Cocoa paradise

Riviera

Hugh and Colleen Gantzer explore the Swiss town of Montreux, a city that offers its visitors a plethora of flavours and multiple tastes.

Poet’s corner: Chillon Castle.  Photo by authors  In Montreux we shook hands with a statue, and it shook our hands in return. This living statue is just one of the surprises in the beautiful Swiss riviera town of Montreux, located on the shores of Lake Geneva. Freddy Mercury was another. His bronzed statue with the right arm raised was festooned with garlands, bouquets of fresh flowers had been massed at its feet and placards had been propped around his effigy wishing him for the birthday he would have had.

Montreux is what it is because it is a multi-flavoured Swiss meringue of past and present and you can choose the flavour you want.

In our first taste of Montreux, we opted for the romantic past. Byron, that wild poet and politically-incorrect genius, had paddled across the great lake with his petrified friend, Shelley. Lord Byron was a good swimmer. Shelley, however, wasn’t and he was scared of large and deep stretches of water. The charmingly domineering Byron persuaded him to sit, frozen with fright, in a skiff as he rowed him across to the forbidding Castle Chillon where he was inspired to write his famous The Prisoner of Chillon.

Most international tourists are drawn to Chillon because of that poem. It tells the sad tale of a man imprisoned for his religious and political views and chained to a damp wall like an animal. We walked through the vaulted dungeon, saw the instruments of torture, heard the wash of the lake’s waves as it crashed on the promontory on which Chillon had been built. One of us responded to the pain and hopelessness that those prisoners must have experienced. The other, who had read the poem and then researched the subsequent life of the famous prisoner, didn’t feel so anguished. Byron had not written about the fact that the hostage to his faith had renounced his religion and his politics, been rewarded for his apostasy, and had led a life of great luxury after that.

But even without Byron’s poem, Chillon (pronounced She-ohn) was a fascinating walk through a gothic fairy-tale setting, witches et al. Like all attractions in Switzerland, Chillon Castle is beautifully maintained and very tourist-friendly. Our charming guide, Mercedes Gulin, managed to romanticise even something as gruesome as the burning of witches. She pointed out, very gently, that each incinerated witch has been commemorated by a bleached branch installed in the courtyard of the castle!

Witch-hunts were all the rage in medieval Europe, and in the fundamentalist mindset of puritan America with its Salem witch trials. That persecuting obsession continued with the McCarthy trials of suspected ‘reds’ in the 20th century US. Charlie Chaplin was one of its victims. In 1952 he left the US and settled in Switzerland where he died near the village of Vevey in 1977.

Vevey is just one of the villages overlooking the lake that was absorbed by the growing tourist destination of Montreux. We drove to Vevey and discovered that Chaplin’s presence had left a lasting impact.

Chocolaty goodness

Monsieur Poyet is the moving spirit behind the famed Poyet Confiserie, but it is more, much more, than a confectionary. As a dedicated chocolatier, he has raised chocolate-making to the level of a fine connoisseur’s art. He believes that cacao beans have distinct flavours and qualities depending on their origins. He spoke a delightful, French-accented English and when he got stuck for words, he referred us to a brochure. According to the folder, Switzerland’s famous milk chocolates had been born in the Montreux Riviera. In 1875, Daniel Peter had produced a blend of cocoa and milk in his workshop in Vevey to create the chocolates we know today.

Poyet told us that beans come from 30 countries. Those that grow in forests in clove-growing areas have a discernible clove taste. Others, whose trees are rooted in volcanic soil, taste of lava. Poyet mixes and blends these flavours along with other ingredients to create designer chocolates. As a tribute to Charlie Chaplin, he had got permission from Chaplin’s heirs to create chocolates shaped like the famous shoes of Chaplin’s Little Tramp. For us, these chocolates captured the gentleness and piquancy of that perky character. When His Holiness the Dalai Lama visited his expatriate community in Switzerland, Poyet created a chocolate which tasted of incense and blue lotus.

The taste of incense lingered on our palates but since we’ve not tasted blue lotus, we could not distinguish it. After a visit to India, Poyet’s masala tea chocolate did capture the flavour of a northern Indian tea stall. He’s now working on a chocolate that would replicate the fragrant and digestive mixture of saunf and other variable ingredients chewed after a meal.

Last supper

We could have used some of those after we had dined in the very popular Les Trois Sifflets, noted for the panache with which it serves fondue. After the pot of melted cheese has been set up on its spirit stove, the twin-tined forks arranged, the bite-sized chunks of bread placed before us, there was a fanfare and the blare of martial music.

Then, out of the kitchen, marched the assistant chef wearing a tin helmet and waving a Swiss flag, followed by the French owner with a policeman’s cap and carrying an enormous pepper grinder, as large as a hand-held missile launcher. They marched up to the table, waved the flag, operated the pepper-grinder to sprinkle cracked pepper on the fondue, saluted and marched out again. The martial music stopped and everyone clapped. The fondue was worthy of the ceremony.

Before we returned to our hotel, we dropped into the Casino le Saxo. Diners sit on a wide mezzanine looking down at the well of the game deck. It was well-lit and very disciplined but there was none of the crackling intensity we sensed in Macao or even in London’s very pucca-pucca Crockford’s Club.

But then, the Swiss are very self-controlled. One of them is even able to stand as still as a statue on the busy, bright, promenade in Montreux.

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