Consensual and discreet, the Swiss political arena bears little resemblance to its Italian and French counterparts, the former with its theatrics – worthy at times of the Commedia dell’Arte – and the latter seeming like a throwback to the Ancien Régime. However, for 25 years, Papet Vaudois, a dish from the Canton of Vaud (1990 to 2007), and Rösti, in the style of the Canton of Bern (2001 to 2011), were given added spice by an outsider named Josef Zisyadis. As upright representative of Switzerland’s (communist) Parti Ouvrier et Populaire (POP), Josef Zisyadis astounded many a politician with his revolutionary stances, and delighted readers of articles in the press covering the proceedings and minutes of the local Vaudois and the national Swiss governments. Helvetian citizens, consensual and discreet, found him a little too disturbing, even if they couldn’t help but think he was right about some things. But since these statements came from a man with a highly unusual name, they put them down to his temperament, which is rather alien to what is typical for the Swiss.
Born to a Greek Orthodox father and a Turkish Jewish mother, Swiss and Protestant in his desire to integrate, a communist and theologian by conviction – the ingredients that shaped Josef Zisyadis were bound to result in an explosive mixture, as reflected in his “combative, activist spirit”. And what about hedonism? He finds pleasure not only in the satisfaction of seeing his militant attitudes bring about concrete results, but also seeks it out in everyday life working in the kitchen and at mealtimes around the table. In 2001, to better defend the flavours and authenticity of Switzerland’s culinary heritage, he launched La Semaine du Goût (Taste Week), following in France’s footsteps, first in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, then extending the event to the whole of Switzerland. This year, it will take place from 18 to 28 September (Swiss Semaine du Goût 2014) and will bring together thousands of participants thanks to hundreds of gastronomic activities. The week aims at increasing appreciation of the know-how behind quality, protecting traditionally made products that are under threat and, above all, tantalising the taste buds of visitors, especially of children.
Annika Gil spoke with Josef Zisyadis
Is taste so endangered that it needs to be defended and promoted?
Appreciating taste is an educational process. We need to learn how to compare foods, identify their flavours and cook them so as to better appreciate the infinite variety of tastes that make up a meal. And preparing a meal is something that more and more people don’t have time to do. One of the leitmotivs of the Semaine du Goût is to bring the understanding of taste as a multidisciplinary subject into schools. This is important because taste touches upon all sorts of areas outside the kitchen or home economics classes: e.g., botany, chemistry, economics, geography, history. Ideally, every school would have a vegetable garden, from nursery school to university, as learning about taste requires continuity.
Where does your interest in tasty food come from?
The taste of childhood, most probably! Maybe I am still more sensitive to the richness of taste on account of my personal history, as my family left Istanbul when I was two and settled in Switzerland four years later. The Greek and Turkish specialities that my mother prepared for us, with their smells and textures that are so distinctive, at the time represented one of the most tangible links with our home country. And the pleasure of eating them together around the table was as comforting as it was enjoyable.
Might the tastes of moussaka or lentil soup be messengers of a family’s soul?
When I left home at the age of 17, my mother gave me a notebook in which she had jotted down some 30 recipes… so that I could prepare food myself but also so that I could continue to eat the dishes that she liked to make for me and that I liked eating… and that I still like, even if my tastes have broadened to other specialities.
And did you take the time to cook?
Even as a penniless student, I managed to cook with the means at hand. I would buy frozen chicken carcasses or salmon leftovers and prepare them with dishes that my friends loved to dig in to. With my first pay cheque I bought myself fresh ingredients, and gradually the dishes I cooked became more elaborate.
Do you have a guilty pleasure?
Sometimes I like to eat alone; it’s a solitude that does me good. Then I prepare myself an unpretentious dish, a potato omelette, a typical recipe from the Greek Islands. I make the fries myself and then add them to the eggs. At its best, the omelette – actually it’s more like a pancake – shouldn’t be runny, but crispy around the edges.
A man of taste and conviviality, Josef Zisyadis shares his gastronomic pleasures on his blog, where recipes combining traditional local cuisine, and influences from far and wide will definitely give you a better idea of him as a person than these lines can. Let’s get cooking!