Swiss cuisine is a flavorful blend of German, French, and Italian influences. In most restaurants and hotel dining rooms today, menus will list a wide array of international dishes, but you should make an effort to sample some of the local fare.
Cheese making is part of the Swiss heritage. Cattle breeding and dairy farming, concentrated in the alpine areas of the country, have been associated with the region for 2,000 years, since the Romans ate caseus Helveticus (Helvetian cheese). In fact, the St. Gotthard Pass was a well-known cattle route to the south as far back as the 13th century.
Today, more than 100 varieties of cheese are produced in Switzerland. The cheeses, however, are not mass produced -- they're made in hundreds of small, strictly controlled dairies, each under the direction of a master cheese maker with a federal degree.
The cheese with the holes, known as Switzerland Swiss or Emmentaler, has been widely copied, since nobody ever thought to protect the name for use only on cheeses produced in the Emme Valley until it was too late. Other cheeses of Switzerland, many of which have also had their names plagiarized, are Gruyère, appenzeller, raclette, royalp, and sapsago. The names of several mountain cheeses have also been copied, including sbrinz and spalen, closely related to the caseus Helveticus of Roman times.
Fondue -- Cheese fondue, which consists of cheese (Emmentaler and natural Gruyère used separately, together, or with special local cheeses) melted in white wine flavored with a soupçon of garlic and lemon juice, is the national dish of Switzerland. Freshly ground pepper, nutmeg, paprika, and Swiss kirsch are among the traditional seasonings. Guests surround a bubbling caquelon (an earthenware pipkin or small pot) and use long forks to dunk cubes of bread into the hot mixture. Other dunkables are apples, pears, grapes, cocktail wieners, cubes of boiled ham, shrimp, pitted olives, and tiny boiled potatoes.
Raclette -- This cheese specialty is almost as famous as fondue. Popular for many centuries, its origin is lost in antiquity, but the word "raclette" comes from the French word racler, meaning "to scrape off." Although raclette originally was the name of the dish made from the special mountain cheese of the Valais, today it describes not only the dish itself but also the cheese varieties suitable for melting at an open fire or in an oven.
A piece of cheese (traditionally half to a quarter of a wheel of raclette) is held in front of an open fire. As it starts to soften, it is scraped off onto one's plate with a special knife. The unique flavor of the cheese is most delicious when the cheese is hottest. The classic accompaniment is fresh, crusty, homemade dark bread, but the cheese may also be eaten together with potatoes boiled in their skins, pickled onions, cucumbers, or small corncobs. You usually eat raclette with a fork, but sometimes you may need a knife as well.
Other Regional Specialties
The country's ubiquitous vegetable dish is röchti or rösti (hash-brown potatoes). It's excellent when popped into the oven coated with cheese, which melts and turns a golden brown. Spätzli (Swiss dumplings) often appear on the menu.
Lake fish is a specialty in Switzerland, with ombre (a grayling) and ombre chevalier (char) heading the list -- the latter a delectable but expensive treat. Tasty alpine lake fish include trout and fried filets of tiny perch.
Country-cured sausages can be found at open markets around the country. The best known is called bündnerfleisch, a specialty in the Grisons. The meat, however, is not cured, but dried in the crisp, dry alpine air. Before modern refrigeration, this was the Swiss way of preparing meat for winter consumption.
The Bernerplatte is the classic provincial dish of Bern. If you order this typical farmer's plate, you'll be confronted with a mammoth pile of sauerkraut or French beans, topped with pigs' feet, sausages, ham, bacon, or pork chops.
In addition to cheese fondue, you may enjoy fondue bourguignonne, a dish that has become popular around the world. It consists of chunks of meat spitted on wooden sticks and cooked in oil or butter, seasoned according to choice. Also, many establishments offer fondue chinoise, made with thin slices of beef and Oriental sauces. At the finish, you sip the broth in which the meat was cooked.
Typical Ticino specialties include risotto with mushrooms and a mixed grill known as fritto misto. Polenta, made with cornmeal, is popular as a side dish. Ticino also has lake and river fish, such as trout and pike. Pizza and pasta have spread to all provinces of Switzerland; either one is often the most economical dish on the menu.
Salads often combine both fresh lettuce and cooked vegetables, such as beets. For a unique dish, ask for a zwiebelsalat (cooked onion salad). In spring, the Swiss adore fresh asparagus. In fact, police have been forced to increase their night patrols in parts of the country to keep thieves out of the asparagus fields.
The glory of Swiss cuisine is its patisseries, little cakes and confections served all over the country in tearooms and cafes. The most common delicacy is gugelhupf, a big cake shaped like a bun and traditionally filled with whipped cream.
Cocoa beans are chocolate's raw ingredients. First publicized in Europe by Columbus, who noticed them growing on trees in Nicaragua in 1502, they were traded as currency by the conquistadores in the New World, who viewed them as an elixir of physical strength. Back in Spain, royal cooks mixed the pulverized beans with sugar and hot water and served them with great success to the royal family. The Spanish-born Anne of Austria introduced it to the French court at her dinner parties after her marriage to Louis XIII. And in a kind of chain reaction to the bean's original "discovery," London's first chocolate shop was established by a Frenchman in 1657.
Nineteenth-century attitudes about chocolate (as perceived in North America and in Europe) were widely different. In 1825, the leading culinarian of the French-speaking world (Brillat-Savarin) declared that chocolate was one of the most effective restoratives of physical and intellectual powers known to man. In contrast, Harriet Beecher Stowe, the American-born moral crusader and woman of letters, declared chocolate unfit for proper American tables, and -- in a burst of prudishness -- commented suspiciously on its French and Spanish origins.
Despite Ms. Stowe's invectives, the market for chocolate continued to grow. This fact was immediately noticed by the canny Swiss from their politically neutral bastion in the Alps.
From the early 1800s, the Swiss began investing heavily in what they perceived as a long-range moneymaker. Pioneers of the industry opened the country's first chocolate factory in 1819 at Corsier, near Vevey. What's now a massive multinational concern, Suchard, was established near Neuchâtel in 1824. In 1875, Swiss-born Daniel Peter invented milk chocolate by adding condensed milk to his brew of pulverized cocoa and sugar. In 1879, the first chocolate bar was created (the Lindt Surfin bar). In 1899, the Sprungli and Lindt empires merged into a Zurich-based chocolate-making dynasty. The Tobler and Nestlé organizations were founded shortly afterward.
Switzerland today is the largest chocolate superpower in the world, leading the globe in production. Both secrecy and precision have always been cited as Swiss virtues, and both of these qualities are required during a complicated blending process that transforms the raw ingredients into the final product. The allure is aesthetic as well as gastronomic: Swiss consumers expect new artwork on their chocolate wrappers at frequent intervals, and an army of commercial artists labors at yearly intervals to comply. The Swiss eat and drink more chocolate per capita than any other nation in the world, fueling their bodies for the bone-chilling temperatures of the alpine climate. (No self-respecting mountain climber ever embarks without the requisite chocolate bars.) Swiss factories maintain "chocolate breaks" for sugar-induced bursts of energy, and swiss housewives usually don't buy less than a kilo of chocolate at a time.
White wine is the invariable choice of beverage with fondue; if you don't like white wine, you might get by with kirsch or tea.
There are almost no restrictions on the sale of alcohol in Switzerland, but prices of bourbon, gin, and scotch are usually much higher than in the United States, and portions can be skimpy.
Wine -- Swiss wines are superb. Unlike French wines, they are best when new. Many wines, such as those from the Lake Geneva region, are produced for local consumption. Ask your waiter for advice on which local wine to try.
Most of the wines produced in Switzerland are white, but there are also good rosés and fragrant red wines. Most exported wines are produced in the Valais, Lake Geneva, Ticino, and Seeland. However, more than 300 small winegrowing areas are spread over the rest of the country, especially where German dialects are spoken.
In the French-speaking part of Switzerland, two of the best wines are the fruity Fendant and the slightly stronger Johannisberg. In the German-speaking part, you might want to sample one of the dry and light reds, which include Stammheimer, Klevner, and Hallauer. In the Italian-speaking Ticino, red merlot is a fruity wine with a pleasant bouquet.
Beer -- Swiss beer is an excellent brew; it's the preferred drink in the German-speaking part of the country. Helles is light beer; Dunkles is dark beer.
Liqueur -- Swiss liqueurs are tasty and highly potent. The most popular are kirsch (the national hard drink, made from the juice of full cherries, including the pits), and Pflümli (made from plums). Williamine is made from fragrant Williams pears. Träsch is another form of brandy, made from cider pears. In the Ticino, most locals are fond of the fiery Grappa brandy, which is distilled from the dregs of the grape-pressing process.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.