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Swiss Air Cuisine

Flight of Culinary Fancy
Story and photos by John Blanchette

idwalden Canton, Switzerland – This wasn't my usual travel assignment, it was as much about what went down on the plane as on the ground.

I was flying on Swiss International Airlines (Swiss) from Los Angeles to Zurich. What was unusual was I was not flying my usual Economy Class but Business Class, so I could experience the seasonal cuisine of one of Switzerland's greatest chefs.

Since 2002, every three months Swiss has invited top chefs from one of the 26 Cantons to produce a gourmet seasonal menu representative of the local cuisine, to be served in First and Business Class on overseas flights. The Canton and the chef are then featured in the in-flight magazine.

I was on the inaugural run for Executive Chef Thomas Amstutz of Hotel Villa Honegg on Burgenstock Mountain overlooking Lake Lucerne in the Nidwalden Canton.

When I arrived at the Zurich airport I took a short walk over to the company that caters all of Swiss' meals, Gate Gourmet, an impressive five story building with amazing aromas flavoring each floor. A hundred-truck armada ferried the 43,000 meals prepared each day from the building's kitchens to the waiting planes just minutes before takeoff. It was here that Chef Amstutz's gourmet regional creations were recreated into thousands of meals a day for those with long distance First and Business Class seats.

Sampling Chef Amstutz's menu on the plane, I was particularly fond of the local dried meats and sausages served with artisanal cheeses, the Burgenstock Angus beef meatloaf in demi glace jus was one of the best I'd ever tasted, even rivaling that of Thomas Keller's at Ad Hoc in Yountville, CA, and the trio of desserts including a mousse with local fruits, almond crumble and chocolate ganache and a sampling of Sprungli chocolates from the Zurich factory after dinner were sublime. For breakfast the Birchermuesli is perfect, with Swiss cream swirled into cooked oats, fresh fruit and nuts, a delicious muesli. For vegetarians, the airline provides meals created by Restaurant Hiltl of Zurich, the world's oldest vegetarian restaurant.

meatloaf meal on Swiss Air
My favorite meal on the plane, meatloaf

I decided that gourmet airplane food is no longer an oxymoron. In fact, a cookbook of recipes from the Swiss International Airline chefs is in the works, bringing together regional gourmet dishes from around the country served at altitude, for a flight of culinary fancy!

Villa Honegg was built in 1905 and was just named "The Friendliest Luxury Hotel in Switzerland." It is located just a 20 minute taxi climb from the city of Lucerne, which is not part of the tiny Canton of neighboring Nidwalden, a land of million dollar views but only 41,000 inhabitants. You can also take a quick paddle boat ride from Lucerne at no cost if you have a Swiss Pass or fly your private jet into the area's landing strip near the Pilatus Aircraft factory, the largest employer in the district.

I took the taxi form Lucerne and headed straight up 3,000 feet when I reached the mountain lane leading to the hotel. Spectacular panoramas of the lake and surrounding snow capped mountains revealed themselves as we circled higher and higher into the hill. Over my three days of residence I kept asking the hotel concierge how often they changed the mural in front of the hotel, the view seemed too beautiful to be real, but it was indeed a work of art created by nature's craftsmen.

panoramic view of Lake Lucerne and surrounding mountains from Villa Honegg, the Canton of Nidwalden
View of Lake Lucerne from my hotel

Every morning the church bells in the small villages below began ringing in the early hours as the sun rose and streamed down the slopes, across the lake and up into the snowcapped Alps. The birds and cowbells in the upper pastures joined the chorus and cheered me as I rose to meet the day.

While visiting Villa Honegg, my appetite was stimulated on two occasions with vigorous hikes into the surrounding mountains, the first up 2,000 feet to the top of Burgenstock, reaching a plateaux that opened vistas into the valley and lakes on the other side, spreading down to Lucerne harbor when you walked out on a ramp at the tip of the cliff. If you are an acrophobe, do not look over the railing. You are standing in midair above a 3,000 foot gorge!

The ramp leads to an elevator called the Hammetschwand Lift that plunges straight down toward the Valley floor, stopping after several hundred feet on a ledge outcropping where you can get off and continue an on-foot hike down a steep path on the backside of the mountain. I choose to take the Lift back to the top and head down to the hotel and Chef Amstutz's comforting cuisine, a much needed cocktail, a calming spa treatment and a quiet swim in the 90 degree pool overlooking the valley. Pure joy and no fear.

They next day I was guided on an even more adventurous hike up the 6,200 foot Mount Stanserhorn.

local guy collecting hay at a hillside

collected hay on a pavement
Bringing in the hay

From the Canton's main city of Stans I took the 120-year-old funicular train up above the town through the spring fields smelling of new cut hay. Farmer's were joyously harvesting the grasses after two months of continual rain. All over the Canton people were finally enjoying the warm weather, dining al fresco and taking long walks around the lake and in the mountains.

an outdoor cafe in Stans, Nidwalden
Enjoying an outdoor cafe on a warm sunny day after months of rain

I was aboard a crowded train heading to the summit. Midway up, we transferred to the world's only convertible-topped CabriO cable car, which can carry 60 people on an exhilarating open-air ride quietly climbing into the Swiss Alps on a beautiful spring day.

Near the top is a revolving restaurant that turns 360 degrees every 45 minutes, revealing spectacular views of the Central Swiss Alps. Of course my guide insisted that we first take the 30 minute hike to the top of the mountain before dining. So I gasped along the trail, viewing the cuddly marmots at play in the treeless Alpine fields and the panoramic views that changed at every turn of the path.

view of Central Swiss Alps
Alps of Central Switzerland

There is a national addiction with paragliding. The change in the weather had hundreds of daredevils all over the country leaping off of mountains and soaring thousands of feet up and down in the thermals. I saw them everywhere I traveled over my week in the area. It seemed like great fun until my guide told me that he no longer participated in the sport because of the danger. At least 12 people a year perish while paragliding in the Alps.

The next day I visited several of chef Amstutz's local providers including Toni Odermatt at his goat farm, Geissaheimat Meierskaehlen, where delicious cheeses are made tasting of the herbs, flowers and clovers consumed by the herd in the Alpine meadows. It was spring and amusing baby goats as young as a week old were cavorting around the farmstead. Goat cheeses available included fresh ricotta, smoked gouda-style, parmesan-like aged blocks and a variety of other artisan blends. They figured prominently in the chef's menus.

baby goat at the Geissaheimat Meierskaehlen goat farm
Baby goat smiles for her photo

Then it was off to the Holzen Fleisch ranch in the valley below the hotel where master butcher Stefan Mathis raises venison, the Angus beef for the great meatloaf and heirloom pigs that make some delicious sausages and dried meats for the airline flights.

That afternoon top officials from the Canton and Swiss International Airlines met with journalists from China, the Middle East, Europe and America at a reception on the balcony of the hotel to sample Chef Amstutz airplane cuisine fresh from his kitchen. It was a First Class banquet which soared above the stunningly beautiful bounty of the Nidwalden.

the Hotel Villa Honegg
Hotel Villa Honegg

When You Go:

Switerland Tourism (877) 794-8037 and the Canton of Nidwalden, provide comprehensive brochures, and information on local festivals, events, restaurants, housing in all price ranges, maps, and guides.

Check out these links for more information: Swiss International Airlines, the Hotel Villa Honegg, the meats, and the goat farm.

Purchase a Swiss Pass before you leave for the best deals and have free access to trains, buses, and boats, admission to over 470 museums and discounts on mountain railways: www.swisstravelsystem.com and www.raileurope.com.

Related Articles:
Switzerland Tour, Switzerland Tourism's Intellectual History; Lucerne, Switzerland; Graubunden Switzerland; Sampling Switzerland; Zurich Dada and Business Class; Zurich Christmas; Bernina Express, Switzerland; Swiss Rail Trips


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Let John know what you think about his traveling adventure.

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Feedback for South of the Border Wine Country

Hello John – I enjoyed reading your article. I live in La Bufadora and have friends visiting next week, so you have given me some good tips on where to go in our wine country. We have always called Cetto – L.A. (like Los Angeles) Chet-o and it might have been worth mentioning that it is actually Italian in origin. Also, I don't know about when visiting the Valle, but when in town, it is better to have pesos than dollars. Right now the rate is approx. 11.70 for each dollar. Just sayin' and like I said good article!

--- Ella O'Bryan, La Bufadora, Baja, MX

Hi, We here at Country Living Magazine are working on a story about hotels around the US. We would like to feature the Paso Robles Inn. I have to find photos to go along with the story. I was wondering if you could please send me any images of the hotel. This can be anything from the rooms to the food! All images can be submitted low res and if selected I will ask for hi rez later. Also, if you know of any photographers that have photographed the hotel can you please give me the contact info? Thank you so much!

--- Will Morel, Assistant Photo Editor, Country Living Magazine, New York, NY

I am looking forward to my "silver" years, which in my case, will be the years (if fate is good to me) that I will finally be traveling. New Zealand is at the top of the list - I have always been drawn to it.

--- Sandra Mines, Seattle, WA

Yes, was a fun city. Bad wine though.

--- Bo, Portland, OR



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