Beyond fondue

SALLY WEBB
Last updated 12:31 26/02/2014
Fondue

TAKE NOTE: Chocolate expert Blaise Poyet explains how it's done.

Switzerland
BEAUTIFUL BACKDROP: The Pays d'Enhaut in the Vaud region.

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The last person I expect to see as I stroll along the Lake Geneva waterfront in Montreux is Freddie Mercury.

Not the real Freddie, of course, but a larger than life-size bronze statue of the late, great Queen frontman - fist aloft - who lived here from the late 1970s until his death in 1991.

But there's a certain resonance. A few moments later at nearby Zurcher confiserie I'm tucking into my second serve of chocolate for the morning, and I can't get the lyrics of one of Freddie's famous songs - Fat Bottomed Girls - out of my head.

And I know why. To get the most out of the region, chances are you'll leave it with just a little more padding. Chocolate is just one of the gastronomic drawcards but it's also long been a major economic driver in this affluent region.

In 1819 the first chocolate factory was established at Vevey, a few kilometres from Montreux, by Francois-Louis Cailler. Many years later, in 1875, Cailler's son-in-law Daniel Peter invented milk chocolate when he combined dark chocolate with his neighbour Henri Nestle's condensed milk.

The Cailler company (which later became Peter, Cailler, Kohler) was eventually bought by Nestle whose global headquarters is still based in Vevey.

Other chocolatiers got in on the act, including Arnauld Zurcher who set up his small factory in Montreux in 1875. The fifth generation of the Zurcher dynasty, Anne Rapi, is now running the family business, which has morphed over the years from chocolate laboratory to restaurant to the elegant cafe and patisserie it is today, where house-blended teas are served in antique silver teapots.

There's some contemporary oomph in many of the desserts and sweet treats displayed under high-tech lighting like precious jewels, as well as classic cakes which Zurcher invented, such as a flower-shaped, lemon-glazed Marguerite sponge.

The Riviera's most exciting chocolatier is Blaise Poyet, whose stunning chocolate shop is one of the drawcards of Vevey. A practising Buddhist who travels widely, Poyet finds inspiration in the food of Thailand and other places. His Tom Yum chocolate is an acquired taste (and would give our own Adriano Zumbo a run for his money); best sellers are dark chocolate feet celebrating one of Vevey's most famous residents, Charlie Chaplin, who lived here for 25 years until his death in 1977.

Food is a recurrent theme in Vevey. Wandering along the picturesque lakefront, planted with vibrant flowers and shady trees, I notice what looks like a giant fork in the water. The sculpture, installed for a temporary exhibition in 1996, became so beloved by the Vevey locals that after a bureaucratic bungle saw it removed, there was major public outcry and demands for its return. The people won, and the fork returned in 2007 and remains, situated outside the Alimentarium museum of food history.

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With their commanding lakefront positions, Montreux and Vevey get much of the attention but it's by exploring the little villages between and behind them, including the terraced hills planted with vines, that reaps the richest rewards.

In a global sense, Swiss wines are overshadowed by their French neighbours, but spend a day or two in the Lavaux - the UNESCO world heritage-listed wine region stretching west from Vevey to Lutry (near Lausanne) and you'll discover some gems.

As early as the 11th century monks from Lausanne created terraces and planted grapes. The vineyards today are mainly family-owned and operated, with most open for tastings on weekends, or by appointment at other times.

Most plantings are the chasselas grape, which creates a crisp, dry white wine that intriguingly takes on the characteristics of the terroir - or soil - in which it is planted so that wine made in the same vintage by the same winemaker from the same grape but from neighbouring parcels of land can taste different.

I discover this at Domaine Croix-Duplex where their Les Barbaronnes chasselas (from the Villette area in the west of the Lavaux) is crisp and fruity but the Calamin Grand Cru chasselas, from grapes grown closer to Vevey, is more minerally.

Although chasselas is the predominant grape, pinot noir and other red varieties are planted in the Lavaux. Domaine Croix-Duplex boasts two pinots including the award-winning Praz de Roy 2009 which is aged in oak barrels that are sourced from Chateau Latour. Also intriguing is Le Message, a blend of three red grapes I've not heard of - garanoir, gamaret, diolinoir - with syrah.

Walking among the terraced vineyards and through quaint, historic villages is one of the best ways to appreciate the spectacular topography of the Lavaux. The historic, 500-year-old Auberge de l'Onde in St-Saphorin has a casual bistro - where Charlie Chaplin ate on a weekly basis - as well as a classy restaurant serving sublime food including meats from a wood-fired grill.

Put yourself in the hands of master sommelier (and maitre d') Jerome Ake Beda whose self-appointed mission is to share with diners some of the rarest and most intriguing Swiss wines (which few of us know as most are consumed in the domestic market). If you're lucky he'll take you on a guided tour of his extraordinary cellar.

Cheese is a part of the Swiss psyche and there's no shortage of it in the Montreux Riviera. A short train ride up into the Pays d'Enhaut will take you to the home of L'Etivaz, an alpine cheese made only in summer, and Gruyere, as famous in these parts for its thick double cream as for its wonderful hard cheese.

Cholesterol worries cast aside, at Chez Gloria in the heart of Montreux, I indulge in raclette, an interactive meal experience more commonly found in the mountains, where cheese is grilled, melted and scraped on to potatoes, and eaten with pickles and air-dried beef.

It's not your everyday dish, but I'm not in Switzerland every day. Yes, the jeans are getting tighter. But I think Freddie would be proud.

The writer travelled courtesy of Swiss Tourism and Rail Europe.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE Montreux and Vevey are well connected by train to the major cities and towns in Switzerland, including airports.

GETTING AROUND Local trains which run between Montreux to Lausanne allow you to explore the Lavaux wine area. The Swiss Pass rail ticket is an all-in-one ticket with unlimited access to all public transport in Switzerland. See www.myswitzerland.com/rail and www.raileurope.com.au

STAYING THERE Golf Hotel Rene Capt: A somewhat old-fashioned hotel in the heart of Montreux, has lake-view rooms with glorious outlooks although town-view rooms have noise from passing trains. Rue du Bon Port 35, 1820 Montreux. See golf-hotel-montreux.ch.

Doubles from CHF99 ($135) Le Bourg 7: Superbly stylish boutique hotel in the well preserved historic village of Lutry, at the western end of the Lavaux, on the outskirts of Lausanne. Doubles from €160 ($264) with rooms including a kitchenette. Rue du Bourg 7, 1095 Lutry. See lebourg7.com.

MORE INFORMATION myswitzerland.com

- Sydney Morning Herald

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