When I was about eight and on a family road trip in the mountains, I had a rash on my arm. It was growing fast, shifting shapes and needed to be checked out. Luckily, my aunt was a nurse at the local hospital, so we popped in. After figuring out that my arm was fine, we got a tour of the hospital. And when I say the hospital, I don’t mean the one we were standing in. I mean the spare one below it. Because apparently it’s very normal for a Swiss hospital to have a spare one in the basement. With terrifically thick metal doors and beds that fold down from every corner, these are the places that would treat the ill and the wounded in case of war.
Except there won’t be a war. Because, behind the picture postcard chocolate box charm of the Swiss landscape, lies protection. Those concrete triangles affectionately referred to as ‘Toblerones’ along the lake? They’re to stop the tanks. Every boy with a red passport and without a decent excuse? Heading for national service. Switzerland is so well protected that no one can be bothered to attack.
So, while the rest of the world scrabbles around trying to deal with every atrocity thrown at it, Switzerland busies itself making sure that it can handle any emergency. The serious stuff. Like running out of cheese.
The municipality of Châtel St Denis springs to life once a year in a burst of multicoloured streamers and icing sugared ‘merveilles’ for their week of carnival. The rest of the year, however, is sleepy, peaceful and memorable for one thing. Next to La Fromagerie, a place that cheese-phobics like me can never set foot in, sits La Crémerie.
I’ve been coming here since I was a kid, and I order the same thing every time. A ‘meringue glacé’ consists of two crisp, shiny meringues. Two balls of ice cream. And a little wooden bucket of cream. Oh, the cream. Known technically as ‘crème de Gruyère’, it comes so thick you can turn it upside down without losing a drop.
If we’re being honest, the ice-cream is irrelevant, the meringues purely a vehicle for the cream. You could ditch them both. Just give me that bucket. I’ll die happy.
At two years old, Olivia was introduced. Starting off in pristine white and ending up half naked and covered in chocolate ice cream, she was immediately hooked. And now that we’re back with poor pre-weaning River, glaring at us accusingly from his car seat, the place still hasn’t changed. The wood panelled walls, the giant cowbell, the lady in charge. All slightly older, but exactly where we left them.
My favourite part of the Crémerie, though, isn’t inside. It’s just outside the door. A gleaming white vending machine, under a little chalet-like shelter to stop you getting snowed on.
Vending machines can tell you a lot about a country. In the UK, they are piled high with Monster Munch and Wagon Wheels, quick fixes for a skipped meal or a passing pang. In Italy, the land of the long lunch break, the tabac stores have machines outside stocked with cigarettes and condoms. In Japan, well, in Japan they have everything.
The Swiss version, however, sells something unexpected. Raclette cheese in various quantities, ready to be reduced to a melting bubble under the grill. Bags of little new potatoes, to go with the cheese. Bread, to be dipped into a fondue for as long as your willpower and digestive system allow. Those meringues, pure white and ruffled gloss. And of course, tubs of that perfect, opulent, diet-destroying cream.
It’s just metal and plastic, this machine. Just buttons and coin slots. But it’s a testament to organisation. To things working. To a country where this is considered an emergency. The most Swiss emergency of all.
Place d'Armes 21, 1618 Châtel-Saint-Denis, Switzerland
Phone: +41 21 948 71 87