Zürich and Sheffield, two cities dropped by design or cosmic fluke into wildly different countries, are bound by the nuisance of funny accents, Cabaret Voltaire but little else, unless the Swiss city has a rich tradition in steel production and once prominent football clubs sinking into an abyss of underachievement.
Switzerland’s de-facto capital – a position secured by Bern slipping past global recognition as often as England’s public, in search of fun, dodge Sheffield without a glance in favour of nearby Liverpool or Manchester – Zürich’s gift to art and culture came in the shape of legendary nightclub Cabaret Voltaire, whose 1916 opening led to the establishment of Dada and its absurdist tropes.
The movement dispatched the notion that the Swiss cannot poke fun at themselves and things, which invites another commonality with the assumed dourness of residents in England’s north, yet more received wisdom not borne out by their command of biting wit and sarcasm. More in genuine tribute to its target than a sarcastic remark intends was the adoption in 1973 of the Cabaret Voltaire name by a trio of experimental Sheffield musicians.
Their abrasive electronic sound and manipulation of tapes and effects led to their pioneering reputation within industrial music, a mechanised term fitting both Sheffield’s manufacturing history and the regeneration of Zürich-West. The former Industrial Quarter, a corner of town where ships were once built now contains the type of bright young things and businesses Zürich had once lacked in its claim to be a modern place to live and work, an image still well beyond Sheffield’s reach.
London suffers from no such problem, for all of human life and enterprise is here, and what was modern and invigorating at breakfast is forgotten and stale come a pause for elevenses. Some things still endure though, such as Dada and Borough Market, which has sat at the southern end of London Bridge for some 1000 years. Everyone enjoys a nice round figure, particularly obsessive compulsives turned on by symmetry, so for added neatness, 2016 marked the 100th anniversary of Dada, a landmark bringing Zürich to London to celebrate the occasion by way of a gala dinner held in a market active centuries before Dada was a twinkle in the eye of Hugo Ball, the founder of the original Cabaret Voltaire.
Zürich meets London: A Festival of Two Cities is an obviously Dickensian allusion, as why bother thinking up a suggestive name when someone else had already gone to the effort? After all, that’s exactly what the Sheffield trio also did, as imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and what could be more in keeping with Dada than inferred plagiarism and treating one of literature’s classics as a form of readymade title, like Duchamp had with objects and art? None of which crossed my mind as I accepted a complimentary Turicum gin, distilled in Zürich and taken from that city’s ancient Roman name, mixed with a Gents Swiss Roots tonic water, another Zürich producer, served by a barman with nothing but scorn for the only available beer whose name, driven in part by my intake of complimentary gin and tonic and politeness, suitably escapes me.
The meal, prepared by Fabian Spiquel, head chef at the Michelin starred Maison Manesse in – you guessed it – Zürich, revelled in the free-play of Dadaist philosophy, by first claiming to be 5 courses but delivering 6, proof of such gathered from a glance at the menu, using my life experience to count the sequence accurately and then the actuality of the courses arriving, unless the miscount was a genuine error and not a metaphysical critique of logical positivism. Who knew what was truth and illusion, abstraction and concrete? The assembled guests twitched uncomfortably, unsure of everything. I mostly struggled with the first course of an indeterminable number, a distillation of each of the 5 basic tastes, not knowing whether to snort the liquid samples through the tube provided or suck, as custom dictates and the other guests at my table subscribed to, the tiny contents into my mouth.
Only the sour liquid evoked its promise, the others tasting of neutral or a strange hybrid or coffee and chocolate, which again might be a nod to Dada or a limitation of recipe and technique. This introduction caused more trouble to the kitchen than deliver pleasure to the guest, so if any course was ever in doubt, this was surely it. A series of entirely Swiss wine pairings were served alongside each course, with the first, a MüllerThurgau, drawing the short straw: an impossible task for any nectar when chosen for its ability to match and enhance bitter, sweet, salty, sour and umami in quick succession, it tasted explicitly of cloudy cider, so relegating this opener to the list of memorable courses in reverse order to which they were served. Next up was pike, a fish notorious for its seething temper, generosity of bones and teeth not to be sniffed at. Never as popular in England as elsewhere in Europe, here its foul personality was tempered by the easygoing nature of green tomato and bergamot, along with a Malanserrebe mercifully with no resemblance to fermented apple juice.
This dish ate very well, which is surely the point, and showed that the kitchen improves when focusing on creating a dish of mutually rewarding ingredients, rather than getting bogged down in the lacklustre flamboyance its first course hinted was its style. Before long, a plate of pork with the Luma designation – ensuring all meats from Swiss breeders adhere to their exacting rearing standards – served with raw tuna, seaweed and truffle lacking any comparable credentials was put before me. Dispatched without complaint but with no passing familiarity with memorable, it clung to a verdict of ‘average’ for all its worth. Of an entirely different order was morels, kombu and wild strawberry, whose quality belied the reservations I had as to any possible harmony. Deep, rich and earthy from the excellent mushrooms and with a complexity brought from the accompaniments I’d never imagined might suit fungi, this again showed the kitchen, despite lapses, reaches higher plateaus than suffers near misses.
A formula proved beyond all doubt with the final savoury course, one which may well remain the finest dish to pass my lips by the time this year is done. A piece of obscenely tender beef shin – no surprise when cooked slowly for 65 hours – with its best mate onion, sweetcorn cooked however that vegetable becomes divine and a sticky, filthily good demi-glace positively narcotic in its wallop, I could have slipped under the table and out of consciousness, a man lost amongst the chair legs and briefly alone, except for remembrances of docile cows wandering the Alps, bells around their necks swaying gently from side to side much like their tongues lollop as they chew the cud, unaware their true aim in life is not fresh air and mountain views, but to be transported to England and eaten as much as this dish had transported me. Nothing could top it, and the dessert of rhubarb, Bircher muesli and tarragon – my favourite herb in savoury, but not necessarily sweet dishes – certainly didn’t, neatly dividing the table into those repelled by its sourness and those, like me, much less offended by its mouth-puckering qualities.
Zurich came, it saw, and Fabian Spiquel and his brigade occasionally conquered. Dada’s artists would surely have approved of this meal, by turn whimsical and serious, just like the art of the movement which inspired it.