Swiss specialties celebrated at Bern's onion festival

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The onion is of great significance, an important thing in the life of the Swiss city of Bern which is located in a scenic region that has pleasured generation after generation of tourists all the way back to the romantic poets.

Not that the onion is the only fare here. There are platters of traditional Swiss sausage and beans, pot roasted meats, and the famous, thin sliced Bundesfleisch - air-cured raw beef - served with a tangy mustard sauce, and rosti, that unique dish of potatoes baked to a crusty, golden turn.

But the onion has more than culinary meaning, so much that it is the center of an annual celebration the last week in November.

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This celebration is truly a sight to behold as you wander out to the tree-lined Bundesgasse, the Waisenhausplatz, or Barenplatz. Here, there, and everywhere there are onions, onions of every size, thousands, millions of onions , onions on strings, onions in baskets, not to mention the leeks and shallots and garlic and nuts.

Legend has it that after a fire in 1405 nearly wiped out the town, the people of Freiburg helped to rebuild it free of charge. They in turn were given the right to hold an annual market.

So it has been since the 15th century that the procession begins from the west of the canton of Freiburg on the Saturday before the Thursday when the Onion Market is held.

On the day, there are speeches aplenty in this rather august Swiss town, the capital of the country where the parliament rises, grand and pompous on the hill.

There is band music and, toward evening, the young meet at the Spitalgasse and throw confetti at one another. The point of this peculiar activity is the final pleasure of clambering knee-deep in confetti and colored streamers. . . .

The confetti custom actually dates to the 17th century when an official riding about town called attention to his news of the forthcoming onion market by throwing handfuls of walnuts at folks in the street.

When night falls, after the onions, after the confetti and speeches and music , the entire local population seems to go out to eat, out for sausages and pies and, of course, for onions.

One thing you notice first about this city is its lovely arcaded streets. Here shoppers amble about, protected from the often unpleasant Swiss weather by modern blow heaters built into the medieval arches.

Nearby on a platform under ornamental trees, elderly gentlemen play chess with pieces two feet high on an outdoor board. The platform drops down over a steep precipice to where the River Aare runs green and fast between the orange roofs of the old town.

Be sure to see Bern's outdoor markets, where housewives do their shopping with string bags and a little gossip thrown in for good measure. Then they may stop for a bun or a bag of chocolate at one of the confiseries.

There you also see the incredible marzipan. Shop after alluring sweet shop displays it along with chocolate leaves, gingerbread figures, and confections of honey, nuts, butter, and cream.

There are marzipan babies, marzipan chairs, marzipan bananas and cabbages and corn and eggs, but most of all, marzipan onions - string after string after basket of marzipan onions. Cheese-Onion Pie Pastry for 9-inch pie 1 ounce bacon, cut in small cubes 1 to 2 onions, cut in thin slices 5 ounces Emmenthal or Gruyere cheese, or both, grated 2 eggs 1 cup milk Nutmeg, salt to taste Line pie pan with pastry dough. Bake at 400 degrees F. for 15 minutes, or until lightly browned. Put bacon cubes in frying pan, fry until golden, add onions, and let simmer until tender and golden, but not brown.

Put prepared onions on bottom of pastry and add grated cheese. Beat eggs and milk together and season with nutmeg and salt. Pour over bacon, onions, and cheese.

Bake in 375-degree F. oven for 30 to 40 minutes until nice and brown. Serve immediately.

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