I attended a university in Switzerland while living with my aunt who owned a hotel and restaurant in Basel. She and her regular customers loved good, original Swiss foods. She also liked to travel and check out the competition, so to speak, to see how things were done in the places where her Swiss dishes originated from, always with an eye on improvement. This is why I received a privileged education in Swiss food.
Swiss dishes are based on cheese, of course, beef, vegetables, pasta of the Swiss variety, and delicious, rich, creamy sauces. If you are on a diet and want to lose weight, don’t travel to Switzerland because the deserts and other sweets also need to be tasted.
The Swiss like to have a good glass of wine with their meals, just like their neighbors France and Italy. That’s no surprise considering that Switzerland has French and Italian-speaking regions with the respective culture. The most popular wines are Pinot Noir (red), Dole (red), and Chasselas (white). Switzerland has many good vineyards, and the peculiarity is Swiss drink most of their wine themselves rather than export it. Then there are their beers, too, and to finish off a meal, strong fruit liqueurs like Pfluemli “plum schnaps” or Kirsch “cherry schnapps”.
1. Fondue Fromage In Lausanne
Cheese fondue is one of the most traditional and at the same time simplest Swiss meals. All that’s needed are two well-melting kinds of cheese, white wine, a bit of cornstarch to prevent things from separating, a glass or two of Kirsch, and a wide pot called caquelon. Mix slowly, heat until bubbling, serve with a flame underneath, bread cubes, cornichons, and pickled pearl onions, and dip into the mixture with the cubes skewered on long-handled forks. It’s a winter dish that originated in rural areas where the farmers needed to stretch their limited food resources and created a warming dish that could be shared by any amount of people. Only tourists eat fondue in the summer, but why not?
The beautiful city of Lausanne features several restaurants serving fondue, but one of the most typical and best is Le Chalet Suisse. Located in a mountain setting with views of Lake Geneva and the Alps, the interior is decorated with cowbells, red placemats, and a gigantic fireplace, the perfect setting for your fondue evening.
Make sure you don’t lose your bread cube in the pot. It’s considered bad manners and might warrant a “penalty.” Drink hot tea instead of chilled white wine. It helps the digestion of all that cheese. End the meal with a Kirsch or plum schnapps for the same reason. The best part is the crust that forms at the bottom of the pot, called religieuse. It’s scraped off and shared among the diners.
There are two other fondue types: fondue bourguignon where meat cubes are dipped into hot oil instead of cheese and chocolate fondue where pieces of fruit are dipped into a pot with melted chocolate.
2. Raclette in Appenzell
This is another melted cheese dish, although served in individual portions rather than from a pot. The name raclette refers to the cheese used, as well as to the dish. Appenzell’s cheeses with their creamy consistency and spicy flavor are especially suitable for raclette. The wheel of cheese is turned over heat or a fireplace and the melting parts are immediately scraped off and served over hot, new potatoes. The same side dishes are served as with cheese fondue. Naturally, there is no meat of a chocolate variety.
3. Zürcher Kalbsgeschnetzeltes In Zürich
As the name indicates, this veal stew can be best enjoyed in the beautiful Swiss city of Zurich, although it is served everywhere else in the country. It can only be called Zuercher if veal is used, as it can also be made with pork or chicken. The ingredients for this dish are sliced button mushrooms, finely sliced veal, chopped onions, lemon juice, cream, white wine, salt, and pepper. Slowly cooked together, the result is a tasty and filling stew, eaten summer and winter. It’s served with another Swiss specialty — Roesti “hash browns,” rice, or pasta.
One of the best restaurants to eat kalbsgeschnetzeltes in Zurich is Zeughauskeller in Bahnhofstrasse near Paradeplatz. The kitchen is open all day and Bahnhofstrasse is one of the best shopping streets in Zurich.
Pro Tip: If you like meat, you are in the right place as the restaurant also makes fabulous Cordon Bleu, Wiener Schnitzel, and if you aren’t against offal, “fine veal liver.”
4. Bündnerfleisch (Air Dried Beef) In Graubunden
Graubunden, also called Grisons, is Switzerland’s easternmost district and located in the Alps. The best-known towns are Davos, Chur, and fashionable St. Moritz. This mountainous and rural canton is home to the bundnerfleisch, a specialty appreciated throughout the country. It’s beef, cut from the animal’s upper thigh, then treated with wine, salt and spices before it’s cured. The process is twofold. First, in a sealed container and then hung into the open air for weeks. It’s also pressed from time to time to squeeze out all moisture and to give it its characteristic square shape. Then it’s sliced into paper-thin wafers and served with bread, as a side dish to raclette or as a popular starter, sprinkled with ground pepper and accompanied by cornichons or pickled pearl onions.
If you visit Chur and look for a bundnerfleich fest in a rustic atmosphere, come to the Zollhaus.
5. Roesti (Potato Pancakes)
Roesti are a universal Swiss staple, so there is no particular region where they are considered the best. They are plate-sized pancakes, made from roughly grated potatoes and fried from both sides until they are cooked through and through and crispy brown. Some recipes like Berner Roesti call for pre-cooked potatoes but most use raw potatoes. They are fried in plenty of butter and served with a fried egg and bacon on top, or a cheese topping or as a side dish to kalbsgeschnetzeltes to soak up the creamy sauce. Roesti, because of its calories, are a favorite with hikers and often served in mountain huts and restaurants.
6. Mehlsuppe (Flour Soup) in Basel
If you plan to visit Basel during carnival, called Fasnacht in the city, you will be eating mehlsuppe day and night. It’s the most typical Fasnacht food and a soup that warms you if you get up at 4 a.m. to watch the magic of the Morgestraich when the three crazy days start. It’s a hearty soup based on beef stock, browned flour, and onions to which peppercorns and nutmeg are added as well as a good glass of red wine. Top with grated cheese. You can get mehlsuppe year round but it’s basically a winter dish.
This hearty dish hails from the Swiss Alps, hence the first part of the name. It’s a gratin made from potatoes, macaroni, cheese, cream, and onions. As you can see there is hardly any Swiss dish that does not include cheese in one form or another. A curiosity: as Alplermagronen is very filling, it is a favorite with the Swiss military. You’ll also find it in mountain restaurants rather than in big cities like Zurich or Basel. Most importantly, it is accompanied by stewed apples.
In case you wondered, the Swiss are also fond of a healthy breakfast — for once — without cheese. This is the world-famous Bircher muesli, invented around 1900 by the Swiss doctor Maximilian Oskar Bircher-Brenner. It consists of oat flakes, lemon juice, condensed milk (often replaced by skimmed milk), grated apple, hazelnuts, or almonds. I sometimes found a handful of raisins thrown in. Otherwise, or in addition, breakfast is croissants with butter and marmalade and a big cup of café au lait, just like the French.
9. Chocolates And Basler Leckerli
Hopefully, you have a sweet tooth, because Swiss chocolates are a treat. All pralines, truffles, and other products are handmade from the finest ingredients and some of the concoctions are truly artistic. Two of the most famous chocolatiers are Spruengli, which has been making chocolates since 1836 with its flagship store in Zurich’s Bahnhofstrasse, and Auer Chocolatier of Geneva.
Having lived in Basel for two years, I cannot bypass Basler leckerli in this list of delicious foods. Although this sweet is a popular Christmas treat, it is available year round and a little bag of leckerli is a sought-after souvenir because they keep a long time. It’s a hard, spicy biscuit, made from honey, hazelnuts, almonds, candied orange and lemon peel, Kirsch and glazed with sugar, then cut into rectangular pieces. Careful with your teeth though. To get your leckerli in Basel, visit Laeckerly Huus in Basel’s Gerbergasse, where you will find a host of other “sweet dreams,” too.
It’s no coincidence that Switzerland produces such a great variety of fruit liqueurs: from plum, cherry, to apricot, apple, and more. After all these calorie-laden delicious dishes, a shot of liquor is needed to help digestion. Consider it medicinal. After a meal for several people, you will often find that you are offered a “digestive” on the house by the restaurant owner. Accept it with good grace — and down it!
Food and shopping are two of the favorite pastimes for travelers, and visitors to Switzerland can have their choice of culinary delights: