It’s hard and nutty and has holes in it — and just happens to be one of Europe’s most distinctive and delicious cow’s milk cheeses. Emmental has been made in the hills to the north-east of Bern since the 12th century and its AOP designation (Apellation d’Origine Protegée) protects its status as a product unique to this location. The key to that unique taste is the ageing process — anything from four to 12 months. The holes in the Emmental wheels (up to 40 inches in diameter) are actually caused by microscopic hay particles in the milk. Although now seen as crucial to the cheese’s identity, they were once considered to be undesirable imperfections and, until recently, cheesemakers would strive to eliminate them. The Emmental Show Dairy in the village of Affoltern in Emmental is open to the public year round and showcases both the traditional production methods and streamlined, modern techniques. You can even have a go yourself, under the guidance of a master cheesemaker, plus there’s a restaurants serving regional dishes — with an emphasis on the holey stuff.
Trubschachen is a small village in the heart of the Emmental Valley where the delicious Kambly biscuits are made. It all started in 1906 when young Oscar Kambly met and fell in love with a girl from the village and married and settled down there with her. After learning his trade in the village bakery, he turned it into a biscuit factory. His first product was the crêpe-like Bretzeli, which remains a bestseller. More than a century later, Kambly is Switzerland’s leading exporter of baked goods, but some things never change — they still use fresh milk, eggs and butter from local suppliers. At the Kambly Experience, visitors can watch the master confectioners at work, and even create their own biscuits — as well as eating and buying the real deal.
Biel/Bienne may be known for its watchmaking heritage, but the slopes behind the town — along the northern shore of Lake Biel and around Lakes Neuchâtel and Murten — are wine country. The vineyards that stripe the hillsides produce excellent pinot noirs (hardly surprising given that this used to be part of Burgundy) and refreshing whites, mainly from the native chasselas grape, along with some elegant chardonnays. The medieval villages of Twann and Ligerz are on a vineyard trail that starts in Biel and ends in La Neuveville. In Twann there’s a wine-tasting centre, the Vinothek Viniterra, and Ligerz has a wine and viniculture museum — the Rebbaumuseum, open May to October — housed in a 16th-century manor house. Dotted along the trail are wineries that open their cellars for hungry and thirsty visitors. The trail is approximately nine miles long, with spectacular lake views throughout, and if the combination of walking and wine tasting leaves you drowsy, you can always catch a boat or train back to Biel from any of the villages.
The residents of Biel have no excuse for lateness. This small town to the north-west of Bern has long been associated with precision- and micro-engineering — in particular, the movements of wristwatches and timepieces. Swatch and Omega (now owned by Swatch) have their headquarters here, while Rolex has a large technical production centre in the town. The New Museum Biel, besides its sections on history, art and archaeology, has a permanent exhibition dedicated to the town’s watchmaking industry — from its beginnings in craftsmen’s homes to today’s automated, global and highly lucrative business. The nearby Omega Museum tells the story of the famous brand — the official timekeeper of the Olympic Games and Nasa’s timepiece of choice. And the Machine Museum at the Centre Müller highlights the development of engineering in the town in the 19th and early 20th centuries. There’s more to Biel than watches of course: it’s an impressive lakeside town, with a charming old centre and a Gothic church clinging to the slopes behind.
The iconic chocolate, honey and nougat bar with segments shaped like Alpine peaks, is arguably Switzerland’s most famous export and it comes from the city of Bern. It was created by Bernese confectioner Theodor Tobler in 1908 and takes its name partly from its creator and partly from torrone, the Italian word for a type of nougat. The brand was trademarked in 1909 and manufactured in the Tobler chocolate factory in the city. The old factory has been replaced by a modern structure (not open to the public), but the chocolate bar itself has changed little. It’s said the Matterhorn inspired the shape of the segments (from three to 12, depending on the size of bar), although Theodor’s sons insist their father was alluding to a pyramid of dancers he saw at the Folies Bergères in Paris. Whatever the truth, there’s a clue to Toblerone’s provenance on its packaging — hidden in a mountain peak is the shape of a bear, the symbol of the city of Bern.
The little town of Meiringen, which lies at the foot of the Alps some 50 miles south-east of Bern, is perhaps best known for being near the Reichenbach Falls, where Sherlock Holmes falls to his death in The Final Problem (there’s even a Holmes Museum in the town). But it also has a far tastier claim to fame. In around 1600, a local pastry chef called Gasparini experimented with some egg whites and sugar and came up with a miraculously light confection he named after his little town. From Meiringen, what we know as meringue soon travelled far and wide. In northern Germany it became known as the ‘Spanish wind’. In the England of Elizabeth I the queen took a fancy to it. And those master pastry makers, the French, were unable to improve upon it, merely frenchifying the name. Four hundred years on, the meringue sits proudly in the windows of Meiringen’s pastry shops and features prominently on menus in cafes and restaurants. The best in town are to be had at Bakery Frutal at Bahnhofstrasse 18 — gorgeous confections that look like wedding hats and taste like heaven.
Published in the Bern guide, distributed with the May 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)