Sunday, April 28, 2013

Cheese Fondue and Pain au Chocolat - The Surefire Cure for Travel Anxiety

My colleague Amanda does not claim to be an invincible road warrior.   In fact overseas flights kind of freak her out.   “It’s that stretch over the Atlantic that worries me,” she admits.

So for a recent company meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, I promise to be her wingman.   It’s not that she’s without coping mechanisms.   On the afternoon of our departure from JFK, she shows up at the airport carrying a neck pillow that is supposed to be the ultimate in teddy bear comfort, but actually resembles a small ferret.
Amanda proves to be a trouper.  Aided by an unsinkable spirit and an armament of travel rituals and accouterments, she makes the trans-Atlantic crossing in fine form, and is actually quite perky when we pass through customs the next morning. 

We have some free time before work, so I suggest an immediate culinary immersion as a restorative tonic – that being genuine Swiss fondue.  

“That sounds great,” says Amanda, “ And, I’m so tired I’ll just keep saying “that sounds great” no matter what you suggest.”

I head to the hotel concierge and ask for recommendations for restaurants featuring cheese.   He gives me a look of pity, but jots down a couple of names on a map of the Old Town.    I collect Amanda and we are off.   

“I’m directionally challenged,” she says.  “I’ll just follow you.”

After some meandering, which includes me dragging Amanda up several steep cobblestone hills and a directional assist from her iPhone, we locate the Restaurant Les Armures, and are seated in a charming outdoor café.  The restaurant is famous not only for its fondue, but for a visit from Bill and Hillary Clinton sometime during the 1990s.  
The amiable waiters are straight out of central casting, and the menu features an asparagus and spinach salad and a cheese fondue with wild mushrooms and bacon. 
The fondue is seductively savory and comes with a woven basket full of tiny warm potatoes for dipping.  The asparagus is decorated with jewel-like raspberries and lightly dressed with a bright vinaigrette.  

Amanda is starting to adjust to the time zone and the cultural proclivities.   “I think what I’d really like is a bit of coffee and some Pain au Chocolat,” she muses.  “In fact, I’d like to spend the week in search of the best Pain au Chocolat in Geneva.”

I know that Amanda is a bit of an overachiever.   She and I have a history with food challenges, and the last time was so harrowing, I’ve yet to muster up the courage to tell that story.   But, in the end, who can resist the idea of Pain au Chocolat, especially when you’re already on a lactose high?

It is getting late in the day, and we are having trouble locating a bakery.  Our journey leads us to a café on the promenade adjacent to Lake Geneva, where the view is stunning, and the waiter speaks an extraordinary version of colloquial English.
“Do you have Pain au Chocolat?” Amanda asks.

“But, of course!” he smiles, and brings us two café au lait and a sealed plastic pouch.

Inside the pouch is a light and spongy pastry with a dark, chocolate filling.    Amanda takes a bite.  “The quest for the best Pain au Chocolat in Geneva has begun, and this isn’t it,” she says.  “I would describe this as the Wonder Bread of Pain au Chocolat.”
We discover that the flavor is markedly improved, however, if you dip the pastry in the café au lait. 
The next morning, we check out the Pain au Chocolat at the hotel buffet.   This looks and tastes much more like the genuine article, with light, buttery layers surrounding a delicate chocolate filling.  
After several days of meetings conclude, our search continues.   This time we are joined by our pal Amy.   We visit the Auer Chocolatier, and while there is Pain au Chocolate on the menu, it is late in the day and they have none left.   The chocolate macarons are a delectably suitable stand-in.   They are the size of Whoopie Pies. 
Shortly after downing the macarons, we quite accidentally stumble upon Pain Paillasse, and spy several Pain au Chocolat in the bakery case.   Amanda is ecstatic.  We buy three and the proprietress throws in an extra for free.  Amanda also buys a Tarte Fromage (here comes the cheese again).   We snack on both setting up an impromptu picnic on the street corner.  Oddly enough the thoroughfare is named “Rue du Purgatoire.”

Amanda is ambivalent about this Pain au Chocolat.   It is plump and doughy, more like bread than a croissant.   However, she raves about the Tarte Fromage which is light and custardy with a lovely scent of nutmeg.

It is getting near the dinner hour and believe it or not, we are feeling a little peckish. Since we have now fully adopted the Swiss Diet, we head for the restaurant Au Vieux Carauge, which is reported to serve the best fondue, not just in Geneva, but in all of Switzerland.

The establishment does not disappoint.  There are rustic wooden tables, and copper pots hanging on the walls.  The proprietress brings an enormous red ceramic pot to the table filled with bubbling, molten cheese.  
Amy speaks a bit of French and engages her in a conversation.   We manage to discern that the recipe uses two kinds of Swiss cheese, Gruyere, and Vacherin, and clearly nether came in a zip lock bag.   The silky, melted cheese soaks into the bread, infusing it with a nutty aroma.   If “fondue Nirvana” is possible, I am there.

On Saturday, it is time to return to the States, and Amanda has skipped breakfast because a friend has told her that the best ever Pain au Chocolat is at the Geneva Airport before you enter passport control.  However, we don’t have the name of the restaurant.  It is here that the quest begins to unravel.   We are faced with a long baggage drop line, and Amy encounters a ticket snafu.   Amanda’s blood sugar level is dropping like a stone. 

“You have to do recon,” she tells me urgently, her voice tinged with panic.   I sprint ahead through the airport, with no idea where I’m heading.   I stop at every eatery I can find, but see no Pain au Chocolat.   Plenty of doughnuts, and even a Starbucks, but no Pain au Chocolat.   Finally, at the far end of the airport, I am rewarded.   I spot two Pain au Chocolat in a glass case.  They are truly the last two Pain au Chocolat in the Geneva airport.   And, I still don’t manage to note the name of the restaurant.
Triumphantly, I carry the two pastries back to the baggage drop area.  Amanda devours one, and glowingly proclaims it “The best Pain au Chocolat in Geneva.” 

Was it truth or desperation that inspired her endorsement?  I’ll never know for sure, but I am absolutely positive that Amanda would have strangled that little ferret neck pillow if I had come back empty-handed.  

©2013 T.W. Barritt all Rights Reserved


Kalyn Denny said...

Great post; you do look like you have found fondue nirvana!

Axelle the french cook said...

Too bad your friend and friend did not come to France. You would have find true pains au chocolat :)
The first one is typical in Italy. When I lived over there, I used to eat them with delight ! :)
And fondue savoyarde is soooo good.

Barbara said...

Really, is there anything worse than the trip over? Hope you can sleep on a plane, T. W., I can't. The trip back is simple by comparison.
Interesting, using potatoes for dipping. Never would have occurred to me.
Then I almost choked when I saw the packaged Pain au Chocolat! Like Twinkies. OMG. I loved the look of the Tarte Fromage, though. Yum.
I would say your quest was semi-successful, although finding the "best" at the airport is dubious. Needs further investigation, for sure.

Deana Sidney said...

That was the biggest fondue pot I've ever seen!!! I haven't made it in years. Now that I have a big chafing dish (left over from a movie) I have no excuse not to because it is so good, isn't it? All that lovely cheese (or chocolate).

Funny to go in search of a best. I never think of the Swiss and pain au chocolat... it is such a PAris thing for me.Glad you found your friend's heart's desire.. it was kind of you to go on the quest for her.

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

Every trip needs a quest, and what could be better than a quest for pain au chocolat? A week of pastry and fondue seems a fair compensation for a few days of meetings!

Sam Hoffer / My Carolina Kitchen said...

You certainly know how to start a trip off right T.W. and deal with the inevitable jet lag at the same time with a lovely cheese fondue. Funny story about chasing the best pain au chocolat. I'm so pleased that you found one before you boarded the plane or that poor pillow would have been history :)

laura luciano said...

I wish I was there with you and my dear former colleague Amanda. Through your words I can hear Amanda in her full glory. Thank God you found the pain au chocolat in the airport it would not have been pretty. Fondue is something I grew up on; my mom actually kept the 70's fondue forks (not sure what happened to the pot) but I will need to wrangle them from her for one of my culinary curiosities in my adult life. Welcome Back T.W.B.

Zany said...

So, let me get this straight. You take pizza into one of the classiest hotels in New York City, yet while in elegant Switzerland you snack on pastry on the street corner? At least some of your street sense is coming back... I hope Ford read this post.

Looks like such a fun trip, and I do miss me some Amanda and Amy!

Catherine said...

Dear T.W., I am glad you had a safe trip. It sounds like you had a nice time.
It is almost like a quest that you were on for the best pain au chocolat! I am glad though that this had a happy ending for Amanda.
Welcome home and blessings, Catherine

Velva said...

i am swooning with delight. Fun, fun time in Geneva except for sugar drop and the ticket snafu...


Kat said...

How did I miss this post? The fondue looks delicious! Especially the one with the wild mushrooms and bacon in it! Love that asparagus dish too. I am not a bakery/bread person, but that Tarte Fromage looks so good, wishing I had one right this minute! Love your stories, as always.

Anonymous said...

hahahahahhahha,...You make melaugh,... a lot! Here in Belgium, we take our pain aux chocolate also seriously!

Thanks for the Geneva top pain au chocolates! :)

It was a lovely quest!