It’s not the Switzerland that most of us imagine. Squint and you could be on the Cinque Terre; eavesdrop and you could be in Zurich, the inhabitants of that city flocking here to get a dose of sun without leaving the country. With its palm trees and pristine, pastel-coloured houses overlooking the glassy waters of Lake Maggiore, not to mention the rugged, green mountains that form the backdrop to this scene, Ascona ticks all the boxes.
Did I mention the Michelin stars? Two, to be precise, courtesy of Rolf Fliegauf, one of Europe’s top chefs. No, we hadn’t heard of him, either. Maybe it’s because the Swiss have kept him all to themselves. When he’s not cooking at his restaurant Ecco in the Hotel Giardino Ascona, open from spring to autumn, he’s at Ecco in the Hotel Giardino St Moritz for the winter season. He doesn’t do television, nor is there a book (yet). Fliegauf just keeps his head down and keeps the dishes coming.
Those of you who can only make it as far as Zurich can now try his food, albeit a slightly pared-down version, at the hotel and restaurant group’s Bond-villain-lair-cum-hotel Atlantis by Giardino. Fliegauf’s former sous chef Stefan Heilemann heads up the kitchen, serving up a mix of classic Fliegauf dishes and some with Heilemann’s own twists.
this is cow country, after all. But the stronger flavour of sheep’s yoghurt works better in this dish
German-born Fliegauf won his first Michelin star in 2007 at the age of 26, only six months after opening Ecco. The second star came in 2010. Then, in 2011, he opened Ecco in St Moritz, to which Michelin saw fit to award two stars the following year.
He doesn’t credit his Swabian hometown in south-west Germany for influencing his cooking — in fact, his style couldn’t be further from the rustic fare of that region. He favours clean, clear, intense flavours, which are best encapsulated in a dish described simply as green apple, sheep yoghurt and dill. That’s right, sheep’s yoghurt. “It’s not something you see often here, certainly — this is cow country, after all. But the stronger flavour of sheep’s yoghurt works better in this dish,” explains Fliegauf, who buys it from a small organic farm near the Swiss capital, Bern.
Unlike other items on his menu, which includes organic egg yolk, cep and Alba truffle, plus Norway lobster, ajo blanco and curry, this particular dish makes a regular appearance, he says. “We get a lot of feedback on this dish, so I keep bringing it back. I think people love it so much because they are surprised by it: how simple and refreshing it is, how well balanced — and that it’s a dessert, but it’s not sweet,” he explains.
Fliegauf draws inspiration from the area around Ascona, in particular the herbs and small-leaf salads that are grown especially for him. One of Switzerland’s 26 cantons, Ascona is located in the Ticino region, which is split into craggy mountain valleys and sherbet-coloured lakeside resorts such as Lugano, Locarno and Ascona. The local cuisine is something of a hybrid, too: slow-cooked polenta flecked with buckwheat; a funky, offal-rich sausage called codighe; marinated lake fish; braised goat; rabbit stew; pumpkin soup; risotto; and chestnuts — lots of chestnuts. Fliegauf’s food is not remotely as hearty, but he certainly plays with such ingredients.
That said, his recent travels in Asia have stirred a greater interest. “It’s not the ingredients, but the techniques — and the tradition of eating a progression of smaller dishes. I love the Asian way of eating,” he says. As you tuck into another round of thrilling dishes that flow cleverly from one to the next, you have to agree.