I was in Basel so I thought I’d check out some raclette, a melted-cheese experience that defines Switzerland as surely as the hollowed-out Alps full of Nazi gelt and aggressively policed recycling schemes (in Zurich, you are fined for using the wrong bag). Yes, yes – I know, it was fondue that was once promoted as the Swiss national dish but that was before the 1970s, when the runny gloop flowed into the interstices of the British class system. Raclette sounded a bit more real to me: I liked the idea of shepherds slapping the cheese round down on a griddle by the fire, then scraping off successive wedges of golden deliquescence.
I asked the woman in the tobacconist’s near Marktplatz if she knew of anywhere nearby that served the stuff and she directed me to a timber-framed hostelry at the end of a cobbled lane that oozed authenticity. It was the sort of gaff you could imagine being patronised by guildsmen in codpieces – I was surprised not to find pikes and halberds propped by the oaken door. Swiss men, with Stilton faces reticulated by mauve veins, sat at tables with shot glasses full of aquavit that had probably been distilled from buttercups. Yet behind the bar there was an African woman, very self-possessed, who told me the raclette was off, it being the middle of the afternoon.
Standing back out in the street, dirty-white flakes of snow the size of J-cloths slapping across my cheeks, it impinged on me that I hadn’t eaten since early that morning, when the seeds from a granola bar caulked my teeth in the departure lounge at London City Airport. I’d been relying on tobacco in lieu of nourishment. Some people consider tobacco to be an appetite suppressant but I think of the demon weed as food. I remember back in the early Noughties, when I’d given up, my still-at-it (and thoughtful) wife stopped smoking in the house but would sometimes sit puffing on the front steps. Lying upstairs in bed, I would awaken as Spike – Tom and Jerry’s bulldog adversary – did when he smelled meat but in my case it was the plume of tasty smoke that had aroused me.
Limping into the square, I was oblivious to the great stuccoed façade of the Rathaus but instead stared through plate-glass windows at café after café, each one boasting its own selection of cream cakes and marzipan confections cunningly fashioned into likenesses of the great Swiss dramatist Friedrich Dürrenmatt (I made that up). The trouble was, although it was tea time, I needed savoury – I needed Spike’s beef. Then I passed the McCafé and double-took: what? It looked just like any chain coffee joint – menu boards flagging up frothy coffee, muffins mounded by the till – but had the dried-ox-blood and bile-yellow paintwork of a McDonald’s.
Intrigued, I ventured in and saw stairs ascending to the McDonald’s proper above – which is how I ended up eating a “micro” portion of fries and four chicken nuggets, while glugging a small bottle of Vittel. Total cost: 10.3 Swiss francs (£7.20). There’s always an excuse, isn’t there? But the truth is that while I may no longer set out with the golden arches as a destination, I still decline into McDonald’s from time to time. I’d even been in one the previous afternoon, on my way to see Daniel Day-Lewis impersonate Lincoln. Feeling peckish as my 11-year-old and I footed up Shaftesbury Avenue, I justified myself thus: “The fries aren’t that bad,” to which he sagely rejoined, “Only by contrast with how shit all the other food is,” before taking the fries off me and snarfing the lot.
The Swiss McDonald’s – apart from the outrageous prices – was of a piece with others the world over: the same vast, black-and-white photographs on the walls showing mush entering maws; the same modular seating; the same senseless deployment of venetian-blind slats as design furbelows; the same wired-in twentysomethings chowing down over their screens. The last time I’d eaten a full McDonald’s meal was the previous summer in Dublin, where at least the sense of being in a global non-place had been undercut by the presence of bevies of dolled-up teenage girls, teetering to the toilet on high heels, then emerging with their micro-skirts readjusted to show still more post-papist leg.
In Basel, the global element was rather different. Chewing on a chicken-flavoured tumour, I observed an elderly Swiss woman tidying up – this is still an economy in which by no means all low-paid work is done by immigrants – and as she scraped some cheesy residue off a tray into the bin, I realised this was as close to raclette I was going to get.