Only recently, however, did I learn that he was publishing a book about Swiss cuisine in German entitled Schweizer Küchengeheimnisse: Gesichter und Geschichten hinter bekannten Gerichten (Swiss Kitchen Secrets: Faces and Stories Behind Famous Dishes).
Born in Zurich, Ambassador Dahinden grew up in the city and earned his PhD in economics from the university there. Since that time, he has had a long and distinguished career in the Swiss diplomatic service. Before becoming the Ambassador to the United States in 2014, he served as the Director of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and headed the Directorate of Corporate Management of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs.
Given my personal interest in Swiss food, I reached out to Ambassador Dahinden to find out more about what led him to write this book, what he likes to cook at home, culinary diplomacy and more. He generously answered all of my questions, and I’m happy to be sharing his responses.
Why did you decide to write Schweizer Küchengeheimnisse?
DAHINDEN: When I became the Swiss Ambassador to the United States, I asked myself how best to represent Switzerland in culinary terms. People very often reduce Switzerland’s culinary footprint to a few traditional dishes like Fondue, Raclette, or Müesli. Hence, there is a much bigger story to tell.
It was not easy to get the information I wanted. Eventually I helped myself by browsing through archives, old books, and the Internet. In quite a short amount of time, I gathered lots of interesting information and wrote the book I couldn’t find in bookstores or libraries. Many of the recipes I discovered were cooked by me or my chef at the Swiss Residence in Washington. It was a fascinating experience, and Schweizer Küchengeheimnisse (Swiss Kitchen Secrets) is my first book on a culinary issue.
As you were doing research for this book, what was the most surprising thing that you discovered about Swiss cuisine?
DAHINDEN: The pioneer’s spirit. Maestro Martina, a Renaissance-era cook from Ticino, was the first to introduce the notion of time in recipes by indicating how many Paternosters you have to pray for each step. Anna Wecker lived in the 16th century and became the first woman ever in history to write a cookbook. I studied the biography of César Ritz, who built a hotel empire using a franchising model much ahead of his time. Julius Maggi, the inventor of the Maggi cube, was a nutrition pioneer and had an important impact on the kitchens of average people. I learned about the cook of Napoleon and about François Vatel, who prepared sumptuous tables for the Sun King, and about the street vendor who invented the ice cream cone and made ice cream popular in Victorian London.
How many recipes does the book contain? How did you select them?
DAHINDEN: The book contains 57 recipes, including recipes for drinks. Some are very easy, others more challenging. A couple of dishes are described in the text as well. I have selected recipes that tell a story, like Potage à la Guillaume Tell, named after the Swiss national hero, or Mousselines de Truite à la Helvétia. There are dishes prepared for special events. I like the dishes many people would not associate with Switzerland, like the Waldorf salad or the Delmonico steak. I did not want to write another cookbook, but rather an easy book to read about what is behind the dishes, as well as a book on Swiss culture and history.
What is your favorite Swiss food product?
DAHINDEN: My answer might surprise you: I like the many marvelous sausages produced in Switzerland. Some of them have very unique tastes, many are delicious artworks and unfortunately rarely available abroad. When our Chef went to Switzerland last year, I made sure that he became familiar with how to make Swiss sausage.
What is your favorite Swiss dish to make at home?
DAHINDEN: I like to bake bread and to spend time making pies. I do not mind investing time in studying recipes and running after rare ingredients.
To what extent have you engaged in culinary diplomacy in your role as the Ambassador of Switzerland to the United States?
DAHINDEN: The use of food and cuisine in international relations is as old as diplomacy itself, but something is changing now. Until recently, embassies served classical international cuisine to their guests. Today, the dishes served tell something about a country and its ambition. National food, such as recipes from famous chefs or dishes that guests associate with a country, are more typical.
When arriving in Washington, DC, I wanted to go a step further and complement dishes with other content. The dishes and the respective stories are very often messages about Switzerland, its culinary heritage and performance, but also starting points to speak about things I want my guests to know about, like tourism, the quest for quality, health and nutrition, or openness to other cultures.
What are the current plans to translate this book into other languages, such as French or English?
DAHINDEN: I hope there will soon be a French and an English edition of Schweizer Küchengeheimnisse. Culinary achievements by the Swiss are as little known to French and English readers as they are to German-speaking ones.
I am grateful to Ambassador Dahinden for sharing his thoughts on Swiss food and telling us more about his new book. These culinary tales provide a broader description of Swiss cuisine, and I like that he includes recipes, so we can try making some of these historic dishes at home. My German language skills are practically non-existent, so I look forward to checking out the English or French translation of his book, when it’s available!
(Photos courtesy of Ambassador Martin Dahinden.)
Schweizer Küchengeheimnisse, By Martin Dahinden, 176 pages. Nagel & Kimche