A short, slightly curved processed meat product, known as the cervelat (German and Italian) or cervelas (French), unofficially holds the title of Switzerland’s national sausage. One of the most popular days of the year to enjoy this sausage is on the first of August for Swiss National Day. So, do you want to know more? Check out my 10 facts about Switzerland’s beloved cervelat.
1. Ingredients – What’s inside a cervelat?
This stubby sausage typically contains beef, possibly pork, bacon and pork rind. Inside, these ingredients mixed together have a very fine texture. Butchers will add ice to the mincer to prevent the meat from heating and cooking while they grind it. According to Patrimoine Culinaire Suisse, Butchers can also add fresh onions and spices, such as pepper, coriander, nutmeg, garlic and cloves to the sausage meat.
2. One of Switzerland’s best-selling sausages
Between 2015 and 2020, cervelat was one of the best-selling sausages in Switzerland in terms of weight, just after the Bratwurst, according to the Schweizer Wurst-Report (August 2020) published by the Federal Office for Agriculture.
3. Birth of the modern cervelat
Although the name “cervelat” appears in documented evidence from centuries ago, and in different regions of Switzerland, the descriptions do not exactly match. The modern cervelat, in its current form, has likely been around since the 19th century, when the machinery necessary to achieve such a fine texture for the meat was first developed. Also known as the Proletenfilet (“worker’s steak), this sausage offered factory workers, for example, a less expensive and convenient meat option for their lunch break.
4. How to prepare it?
Historically more popular in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, cervelat can be prepared in several ways. More specifically, because the sausage has already been cooked, you can eat it cold and straight out of the package. A dish made of cold, chopped cervelat and chunks of a semi-hard cheese, such as Gruyère or Emmentaler, has “salad” in its name (i.e., Wurst–Käse–Salat).
In terms of cooked options, you could make an Arbeiter-Cordon-Bleu (worker’s cordon-bleu). This involves cutting the sausage in half and placing some cheese in the middle. Then, you wrap it in bacon and heat the meat sandwich until the bacon becomes crispy and the cheese has melted. Furthermore, the 1984 recipe book for Neuchâtel pupils contains instructions for “Sautéed Cervelas“. For this recipe, you slice the peeled sausages and coat them with flour before cooking them in a pan until golden.
5. Cooking it over a fire
Cut crosswise at its ends, skewered on a stick and cooked over a wood fire, whether you like it or not, cervelat is a common symbol of the Swiss summer.
6. The origin of its name
One theory suggests that the name of this sausage comes from the Latin word for brain: cerebellum (in French, cervelle or in Italian, cervello). However, no historical recipes discovered thus far have brain in the ingredient list. Another theory suggests the origin of the name may have a connection to a reed instrument from the Renaissance period. Known as the Rankett in German, it’s called a cervelas in French and cervallato in Italian. As a result, some think its shape may have inspired the sausage.
7. The cervelat crisis
Today, the intestines of Brazilian Zebu cows often serve as the casing for this Swiss sausage. Yet, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (“mad cow disease”) almost destroyed the cervelat, when the EU and Switzerland banned imports from Brazil, starting in 2006. Consequently, people were concerned about of running out of sausage for the Euro 2008 soccer tournament that was co-hosted by Switzerland and Austria! Switzerland thankfully found a solution at the time with intestines from other South American countries, including Uruguay, Argentina and Paraguay. Then, the ban was lifted in 2012.
8. Vegetarian and vegan cervelat
Today, you have a number of vegetarian and vegan cervelat alternatives to choose from in Switzerland. Ingredients such as egg white, tofu, wheat protein and a variety of seasonings may be used to replace the meat found in this sausage. Entirely plant-based versions can contain pea or bean proteins.
9. An iconic Swiss food product
More than just a sausage, cervelat is also part of the culture of this country. In German-speaking Switzerland, the expression Cervelat-Promi refers to a famous person in Switzerland, but not known elsewhere. Ulrich Stücki told the New York Times in 2008, “For every decent Swiss, cervelas gives you a feeling of childhood.”
10. An entire book about cervelat
Do you want to know even more about cervelat? Without delay, you should check out this book published in 2015: Cervelat: Die Schweizer Nationalwurst, by wine expert and former restaurateur, Beat Caduff (in German).
- Patrimoine Culinaire Suisse
- “Die Geschichte unserer Nationalwurst,” Blick, June 18, 2020.
- “The nation’s sausage,” Swiss National Museum, April 16, 2021.
- “Sausage task force” cannot help cervelat,” Swissinfo.ch, January 15, 2008.
- “Swiss Sausage Fans Fret Over How to Save Their Skin,” New York Times, February 3, 2008.