Although Switzerland has a long tradition of culinary exchange with its neighbours’ cuisine, it has a number of emblematic dishes of its own.
Switzerland is famous for many types of cheese such as Gruyère, Emmentaler (simply called “Swiss cheese” in the USA) and Appenzeller, to name just a few of the approximately 450 cheeses of Swiss origin. Two of the most famous Swiss dishes, fondue and raclette, are based on cheese. Fondue is a glass of melted cheese into which pieces of bread are dipped with long forks. Fondue is usually not made with just one type of cheese, but with two or three different cheeses mixed with white wine, garlic and cherry liqueur, although there are regional differences. Traditionally, fondue is eaten in the cold season at high altitudes with just one pot for the whole table, served with hot black tea and virtually no other accompaniments – which is not surprising, as it was once a cheap dish and often the only food for a shepherd at high altitudes, far from civilisation and with only basic equipment. However, it is now possible to get fondue for one person in tourist restaurants in summer. Another cheese-based dish, raclette, is prepared by heating a large piece of cheese and scraping off the melted cheese, which is then eaten with boiled potatoes and pickled vegetables. Cheese lovers should also try Älplermakkaronen with melted cheese and potatoes, served with apple sauce, another very simple but very tasty dish from central Switzerland.
Another typical Swiss dish is Rösti, a potato dish very similar to rösti. It is originally a dish from the German-speaking part of Switzerland, which owes its name to the colloquial political term Röstigraben, which refers to the very different political preferences and voting habits of the German- and French-speaking parts of Switzerland.
Probably the best-known meat dishes are the incredibly common sausage called Cervelat, which is usually grilled on a stick over an open campfire, and the speciality of the Zurich region, Zürcher Geschnetzeltes (or in the local dialect: Züri Gschnätzlets), veal cutlets in a mushroom sauce, usually accompanied by Rösti. The Lucerne Kugelpastete (or in the local dialect: Lozärner Chügelipastete) are very typical of Lucerne. They are sausage meat (cheaper meat, chopped, mixed with water and an egg) formed into small balls, served in puff pastry baskets and topped with a stew of meat, agaricus mushrooms and sultanas. In western Switzerland you will find cabbage sausage and Vaud sausage, and near Basel the liver dish Basler Leber(li) (or in the local dialect: Baasler Läberli). Bern is famous for the Berner Platte, a dish consisting of various pork products, boiled potatoes, sauerkraut and dried beans, among other things. It was traditionally an autumn dish, as the butchering took place when the weather was cold enough again not to damage the meat. The slaughtering season and its dishes are called Metzgete in German-speaking Switzerland and are always on the menus of rural restaurants at this time.
If you prefer fish to meat, Swiss restaurants often serve freshwater fish from the many lakes and rivers. Among the 55 Swiss fish species, the most common fish dishes are trout, river perch or whitefish, called (blue) whitefish, whitefish/ferra or coregone bluefish, prepared in various ways. But you will also find a lot of imported fish on Swiss menus, because the domestic trade (fishing or farming) can never meet the high demand for fish. Moreover, the amount of fish caught today is about a third less than 30 years ago, which is entirely due to the much better water quality: Swiss water is too clean from this point of view!
In autumn, after the hunting season, you will find many fabulous game and mushroom dishes. Many traditional game dishes are accompanied by chnöpfli (literally: short for “buttons”; a soft egg noodle), red cabbage or Brussels sprouts, cooked pears and garnished with mountain cranberry jam. Nowadays, however, the game (roe deer, stags, chamois, wild boar, rabbits) comes mainly from farms to satisfy the high demand.
The mountain region of Graubünden has a special culinary repertoire, including capuns (mangold rolls filled with dough and other ingredients), pizokel balls, the rich and creamy barley soup and a sweet and dense nut cake called Bündner Nusstorte. The thinly sliced dried meat known as Bündnerfleisch also comes from this region. Most mountain regions in Switzerland produce their own air-dried meats and sausages, which are highly recommended.
It is very easy to find good Italian food in Switzerland, but if you are in Ticino, be sure to try the local specialities around polenta (a dish made from corn), risotto (the rice of the same name is grown exclusively in Ticino and northern Italy) and many types of marroni (chestnuts) in autumn, either as part of a cooked meal or simply roasted in the street during the very cold winter days, or as a special sweet dessert called vermicelli.
Swiss chocolate is known worldwide and there is a wide range of different chocolate brands.
The famous muesli for breakfast comes from Switzerland, and Birchermüesli is another dish worth trying: oat flakes soaked in water, milk or fruit juice and then mixed with yoghurt, fruit, nuts and apple chips.
Of course, there are many other local and traditional dishes and foods that cannot all be listed. There is an entire website devoted exclusively to Switzerland’s culinary heritage by canton, although it is only available in one of Switzerland‘s official languages.
As with most other things, eating out in Switzerland is expensive. One way to reduce food costs is to eat in the cafeterias of department stores like Coop, Migros and Manor. These cafeterias are usually much cheaper than independent restaurants. Coop and Manor also offer beer and wine with meals, but Migros does not. Smaller department stores may not have cafeterias. Kebabs and pizzerias abound in Swiss cities and are often a cheap option. In larger cities, more exotic dishes are usually available – at a price.
Swiss labour law prohibits work on Sundays, so shops remain closed. An exception is any commercial activity in a station that is considered to serve passengers and is therefore exempt. If you want to find a shop open on Sundays, go to the nearest major station. If it is a purely family-run business, small shops such as bakeries can also be open on Sunday in most cantons.
Swiss supermarkets can be hard to find in big cities. They often have small entrances but open inwards or are located in a basement, leaving the expensive street fronts to other shops. Look out for supermarket logos above the entrances of other shops. Geneva is an exception and you usually don’t have to go very far to find a Migros or a Coop.
The main supermarket brands are:
- Migros – This supermarket chain (actually a cooperative) supplies food and non-food products of medium to good quality, as well as household items. However, no alcoholic beverages or cigarettes are sold. Branded products are rare because the chain uses its own brands (the quality is good, it doesn’t matter which chain you go to). Migros shops can be recognised by their large orange Helvetica sign (letter “M”). The number of letters “M” indicates the size of the shop and the different services offered – a single “M” is usually a small grocery shop, a double “M” (“MM”) may be larger and sell other goods such as clothes, and an MMM is a complete department stores’ with household goods and possibly electronics and sporting goods. Offers change weekly on Tuesdays.
- Coop – Also a cooperative. It focuses on quality as well as multiple purchase offers, point accumulation programmes and discount coupons. Sells many big brands. Come for half-price salads and sandwiches at the end of the day. Coop City is usually a department store with a Coop grocery shop inside. A multi-storey complex offers space for clothing, electrical goods, stationery, paper products and cosmetics and fragrances. The offers change weekly (with a few exceptions – every fortnight) on Tuesdays.
- Denner – A discount grocer, recognisable by its red signs and inside its shops. Relatively low prices. The offers change weekly, usually from Wednesday onwards. Denner was taken over by Migros at the end of 2006, but will not be renamed for the time being.
- Coop Pronto – a Coop shop that is usually open late (at least 8pm) and seven days a week. It usually has a petrol station and a car park.
- Aperto – also a convenience store located in railway stations
- Manor – Manor department stores often have a grocery shop in the basement.
- Globus – in larger cities, Globus department stores have a high-end grocery shop in the basement.
Coop offers a low-price range (Coop price guarantee) and in Migros you can find the corresponding “M-Budget” products. Sometimes it’s exactly the same product but at a lower price. They also offer cheap prepaid mobile phones, which are among the cheapest.
The German discounters Aldi and Lidl are also present in Switzerland. Prices there are somewhat lower than in other supermarket chains, but still significantly higher than in Germany.