Like one of Jeff Koon’s giant puppies this ‘demands a response’, as the pundits say. It won’t be ignored as it has strong new colours and such a predominant position. I, and I assume many of my fellow local residents, will not hear a word against this refurbished local feature. After an arson attack almost four years ago that as good as destroyed it, the impression is now of seeing a friend recovered from illness and appearing in strikingly rude health. I talked to a painter, the brush in his hand holding paint the colour of gaudy cake icing, that I am sure is authentic for at least one period in its long history. He was raised locally and, like many, had childhood memories of it. He remembered when ice cream was sold here. He also recalled something that might be called a neighbourhood baptism, getting wet at a municipal park; in this case in the nearby water-lily pool.
It is difficult to overcome what must be the most hackneyed of visual clichés, that of a Swiss cottage. In fact I have realised that among our treasured family bric-a-brac there is a Swiss cottage musical box and one pictured in a handmade embroidery of a mountain scene. As I passed the building almost daily my unruly and indiscriminate curiosity was roused. I came to realise that there within a ghost of a more primitive folk structure that had become a clothes-horse for ornament. This archetype was a model of functionality, having more in common with the Swiss army knife than a dirndl. So, admire the exterior stairs and galleries that leave the interior plan uncomplicated and easy to build. The picturesque wide eaves protected this external access. A telling feature, and a testament to the wildness of the cottage’s natural habitat, was the use of boulders to weigh the roof down.
Here is a glimpse into how contemporaries comprehended, or were told to how comprehend, the wilderness of the Alps, its peasant life and culture. John Ruskin was one of the most famous travellers to Switzerland in the European peace-time of the early 19th century, and people generally listened to Ruskin.
Well do I remember the thrilling and exquisite moment when first, first in my life … I encountered, in a calm and shadowy dingle, darkened with the thick and spreading of tall pines, and voiceful with singing a rock-encumbered stream … when I say, I first encountered in this calm defile of the Jura, the unobtrusive, yet beautiful, front of the Swiss cottage. I thought it the loveliest piece of architecture I had ever had the felicity of contemplating, yet it was nothing in itself, nothing but a few mossy fir trunks, loosely nailed together, with one or two grey stones on the roof but its power was the power of association; its beauty, that of fitness and humility.
The Poetry of Architecture (1838).
Ruskin went on to declare that the Swiss cottage was ‘not a thing to be imitated; it is always, when out of its own country, incongruous’. By the time he had made his warning a mock Swiss cottage, with its Romantic associations, was becoming an aspirational garden ornament for the wealthy. On the practical side you could use it to accommodate some estate staff or a philanthropically run ‘dame school’ for the children of the local poor, both of which happened to the Swansea cottage. There are more famous examples of Swiss cottages in the country: the eponymous Swiss Cottage in north London designed by PF Robinson, the same architect as Swansea, also the royal specimen at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. These both date from the 1840s, so the Swansea cottage – maybe much to people’s surprise – with an authenticated date of 1826 appears to be the earliest.
That delicate arbiter of garden taste, John Loudon, warned not to include the roof-top boulders on your garden Swiss cottage, ‘for an Architect to introduce them as component parts of a Design in the Swiss style would display a great want of discrimination’. However the Vivians, the owners of the original estate and predominant local industrialists, had differed and had included this dramatic detailing, (unfortunately the rocks, and an American log cabin, appeared to be long gone by the time the grounds of their estate became an extensive public park in 1920.) In 1848 the Vivians were to be baldly accused of bad taste by a rather patrician observer1. He condemned their planting up of antique Italian baptismal fonts as ‘flower pots’. You can hear the hissed implication; ‘new money’, they just don’t know how to behave.
Swiss Cottage nowadays belongs to the cavalcade of polychromatic Welsh historic buildings such as Cardiff Castle, Castell Coch and the reconstructed mediaeval interior of St Teilo’s at St Fagans (The National History Museum). If you can, I urge you to go to Singleton Park and see it before the paint begins to fade. One should be able to get married in it; a venue and cake in one.
‘In Switzerland they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.’ Harry Lime’s provocative speech from The Third Man, could have just have easily listed the Swiss cottage and, more recently, muesli. The architect of Swansea’s Swiss Cottage had climbed up their mountains to gain inspiration from architecture of the Swiss peasants, but physician Dr. Maximilian Bircher-Benner found it in their breakfast. He was given a mixture of soaked oats, raisins and grated apple for breakfast by shepherds while in the mountains. This he thought would be ideal for his well-patronised sanatorium that offered a healthy but Spartan regime; Thomas Mann once fled this ‘sanitary prison’ after only a short stay.
It would seem that the function of Bircher’s potato dish was to wean his patients off their customary Kartoffel fare, rich in butter, cream and cheese, and onto something simpler. Bircher halved his potatoes and oven roasted the cut side on an oiled tray. The unpeeled body of the potatoes – scrubbed, of course – simply baked in the heat. Healthy in the context of its time, personally I was more interested in this recipe for its simplicity.
I was first introduced to this technique by Kitchen Pharmacy (Rose Elliot and Carlo de Paoli, 1991) where they spread the tray with a mixture of seeds. I now use either caraway or cumin seeds, both of which are good. I have no idea what type of potatoes the sanatorium kitchen used, but I find both small floury and waxy salad potatoes work well. It may not be authentic but the latter, with their thin skins, are my tuber of choice. This type of potatoes cooks in about 45 minutes in a moderate oven. If you want to cook them quickly it is best to miss out the seeds which become hard and tooth-moving at a higher heat.
This recipe sometimes perturbs my residual puritan nature by attempting to have the best of both worlds. However it is very easy and flavoursome; I hear my silly scruples scuttling out of the kitchen door.
1The Book of South Wales, the Bristol channel, Monmouthshire and the Wye, by Charles Frederick Cliffe. London 1848.