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Swiss Federal Fast Soup (page 2 of 2)

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Every year my uncle Harvey summons the family around a converted wash boiler where he cooks the most delicious soup. The occasion is Swiss Federal Fast Day, a national holiday in Switzerland. See how we cook 20 gallons of soup from start to finish.
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When I realized that the only blender we had was a smallish house Bamix, I called my father up. He went by his brother Regis, who owns a restaurant down in the valley and came around 11h30 with this huge, professional soup blender. Uncle Harvey is very confortable working with this. They all grew up in the family restaurant that Regis now runs. As Harvey starts working the soup, my father explains: One day my brother Regis was making soup for the restaurant. We tasted it, and it was a bit light, watery. I told Regis it needed more body. He took a hockey glove, cut out the washer with a pair of scissors, and threw it in. I asked him what the client who will get the glove will think, and he answered that with the helo, nothing will show. This is the helo, he said, showing the giant blender Harvey was operating. Now I don't think this ever really happened, but it's a joke he's been telling so many times I was really surprised to see that there really was such a thing as uncle Regis' helo.

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My uncle had removed the herb-and-leeks wraps and the ham bone before blending. We deboned the ham and returned the meat for liquefaction.

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Once the soup - meat, peas, vegetables and parmesan - has been turned into a smooth cream, Harvey tastes it. Divine. Time to add the real meat.

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The day before, I had bought a whole smoked ham, the famous jambon de la borne, first cooked, then left hanging for weeks above a cheesemaker's wood fire to preserve and flavor it in smoke. In it goes, to warm it up and and flavor the soup with its extraordinary smoky taste.

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While the 25+ guests devour the cheese fritters, Harvey mixes the finely snipped herbs into the soup. Savory goes especially well with pea soup.

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I leave my camera for a minute to congratulate my uncle Harvey on a job well done.

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To the cries of A la soupe!, the guests start congregating around the pot, with the kids in front, a first when soup is concerned.

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Uncle Harvey tries to remove the huge bone-in ham from the soup alone, but suddendly the string breaks and the ham falls into the soup, splashing soup over the assistance.

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He enlists the help of his son, my cousin Erik, to try and fish the ham out. No way, the ham stays hidden in the warm, at the bottom of the pot.

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Finally, a third fisher comes and they succeed in bringing out the monster. A line has formed behind them, waiting for the soup.

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First in line for the soup is Harvey's granddaughter. I think my soup must be working if kids rush to the front of the line - usually soup-eating is a chore.

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The line goes on, as more of my cousin's kids come filling their plates at uncle Harvey's.

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Harvey owns a company that restores your house after a disaster occurs. What disaster exactly is the client's prerogative - fire, water, mudslide, and then some. But the real client is the insurance company. So, whenever I meet somebody new at uncle Harvey's, like the gentleman above, well, he always ends up working for an insurance.

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My cousin David's wife serves the garlic bread we just made - butter, fresh garlic from Lautrec all pounded with fresh thyme and savory. We made two platters like this and it disappeared within minutes.

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A guest skilled in the art of the knife starts to cut very regular slices from the ham. Guest come and place each a slice in the soup, then go find a place around one of the tables.

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A fisheye view from the slicer's heart. Gorgeous, juicy Swiss smoked ham.

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Ever since uncle Harvey started his soup tradition, the dessert was provided by the guests. We make a pie contest, says uncle Harvey when he invites you. Back in the days when I was as little as the diners gathered around the table above, I took this seriously. But once my father bought the nicest pie in town from his favorite baker, stripped it of any shop telltales, and brought it in a homey tray. Clearly, this was the best pie in the contest, but for some reason he didn't win. Instead a little girl stole the show with her cute but clumsy pie. This day I understood there was no justice under the sun and stopped participating in uncle Harvey's pie contests. The dices are loaded, that's all there is to say.

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But our little contestants, still unaware of the ways of the world, were very excited to be asked to sample each pie and then cast their vote!

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In Valais people tend to like their families and are always happy to have a gathering. Conversely, cousins and even second degree cousins (picture) know one another. Since the canton is made of the Rhone valley and a few side valleys, and population is small at around 300,000, people behave towards strangers in a very different way than in more populated areas. Whomever you meet on the street is likely to be on first name basis with at least one person you know, cousin or otherwise. This means that you are always nice to strangers and cannot start rambling or bitching like you could in a larger city, as you might well bump into the same person at some wedding or funeral or family gathering in the future. This is nice. I like it.

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As the party came to an end, guests started pulling out freezer bags, tupperware and plastic cans. This is not common in Switzerland, but given the size of uncle Harvey's boiler, there is always waaaaaay more soup than people can eat. So over the years my uncle started asking his guests to bring little containers to take some soup home if they wished. Some widowers are really pleased as this makes for a delicious meal for a couple more nights, but most people are just happy not to have to cook on the next day, the Federal Fast Monday, a non-working day in most of Switzerland.


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  • #1
  • Comment by Paul Mckenna
Love the classic cascading ingredients shots.

Looks like a really happy time, I hope you have many more of them and the tradition continues.

Wow, what a great day! That soup looks mighty delicious and so do the cheese fritters! Yummy!

That chalet is beautiful!


  • #3
  • Comment by Jason
Thanks FX. Very enjoyable glimpse into your life and Swiss tradition. As always great food!
Wow, Francois, this looks terrific!!

Can we all come next year? We'll bring pies...  :)

No matter how tired or stressed I am, all I have to do is read one of your recipe articles and I immediately feel better about life in general, and food in particular. Great job and terrific photos as usual
  • #6
  • Comment by James
Lovely... Wish that I got invited. Thanks for sharing. Gotta to try this recipe. Have a small version of the recipe for 8 people handy?
  • #7
  • Comment by cookery
Food, family, and friends... that's what it's all about!  Everyime I read your articles I wish it was as easy to get fresh alpine "slow food" in my neighborhood in The Bronx!
I love a great & traditional soup like this.  So many good things go in and make it a special occasion to be enjoyed with family & friends.

Another great post & recepie.


I think I would have to ignore my cholesterol levels and try some of that soup Francois, it looks fantastic. I'm sure it tasted divine, with the cheese and the ham and the split peas...how wonderful!

But the best part of this article is the warm sense of a happy family spending quality time together. I really enjoy those moments with my extended family as well, and it is nice to see others doing the same. I wish everyone had such lovely families that they could share their time with.

Beautiful pictures as always, you do use that fisheye lens to good effect!

I think I need to plan a trip to Switzerland soon, and it will have to include a visit to Switzerland's most famous food blogger (guess who that might be!).
  • #10
  • Comment by Evan
I agree with Alan: Francois, your pictures and narration always leave me a little less cranky and cynical. Who can hate a world in which people still get together to do wonderful things like this? Living in a big American city without any extended family to speak of has its advantages from time to time, but often it leaves you feeling like there's something missing--I think this article distills what that something is quite nicely. Grilling some nice organic grass-fed ribeye over hardwood charcoal and dipping the slices in homemade mayo spiked with herbs straight from the garden is lovely, but what you've chronicled here isn't just a meal, it's a family event. The casual joy and real care your family has for food is tangible in the photos--this is the kind of gathering I dream of being invited to.
  • #11
  • Comment by ana lucia
I am recalled to meals up in the moutain and on the family home up in Italy when i go there to visit with family.

Perhaps I ioealise my time there, but looking at these pictures, more than the actual food, warmed me.

Thanks for story.
  • #12
  • Answered by fx
Ana Lucia, uncle Harvey has his chalet in the pastures above the village where our family comes from. There, the mayor, the baker, the butcher and half the village all bear my surname. The surroundings are nice, woods and pastures with a small stream cascading. It's amazing as your sound environment is cowbells and streaming water. I wish I had that in my own kitchen!
  • #13
  • Answered by fx
Evan, I am really touched that you saw this for what it was - a bridge between two worlds. Not that all of Switzerland is like this, Valais is very special and Valaisians stick together more than the rest of us Swiss. And my family is known for being very united, some other families feud for 20 years over one acre of pasture left in a will.
  • #14
  • Answered by fx
Lyra, actually the only defect I could find in my soup was that is lacked a bit of fat. No risk for cholesterol unless you eat the white part of the ham, I think. If you visit Switzerland, please let me know a little in advance and we might cook some Belizean dish!
  • #15
  • Answered by fx
Dave, I'm glad you liked my article. This is one easy soup to cook if you get proper smoked meat and a ham bone.
  • #16
  • Answered by fx
Cookery, I am sure you must have some slow foods up there in the Bronx too! Don't you have latino mamas cooking like back home? Or some barbecue joints from expatriated South Carolina foodies? I can't believe that with 20,000 restaurants in New York not one would cater to the slow foodie!
  • #17
  • Answered by fx
James, you can do this at home following the recipe in the Serious Pea Soup article, I linked to it a couple time in the article. It yields about 2 gallons, which works for 8 people with an 8-people furl (doggie freezer bag).
  • #18
  • Answered by fx
Alan thanks and glad I could lift your day a bit!
  • #19
  • Answered by fx
Diane, if you bring a pie I will talk to uncle Harvey and I'm sure he'll have no problem having you at the next year's Swiss Federal Fast Soup - plenty of soup to go and plenty of strangers anyway.
FX, as always this looks wonderful.  I just adore your uncle's fabulous chalet, and there was such a sense of affection and familial cooperation throughout the photo spread.  I also really want to know more about those delightful looking cheese toasts!  What kind of oil do you fry them in?  Do you only fry one side or both (or would the cheese melt off)?
  • #21
  • Comment by ana lucia
Alas, i am in Canada, and i am glad to be here, however, when we go to Italy, i feel at home high up in the mountains, even though i grew up here, but born in Italy, came here as infant. My mom's sister lives in Switzerland.

Been around different beautiful cities, but nothing compares to small town up there.

You are most fortunate and how wonderful to see all that family together. I am going to share this with my mom.

ana lucia
  • #22
  • Answered by fx
Jason thanks for dropping by!
  • #23
  • Answered by fx
Rosa, in fact uncle Harvey had some troubles with bugs in the chalet and recently totally revamped it, but he kept the original hand-hewn wooden beams and rural artifact, I think it really has a nice feel about it! But in case you really like it, he might be selling it too - who knows?
  • #24
  • Answered by fx
Paul I hope we can keep the tradition running too! I thought of starting another one with a different uncle, with a roasted pig, cuban style, but never got around to doing it yet.
  • #25
  • Answered by fx
Tina, you can learn all about the cheese fritters in this article: http://fxcuisine.com/default.asp?Display=133 they are deep-fried (totally immersed in oil at 190°C), and the cheese doesn't melt as there is a little bit of flour in them. Really delicious and should be part of any serious diet.
  • #26
  • Comment by Alys
Serious Soup and big family times.
I like the addition of the parmasen cheese as well.

Very clever, the addition of an oil bath in a false bottom! Your uncle has clearly thought this all out.

I would not give up on the pie making, just because you don't think that you will be "cute" enough.  :-)
  • #27
  • Comment by Catherine
FX, this looks like a wonderful family celebration. Your uncle's chalet looks beautiful, and that huge pot is amazing. :) It makes me miss my family back in Russia and Israel, and the large gatherings we have when we go back there.

I'm surprised a gourmet like you would use water from the hose though. ;) Maybe you guys have better hoses, water from the hose here always tastes rubbery.
  • #28
  • Comment by constantin
Dear FX: I also have a particular interest in the beignets de winzel "fritters". I have gone trough your articles on Malakoffs and on the beignets, but it would really nice to see more photos of the latter. Would you have perhaps some unpublished shots you could send me? Thank you and kind regards, Constantin

  • #29
  • Comment by Jelsia Cortese
I loved the article.  Send it around the world, and we might have peace.

This is one of the truths about life and living.

Thank you,
  • #30
  • Answered by fx
Thanks for your visit Jelsia!
  • #31
  • Answered by fx
Constantin, I am very sorry but I don't have more pictures of those. How about you try and to them at home with some Romanian cheese, there is no reason why it wouldn't work.
  • #32
  • Answered by fx
Catherine, it is a lovely pot indeed! We did not have any other way of bringing the water, but I asked uncle Harvey to let the water flow for a moment before using it in the soup. If you look at water in old buildings, in the morning the water can be brown as it comes from water that stagnated in the rusted pipes overnight. You just let it flow for a moment, and all the rust is gone and the water is clear again.
  • #33
  • Answered by fx
Alys, for the pie contest I think once you turn 10 the poll is rigged against you - uncle Harvey will always make a little kid win - house rules!
The soup looks glorious.  What a beautiful gathering and a great tradition.  
  • #35
  • Comment by Mike
Reminds me of the Swedish pea soup eaten here traditionally on Thursdays with Arrack Punch and pancakes as dessert (most famously by the members of the Swedish Academy).

Lovely pictorial, as always =)
  • #36
  • Comment by FX Hartigan
I should not read your posts when I'm hungry. Ces beignets, oh, là! J'ai passé toute la journée dans la cuisine sans rien manger; now I have to go EAT!
All I can say is that there is smile on my face that will be there for a long time. Thanks again Francois for an outstanding post... makes me wish my family were here...
Exceptional soup. I love the converted boiler. I will have to look into something like that. I always wanted something like a steam kettle in the back. I can see the veal stock now.

I would give a lot to have a taste of the soup mentioned in the article, just because there looks to be a lot of tradition involved, which makes what your Uncle Harvey makes a lot better than what I can accomplish in the professional kitchen.

Also, I would love to know what you are using for a camera.

Keep it up, I love reading your blog. I am waiting to get out of the weeds to update mine as well. Heh.
  • #39
  • Comment by Jennifer
Wow!  I can almost smell the aroma of the Mtn. air mixed w/ the wonderful smell of the soup.  I know exactly what I'm doing with the ham in the fridge!  I'm off to the market to get my peas!!  Thanks for sharing this fun family get together.  
  • #40
  • Comment by CKfusionist
Very nice event and very nice food indeed. The blender is no doubt the biggest I've ever seen in my life hahaha...
  • #41
  • Comment by Ben
I'm going to have to ask my friend from the Valais to bring me some of that ham the next time, and this soup looks like a fantastic addition to the autumn/winter menu!
  • #42
  • Comment by chef4cook
What a beautiful setting for a party. The Beignets looked mouth watering. I'll have to give them a try. The Jambon I can only imagine to be exceptional.
  • #43
  • Answered by fx
Chef4cook, this is always a very pleasant party and the coldish weather (17°C outside in the shade) made the hot ham all the more attractive!
  • #44
  • Answered by fx
Ben this ham comes from the Gruyère, it's a typical farmstead product, the farmers or cheesemakers hang it above the wood fire in the kitchen and it smokes very slowly. Buy as much as you can!
  • #45
  • Answered by fx
CKfusionist, indeed this is a serious blender!
  • #46
  • Answered by fx
Jennifer have fun with the pea soup! This one is usually made from dried split yellow peas, you'll get a very different soup if you use fresh peas.
  • #47
  • Answered by fx
Jason thanks for your praise! You definitely need a lot of guests if you start using one of these big converted wash boilers - you just can't make soup for two. But hey, you are a pro chef so you have all the guests you need! The camera is not all that relevant (hey, its all about the talent!) and I'm not too pleased with those pictures anyway, but since you ask it's Nikon D300 with a 10.5mm Fisheye Nikkor lens for the last pictures. A really cool camera. I also had two flashes overhead synched with wireless devices, one clamped to a tree branch, the other on a sandbagged light stand, both shooting through white umbrellas. But these were not really needed here, plenty of light!
  • #48
  • Answered by fx
Cynthia thanks for sharing your enjoyment of this article, I'm sure you'll have many family gatherings in the future too!
  • #49
  • Answered by fx
FX these cheese fritters are very hard to stop eating and eating again. There are never any left on the platter!
  • #50
  • Answered by fx
Mike one of these Swiss Federal Fast Days I might try a whole Swedish meal with the pancakes and Arrack punch. Would you have a recipe for the punch?
  • #51
  • Answered by fx
Chiffonade, thanks for your visit!
  • #52
  • Comment by namebmmm
faudrait étudier de fairela soupe au lait de kappel pour la prochaine fois
merci de traduite les  reponses en anglais pour l hoirie
Lovely photos and so delightful to have an insight into another part of life in Switzerland.  I haven't heard of beignets de Vinzel called that before: I know them as Malakoff, and they are a truly indecently fattening and tasty thing. Typical Swiss food though... cheese and bread and versions thereof!
Great posting! Beautiful family. What a feast!
  • #55
  • Answered by fx
Thanks Angela, great feast indeed!
  • #56
  • Answered by fx
Kiriel, the word Malakoff is very often used to call the beignets de Vinzel, but properly the Malakoffs are cheese sticks marinated in white wine, dipped in batter and deep-fried. See the other recipe on my site under that name. But soon only food historians will remember this dish, I've never ever seen those Malakoffs in a Swiss restaurant, everybody makes Beignets de Vinzel and calls them Malakoffs!
  • #57
  • Comment by Rosedarpam
Francois, vous etes incroyable!  I have been off the net for about a month due to heavy work and family obligations.  When I finally checked my email, the first thing I clicked was this recipe.  You brought me back to where I needed to be.  I will be giving a smaller version of your party, albeit will not be as good as yours because finding good ham in Hawaii is impossible.  I have decided to have the party at my sister's house at the top of a mountain here.  The evenings there are quite nippy now and we often light the outdoor fireplace.  I am so looking forward to feeding the friends and family I love.  Thank you for your wonderful website.
  • #58
  • Answered by fx
Rosedarpam, I'm glad you liked this soup! If you can find a raw ham in Hawai, you could cook it by boiling it for 3 hours, then just cold smoke it somewhere, it's not hugely difficult. Or perhaps use a ham bone and some sausages. Have fun at your sister's house!
  • #59
  • Comment by parshu.narayanan
This article shows the side of F-X which is a rooted, grounded small-town man, with a large extended family - just like many Indian men from small towns I know - with the difference being he also has the sophisticated world-view of a man who has travelled across the world and experienced so many diverse cultures!" What do they know of England, who only England know" as the old saying goes.
  • FX's answer→ Well Parshu that's really nice to hear, although my folks back in the Valais see me as a city person! I guess it's all in the eye of the beholder, although we don't have one city in Switzerland that could compare with the huge size of New Dehli or London. We are pretty much all town people up here.

  • #61
  • Comment by Abhijeet Mhatre
I must say real great work and good photography.I am happy you have covered Indian recipes too.I would like to forward you some snaps and recipe of local food if you like it you can publish them. Keep up the great work....cheers Abhi.
  • FX's answer→ Thanks for your visit Abhijeet!

  • #63
  • Comment by david coppola
i said before we have to party together...... there are tears in my eyes as i type.. what a beautiful day...

  • #64
  • Comment by Helen McHargue
I enjoyed this so much...the next best thing to being there. This is one of the best food blogs I've ever read!! Great writing, wonderful pictures - couldn't be better.

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