Across from the railway station in Lausanne is a rising cobbled street. It leads to a busy road in the heart of the lakeside city. Tucked in beside St Francois church is the august establishment known as Café Romand.
Under the auspices of Madame Christiane Péclat and her chef cuisinier Thierry Lagegre, it is rustic charm and serves some of the best traditional food in Switzerland.
If you are lucky you’ll get a two-person table by the wide window looking out at those looking in, wondering what you are going to eat. If rösti is on your plate you might get a jealous look.
Lagegre makes it with parboiled semi-waxy potatoes, in the fashion of the Bernese. When UNESCO recognised the Bernese for their craftiness with this Swiss treat they knew what they were doing.
So there is an irony about a restaurant in Roman Switzerland perfecting a dish with a legendary association to the Germanic cantons of Switzerland.
We’ll come back to this.
1 kg potatoes, parboiled whole in skins a day before use, refrigerate or freeze dry 50 g bacon, diced 30 g butter 30 ml milk Salt, large pinch
Grate potatoes and mix with salt.
Heat a large frying pan, add a third of the butter and oil, making sure to cover all the surface and up to the rim, turn heat to low.
Add bacon and potato, fry, pressing down with a spatula to form a cake. After ten minutes add another third of the butter and oil all round the edge of the rösti cake.
When the edges start to harden and crisp, shake the pan to make sure the potato mix has not stuck to the base. Cover with a plate and fry for another ten minutes until the underside has formed a golden crust.
Turn the rösti over by inverting the pan and plate, leaving it on the plate, and sliding it back into the pan.
Add the remaining third of the butter-oil around the edges. Leave to fry for ten minutes. Finally pour the milk over the rösti, cover and cook for ten minutes. The milk will evaporate.
Lard should be used but low fat butter mixed with vegetable oil is a viable option. Crafty cooks use goose fat laced with oil because it brings up the golden colour.
Johann Jakob Strub brought the potato to Switzerland. A native of the canton Glarus, he was a lieutenant in the English army and according to legend returned home with a bag of seed potatoes from Ireland.
Potatoes were cultivated in Glarus in 1697.
They spread to the neighbouring cantons and by the middle of the 19th century prötlete herdöpfel, fried potatoes, replaced barley porridge as the preferred breakfast among farming families around the growing city of Zurich.
The recipe travelled south-west into the Bernese countryside and over the mountains into the Roman canton of the Valais, where it was called pommes de terre roties.
It became the morning meal among the French-speaking farmers, was shortened to roties – rösti in Swiss-German.
By the mid-20th century variations of the original recipe began to appear.
The Roman west preferred boiled potatoes, the Germanic east used raw.
1 kg potatoes, grated, squeezed and dried 4 onions, sliced 30 g oil 15 g caraway seeds, soaked Salt, large pinch
Mix onions and potatoes, and sauté in a frying pan over a medium heat for ten minutes.
Place a plate on top of the frying pan, invert onto the plate. Oil pan and slide rösti back. Cook for 20 minutes.
The Rösti Divide
The divide is longer between east and west, boiled and raw, lard and oil, it is between good rösti and bad rösti.
The secret to the success of rösti lies with the choice of potato, and how it is prepared.
Starch content is crucial. It should be low to medium.
Generally mealy potatoes do not make good rösti and generally waxy potatoes are too firm, but these rules do not always apply.
It is the water in the potatoes
that makes a difference.
Swiss Agriculture recommend the Lady Christa, Ostara, Sirtema, Urgenta and Victoria varieties, which are all firm potatoes in the middle range.
The perfect rösti should be compact and crisp, and not greasy.
To achieve this, the potatoes – cooked or raw – must grate evenly and hold their cut shape.
Cooked potatoes are cooled in a fast-freezer, raw potatoes are cooled in a water bath. Then they are grated in a food processor for less than a minute.
Home chefs face challenges here.
Leaving them overnight in a cold place is how they did it in past days, and today the fridge will achieve the same aim – cool the potato for grating.
Whatever the choice, the grated potatoes must go into the pan or skillet immediately.
Butter or lard is still the preferred frying medium but the use of oil, sunflower in particular, is becoming popular. The next secret is controlling the heat and gas is preferred to electric, to prevent the rösti cake from burning.
And the final secret is experimentation – like all simple cooking!
Rösti mit langsamen Bratkartoffeln
The idea of making rösti with slow-cooked roast potatoes sounds like a new idea. It’s not. Making rösti with leftover roast potatoes was always a tradition, it just never caught on in the cafes, diners and restaurants until now.
Recipe in Ice Travel and Snow Food: Culinary Adventures in Western Switzerland.
Potato photographs courtesy of Swiss Agriculture
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