You may have heard about trying to fry an egg on asphalt when it’s really hot outside? Well, I had no idea that people were routinely using asphalt to prepare food until a recent visit to the Mines d’asphalte in Suisse Romande. My family and I discovered a traditional Swiss dish there—ham cooked in a bath of molten asphalt.
Natural asphalt deposits were discovered in Val-de-Travers back in 1711 by Eirini Eyrinys, a physician interested in using it for medicinal purposes. The asphalt mines were then developed for more industrial uses during the 19th century, in response to the growing need for road construction in Europe and elsewhere.
Over the years, industrial asphalt—a byproduct of processing petroleum—could be produced more cheaply than mining natural asphalt. This eventually led to the closure of the mine in 1986. Today, the Mines d’asphalte operates as a museum, giving visitors a firsthand look at the working conditions in the underground mine.
Even though there are about 100 kilometers of underground corridors at the Mines d’asphalte, only about one kilometer is currently open to the public. When you travel through the caves, the museum will provide you with a hard hat. And, be sure to wear warm clothes, as the temperature dips to about 8°C (46°F) in the mines.
Before or after your tour, I recommend stopping by the Café des Mines next to the museum for a meal or snack.
Jambon cuits dans l’asphalte
From everything I’ve read, Val-de-Travers is the only place in Switzerland where you can try jambon cuits dans l’asphalte (ham cooked in asphalt).
Ham cooked in asphalt was first served to miners to celebrate St. Barbara’s Day (the patron saint of miners) on December 4, 1935. To prepare the ham, it’s wrapped in newspaper or butcher paper, and then covered with a flour sack. Next, the ham cooks for about four hours at approximately 160-170°C (320-340°F) in molten asphalt. This cooking method, which may seem unconventional, helps to preserve moisture in the ham.
The tradition of cooking ham in asphalt continues today, as visitors to Café des Mines can order a plate of ham, green beans and gratin dauphinois. While the ham doesn’t (thankfully) taste like asphalt, it does have a unique flavor, and I certainly detected a slight scent of asphalt (although my husband and sons disagree!). My little meat-eaters quickly devoured the ham. To accompany our Sunday dinner, we had a bottle of BFM’s (La Brasserie des Franches-Montagnes) Bière de la Sainte-Barbe, an amber ale with smoked tea prepared exclusively for the Mines d’asphalte.
Utter darkness, an intriguing history and a lot of ham—the Mines d’asphalte is an interesting place to visit. Tours are given in French and German (also English and Italian, but I would contact the museum in advance to schedule your visit). If you have time, check out the Museum d’absinthe in nearby Motiers as well.
How to get there:
- From Neuchâtel station, it takes about 35 minutes by train to La Presta Mines d’asphalte station. See SBB/CFF/FFS, for details.
- Map for the Mines d’asphalte (Google Maps)