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Looking for the real taste of Switzerland

(swissinfo.ch)

You will often find the same food in stores all over Switzerland, but some producers are resisting globalisation with flair and imagination.

swissinfo worked up an appetite and visited the taste and regions fair in the western city of Bulle to find out what really appeals to the Swiss palate.

Taste, according to the scientists, is one of our five senses and refers to our ability to detect the flavour of substances such as food and poisons. It also partners the sense of smell.

Armed with this knowledge, I headed to Bulle to find out how well my taste functioned.

I entered the local exhibition hall and my sense of smell was immediately assaulted by that worn-out Swiss cliché: melted cheese. Raclette or fondue, choose your poison.

Besides the smell, the harsh lighting and the fair setup meant this would be no three-star dining experience, but perhaps this was not what I should have been looking for.

There are around 250 exhibitors, but there's no way I'm going to try everything on offer.

That's because one of the rules of this fair is that visitors get to sample all the produce for free. The number of producers just presenting wine is enough to guarantee the mother of all hangovers.

So I head off down the aisles, hoping to find something that will tickle my taste buds.

I first notice something unusual: the exhibitors aren't lurking in the back of their booths, but actually look pleased to be there. Yvonne, who works for one of the wine producers, calls me over. Have a glass of wine, she suggests. I take a rain check.

I ask her why she's so happy. "I enjoy the contact with people," she says. "And here people are really interested in the products."

Authentic

So what's so special about the products? Pierre Schwaller, spokesman for the fair, says it has a lot to do with people looking for an authentic taste.

"The people who come here want to try high-quality and innovative produce," he says. "They also want to get away from mass-produced goods, a movement that really took off with the advent of mad cow disease and the dioxin chicken scandal."

The fair anticipated this movement when it was first held in 2000, a trend major retailers have since latched on to with organic produce and luxury ranges.

Wandering down the aisles, there's certainly plenty to choose from: hand-made chocolates from a confectioner who works at the shop where the Suchard brand was created; honey and absinthe from a pony-tailed vendor, and Tête-de-Moine cheese hawked by faux monks.

There are, however, a few real nuns on the loose. Sister Claire of the Fille-Dieu convent in nearby Romont is busy selling a hot line of mustard – and condolence cards...

Cheesy heresy

Pursuing my uncharted course, I test biscaumes – a kind of Christmas biscuit – honey and sausages.

Then comes the crunch: a fondue that will have traditionalists spitting their bread across the room. In a region where fondue is more akin to religion and Gruyère cheese its holy grail, a local has dared to create a goat's cheese version.

Goat's cheese is not everyone's idea of gastronomical heaven – and I'm with everyone – but I take the skewered white and squishy substance and, to my surprise, it tastes much lighter and better than the usual fondue fare.

Beat Kunz, the fair's director, confirms my suspicions: taste is often a matter of discovery. But he adds that it is also a question of memories.

"Good taste for me is remembering my grandmother's cherry soup," he says.

Speaking of remembering things, I promised to have a drink with Yvonne before I left. If I could just find a way of carrying all this stuff I bought...

swissinfo, Scott Capper in Bulle

Taste explained

Researchers have long suggested the existence of four primary tastes, usually categorised as sweetness, sourness, bitterness, and saltiness.

Umami, or savouriness, has been mooted as a fifth basic taste, for example non-salty sensations evoked by monosodium glutamate.

Other possible categories have been suggested, such as a taste exemplified by certain fatty acids such as linoleic acid. Some researchers still argue against the notion of primary tastes and favour a continuum of perceptions.

All of these taste sensations arise from all regions of the mouth cavity, despite a widespread misperception that different tastes correspond to specific areas of the tongue.

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Swiss taste and regions fair

The eighth fair ran from October 31 to November 4 in Bulle, canton Fribourg.

Created in 2000, it has steadily grown, with 10,000 visitors the first year and 36,000 this time round.

There are around 250 exhibitors, most of them from western Switzerland, but some from as far as canton Graubünden, with more than 80 per cent returning year after year.

The main rules are to let visitors sample everything, and not to pressure them.

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