When I meet people who aren’t from Switzerland, they often ask me to describe “Swiss food.” Even though I write about food in Switzerland all the time, I sometimes struggle to answer this question.
Occasionally, I turn the question on them and ask about their perceptions of Swiss food. This inevitably leads to cheese and chocolate. Others may talk about Birchermüesli, the original “overnight oats” developed over a century ago by a doctor in Switzerland. Perhaps they may even mention Ovomaltine, a powdered drink created by Albert Wander, a Swiss chemist and pharmacist. But, what about other Swiss dishes?
Swiss food has certainly evolved over time, with some traditional dishes that have spanned generations. Plus, with its four linguistic regions — German, French, Italian and Romansh — you will find foods deeply rooted in specific geographic areas. How would you ever begin to define Switzerland’s national cuisine?
“There is no such thing as a national cuisine.”– A description of Switzerland’s culinary heritage on display as part of the temporary exhibition, “What does Switzerland eat?” at the Landesmuseum Zürich (2018).
I would never dare to give a concise, neatly-packaged answer to the question, “What is Swiss food?” because it doesn’t exist. Instead, I have come up with 10 thematic categories to help describe Switzerland’s current food scene, for when someone asks me this question. Listed alphabetically and by no means comprehensive, I hope these categories give you a flavor of what Switzerland has to offer from a culinary perspective.
Mountains obviously have a strong connection with the identity of Switzerland. They occupy about two-thirds of its total land area, with the Alps in the southeast and the Jura mountains in the northwest. This small country has 48 mountain peaks over 4,000 meters (over 13,000 feet) above sea level.
Within these mountainous regions, people long ago living in remote villages took what they could from the land for food. Chestnuts, once referred to as the “bread of the poor,” have been grown in Bregaglia region of Graubünden for centuries. In Valais, the tradition of making rye bread dates back to the 13th century. The hearty rye plant grows well at higher altitudes. Its flour makes a high fiber and long-lasting bread. These are just two of many examples of Swiss ingredients and dishes that have originated in and continue to be enjoyed in the alpine regions of this country.
The Swiss have been brewing beer for centuries, going back to the Roman times, according to Patrimoine Culinaire Suisse. At the end of the Middle Ages, Switzerland had several dozen monastic breweries. Today, Brauerei Schützengarten in St. Gallen, founded in 1779, is the country’s oldest brewery.
In the early 1990s, only several dozen breweries in Switzerland were in operation, due to the Swiss beer cartel, which controlled the production and distribution of beer. When the cartel ended around that time, more new breweries started to open. Since then, the country has experienced an explosion in the number of new breweries. According to data published by the Swiss Federal Customs Administration, Switzerland had 220 registered breweries in 2007. As of October 2018, this number had jumped to 995 breweries, as reported by the Association Suisse des Brasseries.
Throughout Switzerland, you will find beers in a variety of styles and flavors, with producers ranging from small craft brewers to larger independent brewers to breweries owned by multinational corporations. While there has been tremendous growth in the number of breweries, about 99 percent of Swiss beer comes from only about 51 breweries.
Switzerland has over 200 different kinds of bread. Actually, the closest thing to a national dish in Switzerland in my opinion, other than fondue, is a braided loaf of Zopf (German) / Tresse (French) / Treccia (Italian). The Swiss typically eat this bread on the weekends for breakfast or brunch with butter and jam.
Switzerland also has special breads connected to its 26 cantons, which are similar to states. In all, these 21 cantonal breads — a few cantons share a bread — can sometimes only be found within the regions they represent.
Bread features into many Swiss dishes. You will find it cubed for skewering and dipping into a cheese fondue. In Ticino, stale bread serves as the primary ingredient for the Torta di Pane. This “bread cake” uses leftover bread that is softened in milk and mixed with cocoa, nuts and dried and candied fruit. The Käseschnitte / Croûte au fromage resembles an open-faced grilled cheese sandwich. This dish also helps to use up old bread, which sometimes gets drizzled with a little white wine before you add the cheesy toppings.
During various holidays, the Swiss make special yeasted specialties, like bunny-shaped breads for Easter (Zopfhasen) and bread men (Grittibänz / Bonhomme en pâte) for St. Nicholas Day in December. And on August 1, Swiss National Day, bread rolls have a design cut into them that resembles the cross on the national flag.
When you hear “Swiss cheese” in the United States, you are referring to what people in Switzerland know as Emmentaler. Of course, there are many, many different types of Swiss cheese. In fact, the association that represents this industry in Switzerland claims there are over 750 varieties. Slightly less than half of all the milk produced here is made into cheese.
Much like Swiss bread, cheese in Switzerland can appear at any meal throughout the day. Breakfast could certainly include a few pieces of cheese, more likely on a weekend, and definitely during a Sunday brunch at a restaurant. At other mealtimes, you might have a slice of Käsewähe (a savory cheese tart), a hearty portion of Älplermagronen (one of Switzerland’s versions of macaroni & cheese) or Raclette (cheese scraped onto your plate and served with boiled potatoes).
The Swiss have been making chocolate since the early 19th century. The technique of adding milk to chocolate was developed here by Daniel Peter in 1875. Swiss chocolate brands like Toberlone and Lindt have gained international recognition. And, the tradition of chocolate-making continues, but with a new generation of Swiss chocolatiers making bean-to-bar chocolate, ruby chocolate and more.
In 2017, the Swiss consumed approximately 10.5 kilograms of chocolate per capita. Like Swiss bread, Swiss chocolate comes in all shapes and sizes — chocolate marmites in Geneva for the Fête de l’Escalade, chocolate fish for Poisson d’Avril (another name for April Fool’s Day) in Western Switzerland and massive chocolate bunnies for Easter. You will be amazed the by the variety of bars in the chocolate aisle at Swiss supermarkets.
Currently, Switzerland has the highest number of Michelin-starred restaurants per capita than any other country in the world. For 2019, 128 restaurants received at least one Michelin star (three is the most a restaurant can earn). Restaurants like Schloss Schauenstein, led by chef Andreas Caminada, holds three Michelin stars and has been recognized as one of the Top 50 restaurants in the world. Restaurant de l’Hôtel de Ville de Crissier appears in La Liste’s top 10 for the world’s best restaurants. Celebrity French chef Anne Sophie-Pic has a two-star Michelin restaurant at the Beau-Rivage Palace in Lausanne.
Gault Millau, a French guide for restaurants, awards up to 20 points for an individual establishment. In Switzerland, the guide has tested and evaluated over 800 restaurants. For 2019, seven chefs in Switzerland have earned 19 points.
Wherever your location in Switzerland, you are likely in close proximity to a fine dining experience with at least one Michelin star, some Gault Millau points or both.
According to the exhibition “What Does Switzerland Eat?” held at the Swiss National Museum in 2017, the potato did not become a staple food in Europe until the 19th century, after arriving from South America. Unlike Switzerland’s traditional bread and cheeses, potatoes are relatively new to the country when making a historical comparison. Today, it seems potatoes factor pretty heavily into the modern Swiss diet.
Of course, one of the most iconic Swiss dishes made with potatoes is Rösti. For this dish, the potatoes (often boiled first) are grated like American-style hash browns. Instead of frying them loosely, the grated potatoes are cooked into a kind of pancake. The name of this dish is used to describe an invisible line dividing the German-speaking and French-speaking parts of the Switzerland. The Swiss refer to this line as the “Röstigraben” or “Rösti Ditch.” Rösti can be served in different ways — with a bratwurst, a fried egg and cheese or Züri-Gschnätzlets, a veal and mushroom stew from Zürich.
In addition to Rösti, several other very traditional Swiss dishes feature potatoes, such as Raclette. You can also swap out cubed bread for potatoes when making a cheese fondue, especially if you need a gluten-free alternative. Boiled potatoes (Gschwellti) served with a cheese plate and some quark / seré — a soft, smooth cheese with a light acidity — is another easy dinner alternative.
Swiss Sausages & Dried Meat
Switzerland has dozens of different types of sausages, most notably the Cervelat (Cervelas on the French-speaking side) — considered by many as Switzerland’s national sausage. Other examples of sausages include the Longeole from Geneva, Luganighe from Ticino, Saucisse d’Ajoie from the Jura and Salsiz from Graubünden. Every region seems to have its own sausage, whether a dried salami or a pork saucisson, like the Boutefas.
Along with sausage, Switzerland also has several regional air-dried meats. The tradition started long ago as a way to preserve meat for the winter season. In Valais, an assiette valaisanne (Valais plate) can include thin slices of Jambon Cru (raw ham), Lard sec (dried bacon) and Viande séchée (dried beef). In Graubünden, you will find Bündnerfleisch, another air-dried beef, and in Appenzell, they make Mostbröckli, which has a smoky flavor.
Switzerland is home to the world’s oldest vegetarian restaurant, according to the Guinness World Records. Located in Zürich, Hiltl first opened its doors in 1898. This fourth generation business has now grown to include multiple locations, Switzerland’s first vegetarian butcher and an academy that offers a range of cooking classes and other events. Hiltl has also supported the development of another vegetarian fast food dining chain known as Tibits.
Another early proponent of vegetarianism in Switzerland was the inventor of Birchermüesli, Maximilian Oskar Bircher-Benner. This dish continues to be popular in Switzerland. Furthermore, variations on his original recipe of raw oats, apples, nuts and condensed milk has certainly spread beyond Switzerland’s borders over the years. He advocated for a raw food diet for health reasons, and eventually gave up eating meat altogether.
While you could argue that the availability of vegetarian food may differ among the various linguistic regions of Switzerland, a culture of vegetarianism has certainly existed in this country for a long time.
Wine & Spirits
You may not be familiar with Swiss wine because only a very small proportion, something like 1-2 percent, gets exported. However, winemaking in Switzerland has existed for centuries. For example, the Lavaux region in the canton of Vaud is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its terraced slopes for growing grapevines were built in the 11th century. According to the national tourism office, over 200 different types of grapes are grown in Switzerland. This includes dozens of varieties that are considered native species, such as Arvine and Cornalin.
A typically Swiss wine is Chasselas, which goes by the name Fendant in the canton of Valais. This light white wine is often paired with a cheese fondue or Raclette. Some other wines you will find in Switzerland include Oeil-de-Perdrix (a rosé), Pinot Noir and Merlot, among many others.
In terms of spirits, absinthe probably ranks as one of the most well-known outside of Switzerland. The Val-de-Travers, located in the canton of Neuchâtel, is considered the birthplace of the “green fairy.” Switzerland lifted the ban on this once forbidden drink in 2005. A sip of Kirsch, a clear cherry brandy and another classic Swiss spirit, might be offered to you about half-way through a cheese fondue. You can also add a splash of Kirsch to a cheese fondue or when making baked goods, like Christmas cookies or carrot cake. Many other regional liqueurs also exist in Switzerland for you to discover, such as Röteli in Graubunden (a red cherry liqueur), alpenbitter in Appenzell (an herbal liqueur) or Brächere Brönnts (a caramel schnapps) from the Emmental.
When you hear “Swiss food,” what types of dishes or ingredients do you think about?