Remember the old saying “when in Rome, do as the Romans do” ? I wasn’t exactly in Rome but in Switzerland a few miles from the northern Italian border. You can see and feel the influences in this Swiss Italian region known as Ticino (Ti-chee-no), one of 26 cantons (states) in this small but culturally diverse country. Elegant people stroll a little slower here but always with Italian panche. The language is Italian. Favored food items- risotto, corn, cured meats and chestnuts appear on local menus. Merlot grape is king here and I’ve included a recipe for braised beef in Merlot wine below. www.ticino.ch Lugano’s waterfront promenade follows the lake’s contours meandering under a canopy of trees through gardens dotted with art installations and is a preferred route for joggers, dog walkers and sightseers. Ancient churches and palazzos literally touch bricks with modern marvels of Mario Botta’s glass architecture. Between the ancient buildings, standing in the full sunlight, you immediately understand why Lugano is known as the sundeck of Switzerland. With such temperate weather you’ll see palm trees and wonder “Am I really in Switzerland? “ Yes indeed you are. www.myswizerland.com
Lugano’s Hotel De La Paix a few miles from the train station was home for our stay. We had a fantastic view of the lake and the landing where the ferry would take us south to the lakeside town of Morcote. A breakfast, we wandered downstairs to a buffet that included assorted preserved meats, local cheeses, light-as-a-feather croissants, fresh fruits, all types of fresh juices, granola, soft as a pillow scrambled eggs and my favorite Italian bacon, almost a Prosciutto style, not greasy and just enough salt to be perfectly balanced. I had coffee, and Michelle a frothy cappuccino, which I should have done, but there’s always tomorrow.
After breakfast we walked five minutes to the dock with our Swiss Rail Passes in tow. The pass allows you to travel the entire country either by train, bus or ferry. Trains in Switzerland are synchronized for ease of travel. What this means is that if you have to change trains at any station, your connecting train will either be there waiting or will shortly arrive. The trains in Switzerland run on time. So be on time; if the train is scheduled to leave at 11:13am it will leave at 11:13. All platforms have a large yellow sign that will tell you the track number, destination, departure time, class and if the train has a dining car. Only the information that you need is listed and it’s clear and efficient. The trains are clean, quiet, and electric so there are no diesel fumes or noise. High speed trains run in excess of 85 mph and tilt in the turns so you won’t spill your cappuccino. Disaster averted; yes Swiss efficiency and engineering is a joy for the tired traveler.
Consulting the ferry schedule lakeside; we had about fifteen minutes to wander and take in the sights. Along the main street aptly named Riva Paradiso were elegant five star hotels, restaurants of every kind, locals and visitors enjoying the beautiful weather. In the old section of town jewelry and couturier boutiques fill in next to old comestible shops that in turn explode onto cobbled streets with colorful local produce or umbrella covered café tables. A 19th century pastry shop commands part of a tiny thoroughfare, goodies filling the gilded windows. Here pastries are edible art; each one a sweet revelation .
Our ferry was scheduled to leave at 9:28am, and frankly my thought was that maybe the trains run on time, but how could a ferry do that ? Wind and water will effect travel time. Well guess what? The ferry arrived and departed exactly at 9:28 Am. Travel time was an enjoyable 55 minutes including several stops along the way. Lake Lugano with mountains rising up around it on all sides was just simply stunning, the water was calm, the temperature in the 70’s, it was perfect.
Traveling to the south our destination was Morcote, a small lakefront village with ancient vineyards straddling the hill above the town. The ferry officer at the end of the gang plank gave each departing passenger a crisp “ arrivederchi” and we walked the tiny road to the Scherrer Garden, a terraced arboretum full of subtropical plants and flowers set in lush stylized vignettes of vegetation and reflecting pools. The garden is above the main boulevard and has commanding views of the lake, almost to the Italian shore.
I was looking forward to lunch at the adjacent restaurant Grotto Del Parco. We settled in on the terrace with a spectacular vantage point observing locals fishing, boating and simply sunning themselves. On cue our server Francesco brought us the house cocktail to start; a curious blending of peach nectar, local Prosecco, and a touch of gin. As we looked over the menu Francesco explained that chef Mauricio had prepared a special lunch menu, smiled and spirited them away- (when in Rome?). Our meal started with a nice bottle of locally produced Tremone Chardonnay 2007 of Ticino, and Beef Cannelloni hand-rolled with housemade pasta, filled with fork tender shredded beef and finished with a light tomato cream reduction. Luscious.
“Secondi,”our second course was local lake Perch lightly sautéed with artichoke hearts, and simple roasted potatoes. The flavors were pure and earthy. A perfect meal for a perfect day. We regretfully departed Morcote for Lugano via the Lugano/Paradiso ferry but going back to a place named Paradiso really wasn’t so bad. Yes, we did leave exactly on time.
At Paradiso we decided to ride the funicular up to the peak of Mt. San Salvatore. Presenting our Swiss Rail Passes at the ticket office, we qualified for a half- off fare amounting to a twenty dollar savings to us- who knew ? These passes are a must-have in Switzerland, you just don’t need a car to worry about fuel, parking or getting lost- it’s a super deal.
The ride up, full of older German Nationals in shorts, black socks and sandals screaming and trading barbs with the rest of their large group was pretty scary on so many levels! But not all due to them. We were on a cog lift traversing a very steep grade carved into the side of the mountain. Knowing the Swiss penchant for engineering gave us full confidence. At the top is a café that serves ice cream, assorted snacks and beer or wine with an unsurpassed view. But you arein Switzerland there are unbeatable views at the top of all of their mountains! We hiked up to the peak, popped into the tiny chapel and took in the views of the city of Lugano, it’s lake and the Swiss Alps. Absolutely a “must do” when you visit. I didn’t want to leave but more adventures beckoned. Up next time: we’ll share lunch in a Mendrisio grotti or Fondue in Lausanne !
2 lbs top round
2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil
1 ¼ Oz unsalted butter
½ leek cleaned and diced (the white part only)
2 carrots diced
1 medium onion chopped
2 Tbs flour
1 Tbs tomato paste or puree
2 Cups Merlot wine
1 Cup sliced white button mushrooms. (Chanterelles or Porcini combo good too)
1 can condensed beef broth
1 sprig fresh thyme
1 sprig fresh rosemary
1 ½ Oz unsalted butter set aside for later use.
Brown the beef on all sides in the olive oil and butter, remove meat from pan, set aside.
Add all the vegetables and sauté. Next add the flour and tomato paste/puree, stir well and then add the wine. Now place the beef, vegetables, red wine sauce, beef stock to your Dutch oven or oven proof casserole. Next add the herb sprigs. Cover this and braise for 2 hours at 350F. After the dish is braised, remove the beef from the casserole and cover to keep warm. Take the braising liquid and pass through a sieve into a sauce pan. Heat this until slightly thickened, add the remaining butter, taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper.
Sides for this dish :
Smashed potatoes with chopped parsley and chicken base blended into them
Buttered Spaetzle with fresh grated nutmeg to taste
Buttered egg noodles tossed with chopped parsley and freshly chopped marjoram.
by Kurt Winner/ photos Kurt Winner)