In the valleys outside Bern, Swiss caviar business beats to underground power

Pure Swiss Alpine caviar

Caviar is one of those delicacies that demands an acquired a taste for immense flavors – mostly salt and fish.

It also demands a high amount of careful preparation and care of the Siberian sturgeon which bear the elite’s favorite side dish until harvesting. Most of the world gets its caviar imported from the Black and Caspian Seas in the heart of Eastern Europe, making the price stay above $3,000 a kilogram and well out of reach of the average cook.

This year is different for Swiss who want a piece of the caviar action, but close to home.  The sustainable-focued business Tropenhaus Frutigen nestled in the quiet glacial Loetschberg valley in Switzerland is entering the caviar market with a unique power source that turned a construction blunder into black gold.

No not oil. The gold is the minuscule fish eggs which are some of the most highly regarded delicacies in the world. Connoisseurs of the fishy delights can commonly be found shopping for CAVIAR SPOONS made of the chemically inert material mother of pearl to eat their eggs with so as not to taint their snack with other flavors. That’s how highly valued the fragile flavor of the caviar is!

The power is geothermal! Tropenhaus uses the steam to turn efficient turbine generators for lights and pumps and ventilation, but the real value of the hot springs is the naturally warmed water which allows the sturgeons to eat and grow all year long. This can be real benefit when your fish, like a whiskey or wine, needs to mature no less than 6 years before it can be harvested and sold. Now the waiting is over, and the fish are nearly ready to come out of the water.

An employee of the Tropenhaus Frutigen, a company using geothermal energy from the Loetschberg rail tunnel to produce exotic fruit, sturgeon meat and caviar, holds a Siberian sturgeon he caught from a breeding pool in the Alpine village of Frutigen. ©france24.com

Tropenhaus Frutigen has been growing bananas, papaya, mangos both outdoors and in greenhouses thanks to temperatures reaching 60˚ C  since starting in 2002. But Tropenhaus and their precious pisces are ready for shifting their main focus of production to caviar from Siberian sturgeon. Since the wild Beluga sturgeon fished from the Caspian Sea was outlawed by Russia, Iran and Turkey as early as 2000, some great innovations have come along. With great food theres always a silver lining.

Exportation.

Or importation.

Both.

Aquaculture has grown all over the world to support people’s demands for fresh fish products with the wild stock of animals more depleted every year, and possibly without recovery. With Tropenhaus-Frutigen expecting to produce 2 tons of caviar and 45 tons of sturgeon meat a year by Christmas 2014, the need to harm wild fish will be tremendously reduced. Elena Kuznetsov, head of Media Relations at Tropenhause-Frutigen, also says the Swiss crop will taste much better than wild caught sturgeon because the fellows in Bern carefully monitor the fish’s habitat for the perfect hygienic conditions

However, Tropenhaus-Frutigen is a fairly expensive business to operate and that includes the free hot water. The project cost $30 million dollars to start up and another $10 million in bank loans to stay open until the sturgeon have matured. There is a lot of hope for the fish farming business to take pressure off of the wild species says David Morgan, who heads the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, referred to as CITES, which strictly regulates the world’s sturgeon trade.

The practice of farm producing caviar has already been taken up in many European countries since the 1970s, but few operations in the world match the green footprint Tropenhaus-Frutigen leaves behind. Additionally, the immense start up costs that CITES imposes can drive prices for farmed caviar well above wild caught varieties in less developed nations. This creates a loop hole for black market Beluga caviar that is unregulated in health, quality, and quotas making the job of protecting the endangered fish more difficult.

Morgan also warns that a shift in caviar production to mainly farms could reduce the value of wild sturgeon world wide and reduce current efforts to keep their natural habitat in the Caspian clean of shipping and civilian pollution.

Having never tried the real deal caviar myself, I know that many chefs curse when they are using Salmon roe as an alternative because buying imported caviar is just out of the question. Can America make a go at sustainable and cheap caviar in North America? Though the possibility is proven and the technology exists, along with the power source in many Northern states, Americans have lagged behind the world in incentivizing green energy projects.

For now, Switzerland continues to be the destination for the extremely rich who have expensive tastes, to enjoy the finest delicacies at a fraction of the cost to the environment.

An ancient tradition of watchmaking continues to build the legend of “Swiss-made” in a new generation of brand wars.

Students at the North American Institute of Swiss Watchmaking in Fort Worth use handheld files to make perfect cubes for the ends of watch stems, or specialized tweezers to cut hair-thin springs for the mechanical movement.

Recently, I have been captured by the History Channel mini-series “The Men Who Built America” and the affect its main protagonists had on the America we know today. Focusing in on the “building” of America, the program identifies tycoons from the late 19th century who literally built many of the United States’ landmarks and corporations from the ground up.

They were businessmen who shared a drive for capitalist success and wealth, and forged empires that have had resounding effects on the modern world. They were Vanderbilt, Carnegie, Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan along with the inventors Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla.

These legendary Americans give us pride in our homeland and a defining idea of what to expect from anyone or thing that calls itself “America” and I dare say that among nationalities US citizens seem persecute misappropriations of the label “Made in America” more than most. The Swiss have the same sense of expecting exceptional quality from the luxuries Switzerland has made a name for itself from. Switzerland even lays claim to the royalties and rights to produce the indigenous drink Absinthe, expanding the umbrella of luxury products from Switzerland while cutting out the competition to keep the “Swiss” label pure.

Arguably the absolute best quality in the world, Swiss made watches represent 500 year of refinement and tradition that make the time pieces exceedingly beautiful and also expensive. For comparison, watch maker Vacheron Constantin’s watches sell for between $50,000 and $3 million USD and was founded in Geneva in 1755, when the states were just colonies. There’s a lot of incentive for the Swiss to protect such an immense legacy as well their brand’s marketable perfection

“Nobody can deny there is something special about Switzerland. Just ask the Swiss,” wrote English columnist for Time magazine, Andrew Marshall. In 2009, the Swiss government passed laws on watches given the “Made in Switzerland” seal of approval that dictated 60% (up from 50%) of the fabrication costs of the watch had to be incurred in Switzerland. The aim was to make sure any watch claiming the quality of the Swiss watch masters couldn’t acquire the same status with only half the DNA of a true Swiss watches.

The New York Times reports however, that since 2008, North American Institute of Swiss Watchmaking (IOSW) in Fort Worth, Texas has been transferring the age old knowledge of fine watch making to a new generation of skilled engineers. When quartz powered watches and digital interfaces took over in the 1980s as a cheap alternative to gears and springs, the enrollment numbers at Swiss watch making schools plummeted and the Swiss market was decimated.

In order to keep the Swiss horological tradition alive, the Institute of Swiss Watchmaking, which has satellite schools in Shanghai and Hong Kong, is taking in new kinds of students from all kinds of education and work backgrounds provided they pass a rigorous dexterity exam.

A dilution of Swiss watch making traditions could spell the end of Switzerland’s reign as the land of exceptional luxury. The instructors and requirement for students at IOSW are determined to make the process of hand made watches constructed by the rest of the world worthy of the name “Swiss” label: the six students who were successfully weeded from an applicant class of 700 complete at least 3,000 hours of training.

“The traditional technical and artistic crafts that come along with watchmaking have been passed down from generation through generation,” said Hugues de Pins, president of Vacheron Constantin North America. This “intelligence of the hand,” as he calls it, takes years to master. “This itself is a challenge: the transmission of technical know-how. It’s a complete, 100 percent human process to make a watch.”

It is now up to the Swiss to determine if they will continue to abide the use of their namesake for fine luxuries made elsewhere, regardless of what the market considers to be more important to quality: the brand name or the trained master.

Switzerland goes crazy about Absinthe

Belgian artist Henri Privat-Livemont’s 1896 “art nouveau” poster advertising Absinthe from the 1890s, the height of Absinthe’s popularity before the drink was banned in the US and much of Europe in 1915. This is one of the most common pop culture images associated with Absinthe in America.

How far would you go to protect your intellectual property? What about your great ancestors property or even if you share hometowns with a mouthwatering icon like the “Philly” cheese steak? We Americans love our regional genres of food. Especially in the culinary arenas of major cities like New York City, St. Louis, and Chicago the chefs and residents help cultivate a long history of unique expressions of their love of food, pizza in this example.

In the US, you can get “New York” style pizza in just about every city in the nation thanks to chains that have capitalized on the brand name and association with the metropolitan destination.

But in European Union countries, there is a price to pay for enjoying the gourmet foods from other nations. Countries can own the trademark to food originating in their borders and if you want the original recipes, World Intellectual Property Organization in Geneva, Switzerland has the definitive documents.

The Swiss Federal Department of Agriculture in Bern is the nationalized authority on patents, which is moving to close any loopholes in the international trademarks that protect Swiss cultural milestones from being exploited at home or abroad.

These are called Geographic Identifiers (GI) and in August of this year, Switzerland announced they were claiming the region of Val-de-Travers district had sole claim to the production of the slightly psychedelic spirit known as Absinthe because it originated there.

If the addition of the Val-de-Travers GI to all forms of Absinthe passes the EU Commission, generic Absinthes produced in any other country than Switzerland, which have flooded the market and got spirits purists in an uproar, would be illegal to produce, distribute and sell to consumers in restaurants and bars all over the EU.

Even though Absinthe was first distilled in the 18th century by a Frenchman, the famously neutral nation has planted its metaphoric red-cross martini umbrella in this battle for intoxicating beverage.

Becky Paskin, an English blogger for The Spirits Business, reported at the time of the application for Swiss ownership that the French Federation of Spirits and even the European Spirits Organization are wading into the fight to appeal the designation of Absinthe as a Swiss only export. Though ambitious, I don’t think the Swiss will succeed at denying other European nations their desire to indulge in a sweetly psychotic night cap. Too many times in history, the populace has made their right to drink whatever mood altering concoction available.

As someone who has never tried Absinthe, since it is still illegal in most parts of America and I like following the law, I can only say I don’t know what I’m missing out on. As most college students, getting through a weekend without tucking back some Memphis-style barbeque or drinking some refreshing Budweiser beer, of St. Louis origination, with friends.

So as Americans, how would we feel if Seattle blockaded knock-off Starbucks or you had to travel to or special order from Lynchburg, Tenn. a bottle of Jack  Daniels for your bachelor party? I am all for possession and protection of intellectual property, and the more popular the product gets the better for my business. But Switzerland may not want to cut off the loyal fans of Absinthe and hoard the intrigue of the Green Fairie (La fée verte), when I think people should toast with whatever they want to drink and let the good spirits flow.

Dreikönigskuchen or sweet Epiphany in Switzerland

A picture of my attempt at the Epiphany Day Cake, following Food.com’s recipe. Even though it is far from Christmas, it never hurts to fill up the time in between celebrating other’s holidays. Especially ones this sweet!

If you have ever wished for the Christmas season to never end, you might be Swiss. In the Alpine country, as in many European countries, there is a holiday on January 6, which many Americans associate with taking down their decorations from Christmas merriment.

Even to English blogger Diccon Bewes, January 6 means dried out pine trees and discarded wrappings piled up in the garbage along the street, the Swiss are celebrating Epiphany Day, the last of the Twelve Days of Christmas with a very special pastry, Dreikönigskuchen, of course drinking.

The baking of the Epiphany Cake, is one of Switzerland’s oldest traditions associated with the Christmas Holidays. Celebrating the Three Wise Men dropping by to give the infant Christ some bling and perfume, the Swiss also exchange small gifts when they go about to their friends and neighbors “Three Kings” parties. Like all the best holidays, the Swiss party hop from friends to feasting with family late into the evening, when the delicious sweets Switzerland is famous for come out of the kitchen.

In European countries, many foods are considered a mark of the individual’s national identity and the pastry tradition is a very serious business in Switzerland at the heart of a continent obsessed with mastering cuisine. The German’s make pastries from elastic, sugarless dough folded and fluffed over and over to create the light airy crust of their classic strudels. The French use a tissue-thin dough and lots of butter and baguette crumbs to give substance to their puff pastries.

Epiphany Day is no different for the Swiss and, like their language heritage, their pastry chefs use a menagerie of European styles. The Swiss’ Epiphany Cake is one of the many instances where the landlocked, crossroads country has taken its neighbors’ influence in full stride and created a lasting identity that is unique.

There is another reason for easily dividing the cake into many distinct section. The Epiphany Cake contains a token, which can be any figur. The first person to crunch into the diamond in the dough, or narrowly miss it with their teeth, gets to be “king” for the duration of the party and every other guest who took a losing piece of cake must fulfill a wish of the King or Queen. For the whole night.

Angie Cafiero, an Italian food enthusiast near the border with Switzerland has an amazingly simple recipe and the preparation is swift and clean. (Use Google Chrome, which will automatically translate, if you are less than proficient with the writer’s native language.) If you have no idea how to bake but want to impress a special friend at the next holiday office party, I suggest Food.com

 

The Swiss have made a local export more valuable than their namesake

There are only a handful of commodities we use or buy on a daily basis that display homage to their nationality of origin. The hamburger, the Danish, the French fry and the Swiss cheese, just to name a few. For a relatively small nation, nestled in the heart of Eastern Europe, Switzerland has exceptional global notoriety thanks to its exportation of the “Swiss” label, an awesome marketing strategy that extends to the region’s chocolates and legendary Swiss knives.

However, Switzerland owes much of the unique cultural identity to being the crossroads of Europe and a safe haven during wartime for centuries. During Medieval times, the Swiss had one of the safest, if not only, routes through the Alps connecting England and Rome. Many pilgrims, peasants and kings passed through ancient Switzerland, and all of them left their mark on the countries hillsides.

When we want to talk about a Swiss identity based on exports like chocolate and cutlery, we forgot that the culture of a place, is sometimes itself a commodity. It is important to remember that sometimes and export doesn’t have to leave the country at all to earn some capital. Today, tour guides and international adventurers are discovering the sort of identity you can only experience first hand by revisiting the hills and valleys of Switzerland.

Some countries are calling this new enterprise eco-tourism, because it takes advantage of the natural ecosystem to earn tourist dollars. Though counter-intuitive, some nations have found that the best way to maintain their natural beauty is to let tourists trample through a small part of the whole. There seems to be very little alternative to keeping interest in the great outdoors high enough to make any headway with preservation.

Earlier in 2012, when I traveled to Costa Rica, which is renowned for its efforts to preserve its rain forest and the diverse biology found there, eco-tourism had become one the country’s most profitable exports. More importantly, the practice of exploiting some of the most beautiful and delicate parts of the ecosystem to foreigners was also dumping massive amounts of cash into the conservation efforts. And it doesn’t just extend to zip-lining through some big trees.

This represents an “evolution in tourism” according to Veronique Kanel for Switzerland Tourism. And the Swiss are starting to take full advantage of the unspoiled beauty of their countryside, beyond just the good looks. With sustainability in mind, the Swiss government began revitalizing hiking trails and historical pathways and landmarks in 1988. Since then, the Cultural Routes of Switzerland project has walked the nearly 60,000 kilometers of hiking, foot and mule paths to reinforce and advertise the safety of the outdoor experience found only in the Swiss Alps.

Although much care is being taken to preserve the new revenue stream from corporate ravaging, in order to transport some 2,000 people a month, partnerships have been made with companies like Swiss Post, a national package company similar to UPS. While there is no concern yet over the tourism industry being hijacked for commercial gain, there are some incredible economic payoffs.

Many routes have been transformed by the surge of tourist interest, and are now offered as packages from travel agents that cover everything from multiple hotel bookings to outfitting your crew for their trek. The Via Spluga, a most popular route starting in the South of Switzerland and crossing the Alps into Italy at the Splügen Pass, has had a turnover of about 1 million francs every year since its reopening in 2000.

With some of the most breathtaking vistas coupled with the finest cuisine and hospitality ranging from bunked hostel beds to pristine room service, the Swiss may find themselves the new outdoor adventure capital of Europe. As much a part of the Swiss identity as cheese or neutrality, the Alpine trails in Switzerland offer a unique way to experience the true roots of their culture.