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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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
Hotel Villa Honegg
When You Go:
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,
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
Tourism's Intellectual History; Lucerne,
Dada and Business Class; Zurich
Express, Switzerland; Swiss