I come from a big Indian family, where meal times are loud, chaotic affairs.
If you think Jesus could feed the masses with fives loaves of bread and two fish then you haven’t met my mother. She can put together a dinner for large numbers of people in an insanely short period of time and will always triple the quantities to make sure that the table creaks under the weight of the food and no one goes home hungry.
Where I come from lots of food equals tons of hospitality. Food is not something to analyse – it’s there to be eaten. There was just one rule to follow – if you’ve taken it, you eat it. And if you didn’t, you were subjected to the “think about the starving children in India” speech.
So I was wholly unprepared for all this to get turned on its head when I came to Switzerland ten years ago.
In this country it is not the quantity of food on offer that matters. So it is widely acceptable to invite people over for a cheese fondue, where the only two ingredients on offer are melted cheese and bread. Needless to say my mother almost passed out when she first heard that we were serving only this to our dinner guests one evening.
When you’re not having a fondue, meals come in courses and wine is ‘paired’ with dinners and desserts. And if the wine is corked (it took me a few years to learn how to detect this) it is sent back to where it came from – even if it is in your own house. I soon learnt that what is considered rude in one country is regarded as good taste in another.
And yes, Swiss precision also spills over into the kitchen, particularly when cooking a piece of meat, which is studied before cooking and then studied some more when it’s on your plate. Cooking times and temperatures can take up a lot of conversation at a dinner table in Switzerland.
If you’ve cooked a meal featuring too much cauliflower and have placed it on a white plate, you need to know to throw in some broccoli for colour. Colour – particularly a balance of colour on your plate – is important because when you eat, you also eat with your eyes.
But it was these two golden rules that were the most difficult to remember:
- Don’t begin eating before you’ve wished everyone a ‘Bon Appetite’
- Don’t even think of taking in any wine until you have wished everyone at the table good health as you look them straight in the eye while you clink your glass with theirs.
As a new bride, trying to make a good impression on my in-laws and my husband’s friends, I found all this mealtime etiquette extremely overwhelming.
More than 10 years and many meals later, I find myself rather enjoying all the fuss and I’ve realised that food is often the way people around the world choose to love and affection towards each other.
An Indian mother, grandmother or aunt spends hours in the kitchen slaving over the most labourious of recipes because they’re pleased to have you among them. A Swiss German mother will fuss over a piece of meat until it is cooked to perfection because the people coming over for dinner are important to her.
I’ve also learnt that there is comfort in ritual and the act of coming together – even around a single pot of melted cheese – is pleasurable especially after a long day or week of work. It’s one of the few moments during the day when you can really take a load off and have a relaxed conversation with other people.
And yes, I will even admit that food that is beautifully presented is so much lovelier to eat than slop on a plate. And when it is paired with the perfect bottle of wine, there’s some kind of magic that happens in your soul.
It almost makes me want to get into the kitchen some more…