Thursday, August 13, 2009

Skiing and Schadenfreud

When it comes to food, some folks like to play the fun game of "I wonder who the first person was..." For example:

The first person to drink milk (I think I'll drink whatever comes out of these pink things when I squeeze 'em. Yum!)

The first person to eat pork (I think I'll eat this smelly animal that waddles around it its own filth. Tasty!)

I feel the same way about skiing. (I think I'll fling myself down an icy mountain standing on two bendy pieces of plastic and hold two pointy sticks in either hand. Fun for the whole family!)

This illustrates the irrational phobia I have always had for skiing, and as a result, I have gone my whole life actively trying to avoid it. However, my boyfriend, who from here on out shall be referred to as Vronsky (V for short, and shame on you if you've never read Anna Karenina!), just loves to ski, and was determined that I get over myself and learn at the earliest opportunity.

Despite my many protests (even the "but I got hit by a car!" didn't work...), I finally relented when he suggested we go someplace exotic with delicious local cuisine to boot. Vronsky had fond memories of a little place called Zermatt, Switzerland, where he had skied as a child as part of some "Ski Adventure Camp." Going to the Swiss Alps to conquer a fear--there are certainly worse things.

Or so I thought. It was indeed unspeakable gorgeous--a perfect picturesque town nestled in the Alps at the base of the Matterhorn. But once up on that glacier, it was a different story, and 839,472,913 falls, and a couple crashes into one of the (giant) lift polls later, by the end of my first lesson with Elmar, my Swiss ski instructor, I was far from pleased, the breathtaking views be damned.

Since we were "summer skiing," we would take the lift down to the bottom of the glacier and hike down the rest of the mountain to our lodge. This activity was much more my speed, and as we cut through woods and meadows filled with edelweiss flowers, it was all I could do to keep my self from leaping out into the fields, spinning around and breaking into song, Maria von Trapp style. Except when she did it, she was in a dirndl and habit versus long underwear and a wooly hat. My lack of suitable singing voice was also a limiting factor.

As we continued down, we walked through this teeny tiny little village, all wooden cabins (or huts really), where the residents actually speak Rumantsch, one of the 4 official languages of Switzerland--a peculiar "mountain" language that only 1% of the entire population actually speak. In this little village, we saw a sign for a place called Zum See, and from it were coming the most remarkable, mouth-watering smells.

We peeked inside and saw that the little structure was crammed with people, mostly skiers like us, eating truly authentic Alpine meals. Talk about "locovore." Whatever was on your plate came from this tiny little village and the surrounding mountainside. We absolutely had to eat here.

As we settled into our seats and placed our orders (thankfully the menu was translated into English, as well as French, German and Italian), Vronsky looks at me with complete sincerity and asks me how my first day at "ski school" was. Being far too sore and bruised to pinch or punch him, I had to settle for the ol' stink eye and an "Are you kidding me?"

And then the food arrived. Steaming fondu, light and airy hand-breaded schnitzel dressed with cloudberries and lingonberries, perfectly roasted Swiss Potatoes with Gureye cheese, bread so rich and dark it is almost black, some golden bouillon to warm the insides, crisp radishes and roasted beets. Talk about magic food--just looking at it made me change my tune. "Well, it's not so bad, actually. Tomorrow can only be better, right?"

Wrong. Although spurned on the delicious breakfast spread at the lodge the following morning (nothing like roasted coffee, authentic muesli with milk, wild honey, walnuts, lingonberries, plus all the sausage and marvelous cheese on the side to sooth your sore body), Elmar had decided that "today, we ski down the mountain." Keep in mind, I could barely get off the lift and mastering the "snow plow" had taken all day.

"What about the bunny slopes/children slopes?" I asked. Apparently there are no children slopes in Zermatt. You see, Swiss children actually come out the womb with teeny tiny little skis attached to their feet, and apparently they actually don't get too many beginners out there as a rule anyway. End result: down the mountain we go.

Somehow I survived, cursing and praying the entire way. This was after the ice storm that hit when I was about halfway down, which was so severe everyone on the mountain had to take shelter. Since it would have taken me an hour to make it to the nearest shelter on skis even though it was only 100 meters away, Elmar actually had to have me grab onto him, Koala bear-style, as he skied me into the hut to wait it out. Good thing he is not just a ski instructor, but also a Swiss Mountain guide, meaning he has climbed the Matterhorn hundreds of times and cane probably do it with his eyes closed.

Nonetheless, I made it to the bottom with all my bones and most of my sanity intact just in time for another late lunch at Zum See with Vronsky. It took an entire Zum See lunch and about three different pastries to calm me down, and I can safely say the rest of my skiing experience has followed a similar pattern: torture on the slopes that can only be salved by a delicious Alpine meal or two, a Kronenbourg 1664 or three, and perhaps a chess game with Vronsky by a roaring fire, but only if I win.

I love reliving my first ski experience without the actual skiing with some regularity right here in NYC. Smorgas Chef has great Scandinavian (not Swiss) food, but the ligonberries and meatballs still takes me back. There are locations in the Financial District, West Village and midtown east. The Blaue Gans and Danube in Tribeca has wonderful Austrian fare, and Citarela, Garden of Eden and even Trader Joes carry solid enough selection of Swiss/Alpine cheeses to remind me of the delicious breakfast spread that greeted me each morning.

(that photo is of the Matterhorn, which I took shortly after that ice storm)

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