A culinary tour of Geneva
Beaches, sailing boats, vineyards and Michelin-starred meals. We discover the gastronomic playground of Switzerland
I am at the beach. It is hot and crowded and there’s nothing for it but to take regular dips in the glimmering turquoise water to stay cool. It could be a typical summer’s day at a popular Mediterranean resort but, in fact, I’m on the sandy banks of Lake Geneva – or Lac Leman, as it’s known by locals, the largest body of water in Switzerland – just minutes from the heart of the bustling, cosmopolitan metropolis that is Geneva.
At first, it’s hard to reconcile this carefree holiday scene with a city synonymous with diplomacy and banking. But, as I am to discover, French-speaking Geneva is full of contrasts and surprises that make it so much more than just a destination for heavyweight conventions and shopping as well as a convenient alpine gateway.
During summer, the city switches into full holiday mode: sailing boats tack leisurely back and forth on the lake; elderly men play chess in the Botanic Gardens on giant pavement boards; families picnic on the grass and couples stroll through the Medieval cobbled streets of the Old Town. At night, Geneva comes alive with fireworks and festivities: open-air food stands serve perch fillets and Toblerone churros, and lakeside bars pulse with music. The famous Jet d’Eau fountain lights up like a Christmas tree in the middle of the lake. In the English Garden, you can ride the Ferris wheel, offering panoramic views of the Alps and catch the salty tang of seawater as the Rhone swirls like molten black enamel below.
I’m here for three days to immerse myself in the cuisine and culture of this sophisticated global hub but often-overlooked tourist playground. The first thing to mention is how easy it is to get around. From the moment you arrive, everything you could need or want is at your fingertips – and all public transport in Geneva, including yellow taxi-boats, is free with a transport card, available at any hotel. There’s also the Geneva City Pass, which gives you access to more than 50 attractions.
I’m staying at the elegant Four Seasons Hotel des Bergues, which bears the distinction of being Geneva’s first luxury hotel and maintains a commanding lakeshore presence. Built in 1834, this neo-classical palace hotel has played host over the centuries to royalty, statesmen and business magnates but these days, is equally equipped to satisfy the most discerning of modern travellers. While the lavish décor created by renowned interiors architect Pierre-Yves Rochon nods to French classic – think marble floors and Louis Phillipe-style furniture – there’s nothing old-fashioned about the facilities.
There are two restaurants – northern Italian-style Michelin-starred Il Lago, and the rooftop Izumi, which features a Japanese- Peruvian inspired menu – and intimate lounge Le Bar des Bergues, as well as the top-floor Mont Blanc spa with pool, sauna, hammam and treatment rooms.
It seems fitting to start my gastronomic tour with lunch on the terrace at Il Lago, where Italian chef Massimiliano Sena sends out dish after dish of fresh seasonal fare. His creations are as light as they are beautifully presented, with signature dishes including Carabineros prawns with black truffle, roasted scallops with Jerusalem artichoke, beef carpaccio with truffle and roasted turbot with green apple and hazelnuts.
To get to grips with the city, I embark on a two- hour tour with a private guide who tells me I’m following in the footsteps of the 19th Century British travellers who put Geneva on the tourist map when they started stopping off there as part of their Grand Tour. As we explore the Old Town, my guide explains that Geneva was one of the great centres of the Reformation and of Calvanism – out of which the famous Swiss watch industry grew.
Although Protestant leader John Calvin, who was based here until his death in 1564, banned luxuries including jewellery and rich foods, the wearing of watches was deemed acceptable. “Jewellers started making watches, including pocket watches which they could hide and show off in private,” he explains. “Here in Geneva we hide everything – money, gold, bomb shelters, secrets.”
With a food scene that ranges from fancy Michelin-starred restaurants to cosy cafes serving traditional fare, Geneva offers something for all tastes. Unsurprisingly, for a city that is second only to New York in terms of the number of international organisations based on its soil, the cuisine is also decidedly multicultural. I put this to the test when I dine at the eclectic Helios restaurant in the Eaux-Vives district, which offers sharing plates of French-Peruvian fusion. Specialities include sea bream ceviche, sharp and tangy Peruvian corn, caramelised beef Tataki and grilled octopus with Espelette pepper and Chimichurri sauce.
My next dinner is at Balila restaurant in Hotel Longemalle, where I’m presented with a colourful feast of sharing plates prepared by Lebanese chef Hussein Hadid, including slow cooked chickpeas, tartar of char with citrus fruits and sumac and perch fillets meunière.
One of the best ways to see the surrounding countryside, as I discover, is to hire a chauffeur- driven Tuk Tuk – my driver Carlos gives me a running commentary as we head out of town the next morning, pointing out places of interest such as the Gaudi-style apartment blocks in the artisanal Les Grottes district. It’s hard to believe that just 10km from the UN and World Trade Organisation headquarters lies Switzerland’s third-largest wine region, producing international award-winning wines. I stop for a tasting at Domaine Les Perrières, run by the 8th generation Rochaix family, followed by Sunday lunch at Café de Peney, where I opt for a refreshing gazpacho with buffalo mozzarella followed by seat trout with samphire, and strawberry and rhubarb tart.
For the rest of the afternoon, I take refuge from the heat in the rooftop sanctuary that is the Spa Mont Blanc, indulging in a re-energising massage using acupressure point stimulation and a Dr Burgener anti-ageing facial with collagen firming treatment.
After several days of fine dining, the bar has been set high, so I’m delighted to report that Fiskebar restaurant in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel De La Paix blew me away with its Nordic-inspired fusion cuisine. From the open kitchen, Italian- born chef Francesca Fucci choreographs a culinary ballet of seasonal delicacies – from a sea charcuterie platter presented like a rock pool with crab nestled in its shell and a shellfish broth, to the sweetest green pea tartelette I’ve ever tasted. The eggplant dessert sounds dubious but the contrasting flavours work wonderfully – coated in dark chocolate, it tastes almost fruity and is complemented with a punchy black garlic ice cream.
As so much of city life revolves around the lake, a brunch cruise on one of the Belle Epoque steamers that journey daily between Geneva and Lausanne seems a fitting finale. I hop on board the wood-panelled Savoie, which gives a glimpse of a bygone era as we pass opulent hillside villas once occupied by deposed kings and princes, artists and musicians, while dining on local Swiss dishes such as lake-caught perch, prepared by Café Leman.
Seeing Geneva in full holiday swing is a revelation; like experiencing an entirely different city.