Swiss cuisine is heavily influenced by German, French, and Italian culinary tradition—so seeing pizza, schnitzel, and entrecote on the same menu isn’t always a sign to run screaming. Indigenous dishes are hearty, rustic and often very cheesy, though veganism is making inroads in the cities.
The reputation of the Swiss as master cheesemakers goes back over 2,000 years, to when the Romans noshed on caseus Helveticus (Helvetian cheese, a hard Parmesan-like product that’s sold today as Sbrinz). Today some 550,000 milk cows roam Alpine pastures, supplying dairies with the raw material to make more than 100 kinds of cheese. Mass production is frowned on—instead, milk is curdled, formed, and aged in hundreds of small, strictly controlled dairies, each under the direction of a master cheesemaker with a federal degree.
The kind with the holes—Emmentaler, or just “Swiss cheese” to Americans—originates in Bern’s Emme Valley. The nutty, flavorful version made there is worlds away from the inferior copies sold around the world. Gruyère, a melty variety traditionally aged in a cave, is another classic. Nearly every region has its own niche cheeses, often semihard, pleasantly funky-smelling, and referred to simply as Bergkäse (mountain cheese). Most restaurants will offer local cheese samplers; or you can visit farmers markets and specialty shops to see what your chosen canton does with its dairy.
Fondue—Switzerland’s calorific national dish, involving molten Emmentaler and/or Gruyére mixed with white wine, lemon juice, and a soupçon of garlic, has some rather unsavory origins. For most of the 20th century, cheesemaking in Switzerland was controlled by the Swiss Cheese Union, a cartel of producers that fixed prices, coaxed fat subsidies out of the government and restricted the types of “approved” cheese to just three: Emmentaler, Gruyère, and Sbrinz. When supply outstripped demand, the union began aggressively marketing a hitherto fore obscure alpine specialty to stoke hunger for their product abroad. So yeah, that fondue pot gathering dust in everyone’s garage since the 1970s? Blame the cheese mafia.
The Cheese Union dissolved at the end of the 1990s, but fondue remains ubiquitous throughout the country, and for good reason. No après-ski activity is more satisfying than gathering round a bubbling caquelon (an earthenware pot) and dunking cubes of bread—or apples, grapes, sausage, potatoes, you name it—into piping hot cheese, with plenty of wine and kirsch to wash it all down. There’s also fondue bourguignonne, chunks of meat skewered on wooden sticks and cooked in oil or butter; or fondue chinoise, a Chinese hotpot-inspired dish made with thin slices of beef dipped in broth and dunked in a table’s worth of sauces. In the area of western Switzerland adjoining France, the Gruyère that doesn’t make it into fondue is scooped onto bread discs and deep-fried, a specialty called a Malakoff.
Raclette—Raclette, in which the cheese of the same name is heated until bubbling and scraped directly onto one’s plate, is less popular than fondue, but arguably more deserving of Swiss national dish status. It dates back to at least the 13th century, when peasants in Valais would soften the cheese from their cattle over campfires and scrape (racler) it onto bread.
Today, the dish usually involves half to a quarter of a wheel of raclette, most commonly the protected Valais variety, held in front of an open fire and scraped off with a special knife. The classic accompaniment is fresh, crusty, homemade dark bread, but the cheese may also be eaten with boiled potatoes, pickled onions, cucumbers, or baby corn.
Other Regional Specialties
In restaurants and mountain huts throughout the Swiss Alps, you’ll find dishes tailor-made for gaining back the calories you (presumably) burned while hiking or skiing. One of the most popular is rösti (or röschti, as the Swiss Germans call it), a thick shredded potato pancake that’s fried in oil and used as a canvas for melted cheese, eggs, ham, smoked salmon, or the works. Another is Älplermagronen, basically macaroni and cheese topped with applesauce and fried onions.
Local charcuterie can be found at markets around the country. The best known is Bündnerfleisch, thin-sliced beef dried in the crisp alpine air of Graubünden. At many restaurants, you can order a platter of local cured meats (and cheese, of course) to be washed down with wine. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking that’s what you’ll get if you order a Bernerplatte in Bern—far from a delicate appetizer, this provincial dish is a mammoth pile of sauerkraut or French beans topped with pigs’ feet, sausages, ham, bacon, or pork chops.
The leafy veggie Americans call “Swiss chard” is in fact widely eaten in Switzerland, although it’s called Krautstiel here. In Graubünden, you’ll see it stuffed with a doughy filling and served in broth, a regional dish called capuns. Even more beloved is fresh white asparagus, when it’s in season—during peak Spargelzeit in spring, police have been forced to increase their night patrols in parts of the country to keep thieves out of the asparagus fields. Wild game is the norm in September and October—many Swiss restaurants, especially in hunting-crazy Graubünden, will offer a separate “Wildmenü” during that time. Just double-check that the venison haunch you’re ordering isn’t actually from New Zealand, as increased wildlife protections have caused penny-pinching Swiss eateries to get creative with their sourcing. Wild boar and chamois (a type of Alpine goat-antelope) are more likely to be local.
With so much water around, you’re bound to catch a few fish. And indeed, Switzerland’s lakes are brimming with trout, pike, perch, and Arctic char—the latter of which, called omble chevalier in French, is especially prized. The fresh catches are marinated, grilled, or pan-fried in lakeside restaurants from Geneva to Ascona. There’s also an aquaculture farm in the south of the country that supplies select chefs with homegrown Atlantic salmon.
The Italian-speaking province of Ticino shares a lot of culinary preferences—and a snobbish culinary attitude—with its neighbor. Specialties include cornmeal polenta, risotto with porcini mushrooms, and a salsiccia-like pork sausage called luganighetta. In October, chestnuts reign supreme. Pizza and pasta are popular not just here, but in all provinces of Switzerland, where they offer a welcome respite from otherwise-stratospheric menu prices.
For dessert, there’s chocolate, but not only that. The Swiss have a plethora of regional pastries and sweets. One you’ll find everywhere is Birnbrot, rolled pastry with a dried pear filling. In Graubünden, you won’t be able to escape the Nusstorte, a pecan pie–like blend of chopped walnuts and caramel encased in a shortbread crust. (With their compact size and months-long shelf life, the cakes make for terrific gifts.) An autumn dessert favorite is Vermicelles, spaghetti-like strands of sweet chestnut paste atop pastries or alone with whipped cream.
White wine is the invariable choice of beverage with fondue, but you can also get by with kirsch or tea. There are almost no restrictions on the sale of alcohol in Switzerland, but imported liquor like bourbon, gin, and vodka is usually much pricier than in the United States, and portions can be skimpy.
It’s good form to clink glasses before drinking. Toast with “Prost” (German), “Santé” (French) or “Salute” (Italian), and remember to make eye contact with your companions lest you fall victim to the classic curse—7 years of bad sex!
Wine—With its fertile soil and abundant sun, Switzerland produces superb wines of all characters and colors. The country’s 15,000 hectares (37,000 acres) of vineyards are mostly concentrated in the Valais, Geneva, Ticino, and Seeland, but you’ll find small, independent winemakers all over the country.
The most typically “Swiss” variety is Chasselas, grown across French-speaking Switzerland; it’s a light, slightly sparkling white that’s not too acidic and extremely drinkable. Pinot noir is another standout, popular everywhere except for Ticino. That southern canton has found fame with its merlot, both a fruity red kind that’s worth ditching your “Sideways” preconceptions for and a white merlot you won’t find anywhere else.
Beer—Swiss beer often gets overlooked, but the country has a brewing tradition that stretches back to ancient times, and its current-day craft beer scene is booming. In fact, Switzerland has the highest number of microbreweries per capita—900 at time of writing, from the rice beer tanks at Terrani alla Maggia in low-lying Ascona to the mile-high BierVision in Monstein near Davos. Most beer sold at bars and restaurants (like the ubiquitous Feldschlösschen and Calanda Braü) is still made by Heineken or Carlsberg, but ask bar staff for something from nearby and you’ll probably be rewarded.
Liqueur—Swiss liqueurs are both tasty and highly potent, whether sipped on their own or mixed into coffee, tea or hot chocolate to warm up after a day in the snow. Every region has its own favorites, but the most popular nationwide are kirsch, a strong, clear brandy made from cherries, and Pflümli, a kind of plum-flavored schnapps. The Valais drink Williamine is made from fragrant Williams pears, while Graubünden prefers a syrupy, cherry-flavored concoction called Röteli. In Ticino, locals are fond of grappa, which is distilled from the dregs of the grape-pressing process, as well as the walnut liqueur nocino. Absinthe, that supposedly hallucinogenic anise and wormwood spirit, was invented in the Swiss canton of Neuchatel, and a few dozen microdistilleries in its birth town of Val-de-Travers continue to produce the “green fairy."
Today Switzerland is practically synonymous with chocolate, but in the early 19th century, it was the last country you’d expect to harness the power of the cacao bean. Possessing neither the plants themselves or colonies in which to farm them, the Swiss instead used their strategic position as a trade crossroads and their renowned mechanical prowess to amass and process enough chocolate to become the dominant force in the rapidly growing market.
Early industry pioneer François-Louis Cailler opened the world’s first mechanized chocolate factory in 1819 at Corsier, near Vevey. A few years later, Philippe Suchard established his own factory near Neuchâtel, where he invented a mixing machine that made chocolate smoother and more palatable; his company went on to create Milka bars and merge with Tobler, producer of the Matterhorn-shaped Toblerone, before being absorbed by the American multinational Mondelez. In 1875, Vevey resident Daniel Peter invented milk chocolate by adding condensed milk to his brew of pulverized cocoa and sugar. He then went into business with the milk’s manufacturer, one Henri Nestlé, to form what’s now the largest food and beverage corporation in the world. In 1879, the chocolate bar as we now know it was created via a “conching” technique pioneered by Lindt, which would merge with Sprungli 20 years later to become one of Switzerland’s most enduring chocolate-making dynasties.
Thanks to high export tariffs and stiff competition from Germany, Switzerland no longer leads the pack in terms of chocolate production. But it’s still the biggest cocoa consumer, to the tune of around 20 pounds per person per year. No self-respecting mountain climber ever embarks without the requisite bars in hand, and Swiss factories maintain “chocolate breaks” for sugar-induced bursts of energy. Unfortunately for vegans and purists, Daniel Peter’s milk variety is still the most ubiquitous, although the artisanal “bean-to-bar” trend is gaining traction as well. If you’re the type who wants to see how the magic happens (or just want to gorge on free samples), producers like Cailler, Läderach, and Lindt all offer factory tours.
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