The fire bell clatters and shiny silver-helmeted firefighters rush to their engines. Each time this happens there’s a round of applause, then all 200 of us turn back to the evening’s other attention-grabber: a gourmet meal sourced almost entirely from Lausanne and its environs.
This vast hall is the caserne des pompiers — fire station — but tonight it’s hosting La Grande Table des Lausannois and the theme is ‘fire and water’. Chefs from seven city restaurants have cooked the many courses and have even roasted a calf (reared in a local park) out in the station yard. There’s a hot gooey mousse of raclette cheese with a side of potatoes baked in salt so they become ‘fake stones’, while a chocolate tart is shrouded in dry ice. If the intention is to create a smoke effect, it fails to raise the eyebrows of the busy pompiers.
It’s a fun event (where long tables encourage chatter with new friends) — one of many held by Lausanne à Table across the summer months in this lakeside city, blessed with a fabulous larder of meat, vegetables, wines and cheeses. But Lausanne’s culinary credentials can be savoured at any time of the year.
I step aboard the ‘Belle Époque’ paddle steamer (its decor testifying that it’s appropriately named) and head to first class where the outside seats on the deck are heated and the view of the crystal lake is astonishing. I disembark at the little town of Cully, where I join the Lavaux Express, one of those twee toy-town trains that isn’t a train at all but a tractor in disguise.
I’m a whippersnapper compared with my fellow passengers — be-hatted ladies in their very senior years — and, cheekily, I come to call it the ‘nana bus’. I climb up past the 1,000-year-old Lavaux Vineyard Terraces — named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007 — and look back down at Lake Geneva, known in this French part of Switzerland as Lac Léman, across the water to the magnificent Savoy Alps. I can immediately see why the likes of James Mason, Peter Ustinov, Richard Burton, and Audrey Hepburn lived in villages on the shores of (or in view of) the lake and why the International Olympic Committee has been based here since 1914.
The nana bus stops at the top of the terraces and I disembark to taste some of the wine of these vineyards, lesser-known across the world because of the small amount produced but truly gorgeous. I love the Chasselas variety — fruity, floral, with mineral flavours. An old man pulls out an accordion and the nanas begin to sing like a bunch of aged Von Trapps. Bliss.
Back in old Lausanne I drink Chasselas again but this time to fortify my stomach against an onslaught of cheese. I’m in Le Pinte Besson, founded in 1780, a place where people originally came to eat local Tomme cheese and sausages with a glass of wine. Sitting under ancient stone and beside a delicate stained glass window, I give in to tradition and order the fondue; the waitress advises I first have a glass of white wine or black tea —apparently, nothing else will help with the digestion of this bubbling pot of boozy cheesey moitiés (half Gruyère, half Vacherin Fribourgeois, laced with white wine and kirsch).
I try crispy rosti (a potato-pancake that originated in Bern) with lardons and onions, and finish with meringues served with Gruyère double cream.
Wobbling, I take to the cobbled streets of this almost-carless old town, gawping at the early gothic cathedral before becoming enthralled by the clock tower, which swings into action each day at noon, sending mechanical Vaudois ladies and gentlemen trundling out of its doors.
On Saturday morning I head to the produce market, where stalls are piled with cartons of milk and vast wheels of cheese. At the mushroom stall I see species seemingly from a fairytale, or even a horror story. The adjacent flea market delights me with kitchenalia: brilliant Swiss scales, knives and stainless-steel cooking tools. At city-centre farm shop La Ferme Vaudoise, I sample cheeses and butter and have some Tomme de Fleurette, and aged Gruyère, vacuum packed to bring home.
At nearby Café du Grütli — opened in 1849 — I’m disappointed to learn it’s the wrong time of season for papet vaudois, the city’s famous cabbage-filled sausage, served with leek gratin. I try a meatier sausage and the best frites I’ve ever eaten. Gregarious owner Willi Prutsch tells me they’re cut, steamed then fried in peanut oil.
With its clean, green, flower-filled streets and its chocolate box architecture, Lausanne really lives up to the postcard Alpine image. I love the grandness of my hotel, Lausanne Palace & Spa, with its endless corridors straight out of The Shining and cocktail terrace with stunning city views. The views are just as good when I take my seat at La Table d’Edgard, a Michelin-starred restaurant featuring the Niçoise food of chef Edgard Bovier, a delicate and light contrast to the rest of my repasts. Fennel with shrimps, fresh from the lake and served raw, is sublime, as is the venison roasted with thyme, accompanied by a tian of vegetables, with fig, tomato and mushroom.
On my last day I head down to the lakeside suburb of Ouchy, home of The Olympic Museum and the gauchely-crenelated hotel, Château d’Ouchy, with its lakeside dining terrace and gobsmacking views. I try fried breaded fillets of a lake-caught fish known as fera, and persuade myself I need a final glass of Chasselas. Staring out across the lake to the Alps for one last time, I ponder how life should be filled with views such as these. And suddenly I begin to understand the point of chocolate boxes.
Five Lausanne food finds
When the Saturday produce market is closed, head to this farm shop to taste the best local produce, from cheeses to wine and sausages, to take home. lafermevaudoise.ch
Said to sell the best hot chocolate in Lausanne, Le Barbare, below the cathedral, serves the stuff so thick you can stand a spoon in it. Le Barbare, Escaliers du Marché 27 1003.
Take a scenic excursion into the vineyards with the Lavaux Express, climbing high up into the terraces, with wine tasting waiting for you at the top. lavauxexpress.ch
Head to the food hall of department store Globus for all things Swiss gourmet, including wine, cheese, chocolate and kirsch. globus.ch/fr/delicatessa
Domaine Croix Duplex
Sample some remarkable, lesser-known, Swiss wines, including Chasselas, with a four-glass wine tasting from £7.75 per person. croix-duplex.ch
Four places for a taste of Lausanne
From June to September, this food-and-wine-focused organisation holds events in the Vaud capital, including themed dinners, walks, picnics and barbecues on the Esplanade de Montbenon, as well as visits to urban gardens and local farms. Some of the city’s top restaurants participate, including Restaurant Anne-Sophie Pic and La Table d’Edgard. The Marché des Vignerons brings together winemakers, local producers and entertainments. Its biggest event is Le Grande Table des Lausannois, housed in a different location each year and cooked by some of the city’s best chefs. lausanne.ch/atable
Le Café du Grütli
This traditional restaurant is housed in one of the oldest buildings in the old town and serves typical dishes such as papet vaudois (cabbage-filled sausage, served with leek gratin) and stout venison sausage. Sit outside on the terrace or upstairs in a room lined with antlers. The gregarious owner moved here from Austria 45 years ago and still loves the place. Don’t miss the fries, thinly cut, crisp on the outside but still soft in the middle — something their thinness should, you’d think, render impossible. The Grütli fondue is among the best in the city.
How much: A three-course dinner without drinks from £29 per person. cafedugruetli.ch
Sit under stone vaults in this traditional pinte, founded in 1780, once a resting place for weary travellers and locals alike, where wine producers could sell their leftover wine to be washed down with sausages and Tomme cheese. The fondue here is rightly famous, an urn of fiercely bubbling Gruyère and Vacherin Fribourgeois, laced with white wine and kirsch and served with cubes of bread (tradition says it should be bread alone). There’s walnut-studded sausage and cured hams and crispy rostis with lardons and onion. The traditional Swiss dessert of tiny meringues with dollops of thick Gruyère cream is a coronary-inducing wonder.
How much: A three-course dinner without drinks from £23 per person. pinte-besson.com
La Table d’Edgard
Chef Edgard Bovier is a native of the Valais but a lover of Mediterranean cuisine, so he brings a marriage of local produce and a lightness of touch together in his kitchen, which serves up seasonal, balanced menus using wild fish, farm meats and market garden vegetables. The restaurant has an outdoor terrace but indoors the view of Lake Geneva and the Alps beyond is just as spectacular.
How much: A set lunch menu without drinks is £48.50 per person and the dinner menu begins at £85. lausanne-palace.com
Published in the December 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)