This post comes to us from Swiss Untour alumnus Jerry Nolan.
Because my wife Sandy and I went to Switzerland summer after summer for many years before age and circumstance grounded us, I often find myself pining over memories of Swiss food.
We always traveled with Untours, that estimable travel company founded on the idea that immersion in a country provides the best travel experience. What you get after settling on a location is a rental apartment, ground transportation suitable for that area, and local staff who meet you, escort you to your home-away-from-home, and host an orientation to explain the things you need to know. They remain available to you during your stay. Then you are free to explore, meet folks, and feed yourself.
Food is everywhere in Switzerland, even on top of mountains, restaurants improbably perched in Europe’s highest altitudes.
The food in Switzerland is uniformly excellent. After 20 years of wandering around the country, I can remember only one cafeteria we ever found wanting. I can remember only one hike on which no refreshments were available, and for that one we had been forewarned and packed a picnic.
Swiss Festival Food
I’ll begin with the commonest comestibles to be found at all Swiss fêtes (festivals), which go on somewhere every weekend and can often be found near your home base. These festivals sometimes have a theme such as sporting matches, yodel contests, alphorn playing, sometimes they are just for fun, with singing and dancing.
Bratwurst sausages in Switzerland come made from pork or veal, and they will be grilled for you as you watch. They’re about 10 inches long and, as far as I know, this version of the sausage is not commonly found in the US. Both veal and pork versions are delicious and often served with a brown onion sauce.
Also commonly found at fêtes is raclette, the perfect marriage of cheese and bread. In this, a slice of bread or toast is held under a machine that cradles a large brick of excellent local cheese heated over a propane flame, shaved on to the bread, and sprinkled with paprika. The festival version of raclette is mouth watering!
Dining Out in Switzerland
In restaurants, a common menu item is rösti, a sort of home-fried potato but with garnish. It can be topped with bacon, cheese, or tomato, depending on where in Switzerland you find yourself.
The Swiss answer to mac and cheese is Älplermagronen. This is also found everywhere. Macaroni (elbow or penne type) is cooked in a rich cream sauce with various ingredients tossed in. Our absolute favorite came in a crock and had diced potato and crispy fried onions added. My wife and I needed to share a serving if we were planning to eat anything else.
Cheese toast, käseschnitte, is more like a grilled cheese sandwich but open faced and usually with something on top such as ham, fried egg, tomato, or all three. It is simply delicious.
Rotisserie chicken is also worth a mention. The Swiss version tends to be a little bit smaller and beautifully herbed. They are available at most supermarkets, including the popular Migros and Coop chain stores. You may also find them being sold by street side vendors; if you walk past, the aroma is nearly impossible to resist.
Finally, I recommend looking for the tagesteller, the plate of the day, shown on the chalkboard in front of most restaurants, particularly at lunchtime. These offer a good price and culinary variety. Often a soup or salad is included. Dessert is rarely included, though you’ll be able to order elaborate and expensive ice cream or other concoctions if you still have room.
Beyond the “standards” one might find tagesteller options to include a schnitzel, a meat stew, or (if you are lucky) a schweinesteak, a grilled pork steak usually served with a pat of herbed butter. The pork, particularly in the Bernese area where we hang out, is milk-fed from cheesemaking byproducts, so it is tender and delicious.
One tagesteller we will never forget was creamed mushrooms served in a flaky pastry cup. It is called pastetli. Once the Swiss word entered my vocabulary, I sometimes noticed them for sale in bakeries sometimes, and took some home where I thought up something yummy to put in them.
I should mention that all of the above can be washed down with good Swiss beer. Ask for a three deci glass (.3 liters), just right for lunch. You still have to get home!
Another tip: Never ask for a menu. The word is understood as a shortcut for the tagesteller. If the server is not fluent in English, you may end up with the meal of the day that you didn’t want.
Jerry Nolan and his wife Sandy are Swiss Untour “alumni” who have traveled with us many times. They are also regular donors to The Untours Foundation. He also shared his account of a very special journey to Alsace.