Considered one of Switzerland’s living traditions, La Bénichon celebrates the end of the summer harvest season in the canton of Fribourg. Family and friends gather around the table for this special feast, with specific dishes that make up the time-honored menu.
If you want a small taste of this approximately 7-course celebration, you can try the recipe below for one of my favorites from La Bénichon: Cuchaule, a golden-yellow saffron bread.
Traditional Menu of La Bénichon
La Bénichon started in the 15th century in Switzerland as a religious event. Its name comes from the Latin word “benedicto,” which means blessing. The original feast had a strong connection to the local church and giving thanks for the bountiful harvest. Today, the celebration has lost its religious significance, but the traditional meal has remained.
Similar to the feast of St. Martin in the Jura canton, La Bénichon reminds me of the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States, with its focus on food and family. Each village has their own date for the celebration, with the majority taking place the second Sunday in September and the second Sunday in October. This year, my family and I celebrated La Bénichon in Bulle, Switzerland, located in the district of Gruyère.
Here is the traditional menu that gives you a brief introduction to each of the seven or eight courses, depending on where you are and who’s cooking:
1. Cuchaule and Moutarde de Bénichon
In 2018, Cuchaule earned the designation known as appellation d’origine protégée (AOP) from the Swiss government. Bakeries can mark their bread with the AOP label if it meets certain criteria related to the ingredients, recipe and how it’s made. For this saffron bread, moutarde de Bénichon is the traditional accompaniment. While not a typical mustard, this sweet and spicy spread contains mustard powder, as well as white wine, vin cuit (a thick pear syrup), cinnamon, star anise and more.
3. A Bowl of Soup
A soup course comes next—either cabbage soup or a bouillon with boiled beef. This soup works as a comforting dish for lunch or dinner outside of La Bénichon, during the autumn and winter months. I cooked the cabbage soup at home, and my son keeps requesting that I make it again.
4. Ham, smoked bacon and sausages
The first of two main courses for La Bénichon consists of smoked meat specialties from the region, such as ham, sausages, bacon and tongue. These meats are typically served with boiled cabbage, carrots and potatoes. The salty meat pairs well with the subtle flavors of the boiled vegetables. I like the sausages and the Jambon de la borne the best. The word “borne” in this context refers to the chimney where the smoked meat is hung to dry.
5. Lamb and Poire à Botzi
For the second main course, you will receive a plate of lamb—either a leg of lamb, or a ragoût made with raisins, or possibly both dishes. Mashed potatoes, green beans and Poire à Botzi typically accompany the leg of lamb. Like the Cuchaule, the Poire à Botzi—a small, round pear that grows in the canton of Fribourg—has earned an AOP designation. As part of La Bénichon, these pears are poached with cinnamon and star anise for a sweet, fragrant side dish.
6. Vacherin Fribourgeois and Gruyère
With the main dishes finished up, out come two cheeses that represent the canton of Fribourg: Gruyère AOP et Vacherin Fribourgeois AOP. You may already be familiar with them, as they make up the classic fondue moitié moitié.
7. Meringues and Double Cream
And now for the sweet dessert course… Delicious meringues with double cream from Gruyère. Another classic combination and a beloved Swiss dessert, I like this paired with seasonal fresh fruit.
8. Coffee with mignardises
When you have made it through all of these courses, the coffee and mignardises will be served. These can include the following biscuits: Croquets, rectangular sugar cookies, and Pain d’anis, pin-wheel shaped biscuits flavored with anise seed. The delicate cylindrical biscuits made with double cream and also a little kirsch, are called bricelets. Puff pastry circles with slashes in the middle known as Cuquettes may also appear on the table with your coffee.
Recipe: Cuchaule – A Swiss Saffron Bread
A brioche-style loaf of bread, the first mention of Cuchaule in Switzerland dates back to the 16th century. I love to eat it with lots of butter while it’s still a bit warm. As it begins to dry out, you can use slices of this saffron bread to make a fragrant French toast (a.k.a., pain perdu).
- 3 1/2 cups flour
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
- 2/3 cups milk
- 1/2 cup water
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 pinch of powdered saffron
- 2 eggs, gently beaten
- Whisk together dry ingredients in a large bowl—3 cups of flour, salt, sugar and yeast. Set aside.
- Separately, add the milk, water, unsalted butter and saffron to a small saucepan. Gently heat this mixture on the stove, stirring constantly and just until the butter is melted.
- Make a well in the dry ingredients, and add one egg, along with the warmed saffron mixture. Stir together to form a dough. Knead by hand for about 10 minutes, adding the remaining 1/2 cup of flour as needed to prevent sticking, until the dough is smooth and elastic.
- Place in a covered bowl. Let rise until doubled in size, about 1-2 hours.
- Punch down the dough and form it into a round loaf. Place it on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Brush the remaining beaten egg on the loaf. Then, make intersecting diagonal cuts on the top. Let the loaf rise for another 30 minutes.
- Bake for about 25-30 minutes at 200°C/400°F. Remove and cool on a wire rack. Serve with butter and Moutarde de Bénichon or your favorite confiture.
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