that inanimate objects are capable of lifelike activities. Artificialism refers to the belief that all environmental characteristics can be attributed to human or human-like actions or interventions. Transductive reasoning is a generally fallacious argument that if two events occur in close proximity they are causally related.

The concrete operational stage is the third stage of Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. This stage, which follows the preoperational stage, occurs roughly between the ages of 7 and 11 (preadolescence) and is characterized by the use of logic. During this stage, a child’s thought processes become more “adult like.” They start solving problems in a more logical fashion. Abstract, hypothetical thinking is not yet developed in the child, and children can only solve problems that apply to concrete events or objects. At this stage, children undergo a transition where the child learns rules such as conservation. Piaget determined that children are able to incorporate inductive reasoning. Inductive reasoning involves drawing inferences from observations in order to make a generalization. In contrast, children struggle with deductive reasoning, which involves using a generalized principle in order to try to predict the outcome of an event. Children in this stage commonly experience difficulties with figuring out logic in their heads. For example, a child will understand that “A is more than B” and “B is more than C”. However, when asked “is A more than C?”, the child might not be able to logically figure the question out mentally.

The final stage is known as the formal operational stage (adolescence and into adulthood, roughly ages 11 to approximately 15-20): Intelligence is demonstrated through the logical use of symbols related to abstract concepts. This form of thought includes “assumptions that have no necessary relation to reality.” At this point, the person is capable of hypothetical and deductive reasoning. During this time, people develop the ability to think about abstract concepts. This type of thinking involves hypothetical “what-if” situations that are not always rooted in reality, i.e. counterfactual thinking. It is often required in science and mathematics.

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You don’t need to be schooled in anthropology to see that Piaget’s whole sandcastle (like Freud’s) is extremely ethnocentric. The tacit assumption is that mature, Western, logical-scientific reasoning is correct (i.e. adult), and all other ways of viewing the world are infantile. It’s not hard to see that Piaget is consigning the bulk of spiritual and religious thinking to the pre-operational phase, for example. Thus, people (or cultures) who believe in the supernatural, or angels, or gods, and the like are displaying the mental characteristics of Western toddlers – and, by definition, should grow up and grow out of such beliefs to a more “mature” mode of thought. Need I go on?

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Freud’s whole psychological edifice based on universal bio-genetic stages of development collapsed under the weight of anthropological investigation in the early to mid-20th century, but Piaget’s lingers although it has its critics. It’s certainly true that different children at different ages learn in different ways, and we have Piaget to thank – in part – for that insight. But the idea that all children in all cultures follow a fixed trajectory through a series of well defined cognitive stages, (and, if they do not, they are stunted or abnormal), is both ludicrous and damaging. Still, if Piaget’s method can show at minimum that not all children learn at the same rate and in the same way, it’s a step in the right direction. One-size-fits-all education is all too common in the developed world.

Piaget was born in Neuchâtel, in the Francophone region of Switzerland and had a close association with the University of Neuchâtel much of his life. Neuchâtel is noted for its white wines and is reputedly the birthplace of absinthe. It is also well known for its special style of cheese fondue which I have already described: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/le-corbusier/ . The sweet bread, taillaule, is also a regional specialty, usually served as a breakfast snack with coffee.

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Neuchâtel Taillaule

Ingredients

1 kg all-purpose flour
1 cup whole milk, warmed
40 g  fresh yeast
3 eggs
120 g  sugar
150 g  butter, softened
20 g  malt extract
15 g  salt
250 g  raisins
zest of 1 lemon

apricot glaze
flaked almonds

Instructions

Pre-heat the oven to 200°C.

Place the milk in a mixing bowl and add the yeast and sugar. When the mixture starts to bubble after a few minutes, add 2 eggs, the malt extract, salt and lemon zest and mix well. Then add the flour slowly to form a smooth dough. Add the softened butter and dried fruit and knead well for at least 20 minutes..

Cover the dough and leave it to rise in a warm place for about 1 hour.

Punch the dough down and divide it into 2 equal parts.  Place each in a loaf pan and leave again in a warm place to rise for about 40 minutes.

Brush the tops of the loaves with beaten egg and make zig-zag cuts with kitchen scissors in the tops of the loaves.

Bake in the tins at 200°C for 25 minutes .

Remove from the oven and brush the loaves with an apricot glaze which you can make by diluting apricot jam with warm water. Sprinkle toasted flaked almonds on top if you wish.

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Sep 222013
 

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On this date in 1499 Switzerland became an independent state, effectively (although not fully legally) free from rule by the Habsburgs of the Holy Roman Empire.  The history of the formation of Switzerland as an independent nation state is complex but can be boiled down to a few essentials.   Originally there was the Old Swiss Confederacy which was an alliance among the valley communities of the central Alps. The Confederacy facilitated management of common interests and ensured peace on mountain trade routes. The Federal Charter of 1291 (photo above), agreed upon by the rural communes of Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden, is considered the confederacy’s founding document. This inaugural confederation grew, through a long series of accessions, into modern Switzerland. The map below shows the original Confederacy in dark olive, and later acquisitions in various colors identified by the map’s key.

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By 1353, the three original cantons had joined with the cantons of Glarus and Zug and the Lucerne, Zürich and Bern city states to form the “Old Confederacy” of eight states that existed until the end of the 15th century. The expansion led to increased power and wealth for the federation. By 1460, the Confederacy controlled most of the territory south and west of the Rhine to the Alps and the Jura mountains, particularly after victories against the Habsburgs (Battle of Sempach, Battle of Näfels), and over Charles the Bold of Burgundy during the 1470’s. The Swiss victory in the Swabian War(also called the Swiss War) against the Swabian League of Emperor Maximilian I in 1499 amounted to de facto independence within the Holy Roman Empire.  Maximilian signed a peace treaty on 22 September 1499 granting Switzerland freedom from imperial control.

Expansion continued throughout the 16th and early 17th centuries until in 1648, under the Peace of Westphalia, European countries fully and legally recognized Switzerland’s independence from the Holy Roman Empire and also its neutrality. Because of the piecemeal manner in which the state was formed Switzerland is something of a cultural patchwork, even today represented by regional, linguistic, ethnic, and political diversity. Yet like an elaborate quilt it has a degree of unity within diversity.

Generally when people think of Switzerland they think of certain iconic features, such as, peace movements, neutrality, chocolate, cheese, and cuckoo clocks (as well as fine watches).  All of these features are iconic for a reason, of course, but their history does not always follow a straight path.  Let us consider peace and neutrality for example. People who don’t know their European history are usually unaware that from the Late Middle Ages through the Reformation, Swiss armies and Swiss mercenaries were the most feared troops in all of Europe. Swiss mercenaries (Reisläufer) were valued throughout Late Medieval Europe for the power of their determined mass attack in deep columns with the pike and halberd. Hiring them was made even more attractive because entire ready-made Swiss mercenary contingents could be obtained by simply contracting with their local governments or the various Swiss cantons—the cantons had a form of militia system in which the soldiers were bound to serve and were trained and equipped to do so. Some Swiss also hired themselves out individually or in small bands.

The Swiss, with their head-down attack in huge columns with the long pike, refusal to take prisoners, and consistent record of victory, were greatly feared. Machiavelli addresses their system of combat at length in The Prince. The Valois Kings of France, in fact, considered it a virtual impossibility to take the field of battle without Swiss pikemen as the infantry core of their armies. The young men who went off to fight in foreign service had several incentives—limited economic options in the still largely rural cantons; adventure; pride in the reputation of the Swiss as soldiers; and finally what military historian Sir Charles Oman describes as a pure love of combat and war fighting in and of itself, forged by two centuries of conflict.  So much for peace loving clock makers.

Between the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 and the Congress of Vienna, which ended the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Swiss neutrality was largely a contingency measure for self defense. In other words, Switzerland hovered between the stances of militarism and pacifism as the best means of national protection.  In 1815 pacifism won and has remained national policy ever since despite occasional outside attacks. Switzerland does have a strong army, though, and attempts to eliminate it have been met with strong popular resistance.  All male citizens are required to perform military service (or some approved alternative).  The Swiss army also provides the personal guard for the Vatican, a legacy from old mercenary days when Swiss guards were frequently hired by Europe’s monarchs.  Yet the Swiss army is something of an anomaly in that soldiers must secure their weapons at home, and are forbidden from carrying them except during training.  An army without guns – refreshing.

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The Swiss are the greatest consumers of chocolate per capita in the world.  In many supermarkets whole aisles are devoted to nothing but chocolates, and chocolate shops abound in all urban centers.  The Swiss try to lay claim to the invention of solid chocolate bars, but they can take only partial credit.  From the time that chocolate was brought from the Americas to Europe until the 19th century, chocolate was consumed as a drink by the wealthy classes. Some time around 1800 chocolate producers in Turin began making chocolate in solid form for the first time.  These chocolates were small, dark, and rather bitter – a novelty.  François-Louis Cailler from Switzerland first tasted Italian chocolate at a local fair and subsequently spent four years in Turin learning the art of chocolate making. When he returned to Switzerland, he set up the first Swiss chocolate factory in Corsier, near Vevey in 1819. His great innovation was the development of a smooth chocolate that could be formed into bars. This was a worldwide sensation.

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In 1875, Daniel Peter, a candlemaker whose business was failing due to competition from oil lamps, had the idea of combining chocolate with his neighbor’s, Henri Nestlé’, powdered milk (then sold as baby formula) to make milk chocolate. Cailler and Peter eventually merged with the operation of Charles-Amédée Kohler (the inventor of hazelnut chocolate) to form the firm of Peter, Cailler, Kohler. The chocolate makers relied on Nestlé to provide milk products (including sweetened condensed milk), and so eventually the two merged under the Nestlé name.  The Dutch and English both had a hand in the 19th century development of chocolate manufacure, adding processes to Swiss chocolate making. So in the end the modern chocolate bar is the product of international effort.

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If you grew up in the United States you might be forgiven for thinking that Swiss cheese is just one product. In fact there are over 450 different cheeses produced in Switzerland almost all of them from cow’s milk.  The stuff with holes in it found in every U.S. supermarket dairy case is a pale imitation of Emmental, a genuine Swiss cheese (also with holes), and quite toothsome.  Then there is Gruyère which is a fine melting cheese which, with Emmental, features in the signature Swiss dish, cheese fondue. It’s also ideal for quiches, and is the customary topping for onion soup in France.  Those two are fairly well known, but they barely scratch the surface.  There’s Raclette , a round cheese which conventionally is heated, either in front of a fire or by a special machine, then scraped on to diners’ plates.

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Or there’s Berner Alpkäse, made from milk produced in a limited number of farms in the Alps, and redolent of the mountain herbs on which the cows graze.  Perhaps my favorite is Schabziger, or Sapsago, exclusively produced in the Canton of Glarus. It comes in a distinctive cone shape and is flavored with the wild herb blue melilot, also called blue fenugreek which gives it a green tinge.  I like it grated over pasta, but it is more usually mixed with butter as a spread.

Switzerland is divided unequally into four cultural regions based on the predominant language spoken: German, French, Italian, and Romansh.  The cuisines of these four regions are distinct, but there are also overlaps.  Italian pasta, for example, is popular throughout Switzerland. Some dishes are much more localized.  Since I am a big fan of barley soups I have chosen Bündner Gerstensuppe, a barley soup from the Romansh region of Graubünden as my recipe of the day. If you use vegetable stock this will be a vegetarian dish.  I prefer to use a light beef stock.  It is not uncommon to find this soup make with ham hocks or bacon which you can add if you desire.

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Bündner Gerstensuppe

Ingredients:

1 cup barley
½ knob of celeriac
2 carrots, peeled and diced
2 potatoes, peeled and diced
½ white cabbage, shredded
1 leek, thinly sliced
2 tbsp oil
4 cups stock
salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tbsp cream

Instructions

Rinse the barley under running water and then leave to soak overnight.

Heat the oil over medium heat in a large saucepan and sauté the celeriac, carrots, leek, and cabbage until they are softened but not .

Add the barley and stock. Bring to the boil and then simmer for about 2 hours or until the barley is tender.

Adjust the salt if necessary, add a few grinds of black pepper, and serve with a dollop of cream in the middle.

Serves 4