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Basel’s cheese and onion tarts

By Christian Rieder of Visitbasel.ch, English by Mandy Freschi

Basel’s traditional onion tarts and cheese tarts are as much a part of “Morgestraich” as flour soup. The question here is, are they to be considered Lenten or festive dishes? The citizens of Basel really don’t care.

First of all, we should mention that no one knows exactly why people traditionally feast on onion tarts and cheese tarts during Basel’s Fasnacht celebrations, or more precisely when they get under way with “Morgestraich” at 4 o’clock in the morning. Nor do we know where the tradition of roasted flour soup, with or without grated cheese, comes from. This is one of the great mysteries of the Basel carnival.

In search of an answer, we need to consider that Lent was abolished in Basel on January 21, 1534. This removed the need to stuff oneself with meat and fatty foods during carnival, which is of course a festival of indulgence before the fasting period of Lent begins. Which means the timing of carnival should be easy to calculate, since it should end before Lent begins, which is 40 days before Easter. Interestingly, though, the carnival in Basel begins a week later than in most other places. We find the reason for this in both the Council of Benevento in the year 1091, and during the Reformation (1529). During the Council it was decided to exclude Sundays from the fasting period before Easter. But since the fast still had to last 40 days, this meant moving it forward six days, making Ash Wednesday the first day of Lent. This also moved the carnival forward six days. This decision was not readily accepted, and therefore was annulled during the Reformation, moving carnival back one week. That Basel’s Fasnacht is the only carnival with the “original” timing is explained by the fact that it was done away with entirely in other Protestant areas. The Protestant church also fought against carnival in Basel, but did not prevail.

So, if we count back 40 days from Holy Saturday, the last day of Lent, we find that the first day of fasting would be the Tuesday of Basel’s Fasnacht. Since Basel’s Fasnacht goes from Monday to Wednesday, we see that the fasting period begins before Fasnacht ends, unless you limit carnival to the Morgenstreich (which would actually be historically correct).

Be that as it may, the tarts were never considered “poor people’s food”, becoming established in Basel’s parlours, and at Fasnacht, especially during Morgenstreich, when they were served in many restaurants. And they were also heavily advertised. For example, in 1885 the Löwenbräu brewery at Gemsberg 2 (the location of today’s Löwenzorn restaurant), advertised their offers for Morgenstreich in the newspaper “Schweizer Volksfreund”: roasted flour soup, onion tarts, hot chocolate, grog and coffee. It seems that people at the time enjoyed a cup of hot chocolate with the onion tart instead of a glass of white wine like today. Well, one can argue about flavour combinations, but one thing is for sure: whoever has never tasted the lovingly baked onion tarts or cheese tarts is definitely missing something!

Read the complete article here (only German).

Recipe for «Ziibelewaije»,

Ingredients (for 4 pieces of onion tart)

For the crust:

  • ·  190 g plain organic flour (Bio-Weissmehl)
  • ·  20 g organic yeast (Bio-Hefe)
  • ·  1⁄2 t. sugar
  • ·  5 T. pasteurised organic whole milk (room temperature)
  • ·  2T.oil
  • ·  a pinch of salt

For the topping:

  • ·  a dribble of oil
  • ·  500 g onions
  • ·  80 g regionally produced streaky bacon, finely diced

For the filling:

  • ·  2 medium eggs (Swiss organic)
  • ·  150 g organic sour cream
  • ·  freshly ground pepper, to taste
  • ·  1 dash of Cayenne pepper
  • ·  salt to taste
  • ·  sweet paprika powder to taste
  • ·  a few crushed caraway seeds

You also need:

  • · round pie pan, lined with baking paper


Sift the flour into a mixing bowl. Form a small impression in the flour. Combine the yeast with the sugar and warm milk in a separate bowl, and then pour it into the impression. Mix the milk mixture with just a bit of flour, but be careful not to knead the whole dough yet. Cover and place the mixing bowl in a warm place, and allow the pre-dough to raise about 10 minutes.

Now add the oil and salt to the pre-dough and knead it into the rest of the flour in the mixing bowl. Knead it all thoroughly until you have a smooth dough. Cover again, and allow it to rise in a warm place for 30 minutes.

Roll the dough on a surface that has been sprinkled with flour, and place it into the prepared pie pan.

Peel the onions, cut them in half and then slice into thin slices. Heat up some oil in a frying pan, and add the diced bacon and sauté briefly before adding the onion slices. Sauté the onions until they become lucent, making sure they do not get golden or brown.

Whisk together the sour cream and the eggs to make the filling, and season with the freshly ground black pepper, a pinch of cayenne pepper, a little bit of salt (consider the saltiness of the bacon), sweet paprika and a little bit of the crushed caraway seeds.

Distribute the onion and bacon mixture on top of the crust and then pour the filling over it. Bake the onion tart in the bottom half of the preheated oven at 220° C / 430 °F for 35 minutes.
Note: The onion tart tastes just perfect when eaten still warm.

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