OK, let’s get this out of the way: Switzerland is freaking expensive. The reason why you can’t find an article called, like, “Eating in Switzerland on $20 a Day” is because, in order to do that, you’d have to die shortly after breakfast – if not actually during breakfast.
That was a huge problem for me, because the food in Switzerland is delicious. Despite prices that make Scandinavia, Yankee Stadium and an AMC theater concession stand look reasonable, some of the dishes I loved the most were simple, with origins in the Swiss Alps, or among farmers and shepherds who lived several centuries ago.
But what is Swiss food, other than cheese and…more cheese? That’s a good question, one that the Swiss National Museum is attempting to answer in a current exhibition called What Does Switzerland Eat? “There is no such thing as a national Swiss cuisine,” one caption in the exhibit read. “However food habits reflect the country’s cultural diversity and political reality, as well as regional characteristics.” (Those food habits also involve at least one shady-sounding cheese cartel.)
Start saving your extra coins, because these are the foods that you need to try when you’re in Switzerland.
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“All you really need for a good rösti is some firm potatoes, parboiled to give a soft, melting interior, and fried in plenty of hot butter and goose fat until crisp, and a few mountains to climb to work up an appetite,” The Guardian wrote about this side dish. If, like me, you decide to skip that mountain climbing part, every forkful of this multi-textured potato round is still ridiculously satisfying.
If you think of cheese when you think of Switzerland (along with complicated knives, bank accounts with questionable origins, and a long history of refusing to take a side in world conflict), then you’re right on. Raclette is a kind of creamy cow’s milk cheese, and also the name of a dish made from that cheese. According to Gourmet Sleuth, it originated in the canton of Valais, where farmers made a hearty meal by melting cheese and serving it with potatoes and pickles. (Some historians think that choosing to melt it was just an accident, after a long-forgotten field worker left a wheel of cheese too close to the campfire). Regardless, other than swapping the campfire for a special grill or pan, it’s still pretty much the same: the still-melting cheese is scraped onto a plate and served hot with boiled potatoes and pickled garnishes.
“Alpine herders are said to have invented fondue,” the Swiss National Museum explained. “The first recipe dates back to 1699, but there is no mention of the word ‘fondue’ or bread cubes on a fork. Fondue became a national dish in 1930 after a successful promotional campaign launched by the [Swiss] Cheese Union.” Weeell, NPR is slightly less charitable about that group, calling them a “shadowy association of Swiss cheese makers.” When that cheese cartel realized that it had a huge surplus of cheese – and that demand for cheese was slipping – it decided to promote fondue’s aspirational Alpine backstory, and to push it hard onto international consumers. So that fondue pot your parents haven’t used since several years before you were born was probably a result of the Cheese Union and its shady marketing campaign. I’m not sure if Switzerland still has a cheese surplus, but I was glad to do my part to help them work through it.
That translates to “Alpine farmers’ macaroni,” so there’s no need for an origin story, is there? I HAVE ONE ANYWAY. According to Fran, the Zurich-based writer behind Little Zurich Kitchen, dried pasta was a luxury item for farmers in the Alps in the early 20th century. Although it was expensive to buy, they still tried to keep it on-hand, purely because it had such a long shelf-life. In order to make that box last as long as possible, they mixed the pasta with potatoes, cheese, fried onions, and garlic. I had my first bowl of this mit Apfelmus – with applesauce – on a pleasantly brisk day while overlooking Lake Lucerne. That’s gonna be hard to recreate in my own apartment.
“Apart from chocolate and fondue, muesli is one of the few Swiss foods found across the globe,” the Swiss National Museum brags. “It was invented by Swiss physician Maximilian Bircher-Benner in 1900 […] According to Bircher-Benner, unprocessed food is the key to good health. He was also one of the earliest proponents of vegetarianism.” Bircher-Benner thought that apples had cured his jaundice, so he was pretty big on them, making them a key ingredient in his “little mush.” His namesake breakfast involves rolled oats that are soaked overnight and topped with canned condensed milk and apples. (He was afraid of tuberculosis but, now that it’s not a major concern, the canned milk is usually swapped out in favor of some kind of yogurt). So yeah, dude basically invented overnight oats before your favorite oat-mad health blogger’s grandparents were born.
Come on, like I need to explain this one.