Your guide to self-catering in Switzerland
When on holiday, savoring the local food is always a highlight for our family but we often get tired of eating in restaurants every day. Because of that, I will often find myself combing the aisles of unfamiliar grocery stores in order to source meals for those in-between times. My mission is to find something delicious that will give me an authentic feel for the country and not waste a meal on so-so food, but sometimes it can be tricky to identify what is truly going to taste good . And for us, there’s nothing worse than ending up with the same thing you would have eaten at home simply because you don’t have good information on what to buy at the local market!
If you’re planning on visiting Switzerland, fear not! This savvy American cook is happy to give you some tips on delicious regional meals you can put together while visiting, even if you don’t have a kitchen. This is especially important in Switzerland because Swiss restaurants can put a massive dent in your travel budget. But the good news is that the quality and variety of foods available at grocery stores and outdoor markets is excellent, so you can easily supplement those restaurant visits with tasty local offerings.
There are normally three food situations that present themselves while traveling:
On the road: Picnicking/hiking
Eating in: without a kitchen
Eating in: with a kitchen
In all three situations, you can create both an authentic and enjoyable meal for your family while on holiday in Switzerland.
The Swiss love Apéro time. Apéro time typically occurs before the evening meal and is often accompanied by a glass of wine or a cocktail, but many people will also eat ‘Apéro’ type foods as their full meal. A common Apéro plate would consist of nuts, sliced veggies, a dip, bread, and various preserved goodies such as olives or pickles. One of my favorite items to pick up at the store is a jar of small red peppers stuffed with goat cheese. They are mildly spicy, but simply delicious. Containers of olives, artichoke hearts, hummus, and pickled baby corn can round out the options nicely. All of these items can easily be found at the grocery store and eaten at a park or on a lovely Swiss boat ride, for example.
While hiking, my family loves to fill up on protein to keep us going. If it’s protein you’re craving, you can find hard cooked eggs on Swiss store shelves, located with the rest of the eggs. Their vibrant dyed shells will immediately give them away. There is also a variety of delicious salami sticks which do not require refrigeration that can be perfect for your hike. The brands Citterio and Bell tend to have multiple choices of salami sticks that are located in the cured meat section. A box of delicious puff pastry crackers or crusty bread can make this the perfect meal. You’ll find long twisted sticks of crispy puff pastry in multiple flavors to choose from located in the crackers and chips section, and nearly every grocery store will have an in-house bakery.
Don’t forget the dessert! Every grocery store also has at least one full aisle of chocolate. I particularly love the crispy caramelized nuts enrobed in smooth dark chocolate. Suggestion: try a couple different types each day so that by the time you are ready to leave, you know which chocolate to take home as gifts and souvenirs. (It’s a good excuse to eat chocolate, anyway!)
Lodging without a Kitchen
In the German speaking part of Switzerland, the largest meal of the day is usually lunch. It is often a heavier meal served warm which normally contains a meat and a starch. Because of this heavy lunch, it is common to have a cold dinner which may consist of only yogurt and bread. If you want to have the true Central Swiss experience, feel free to try this out!
If you’d rather not do that (like me), go for a meat and cheese plate for dinner. the Swiss are extremely proud of their artisan products, and with good reason. They are truly spectacular. Did you know that there are over 450 unique cheeses produced in Switzerland? Some stores even have a separate humidity controlled “cave” in which they store and show off the endless varieties of Swiss cheese! Asking for “Swiss cheese” at the counter, however, may result in some pretty funny looks—so if it’s the Swiss cheese you get at home that you crave, ask for Emmenthaler. Some of my favorite cheeses are:
Vacherin: smooth and creamy with a strong flavor and aroma
Tête de Moine: a hard cheese that is scraped off of the wheel in beautiful little flowers
Apenzeller: Many options with this brand of hard cheese, but all delicious
Tilsiter: A very mild, semi-hard cheese that kids tend to love
Now for the meat! The pride around Swiss cured meats is impressive. I have found that meats from both large scale producers as well as boutique operations are equally impressive, and so you should be able to find all of the meats listed below in a Swiss grocery store. However, you’ll also have the opportunity to purchase these meats at an outdoor market or if you happen upon a Hofladen (farm store). These stores typically run on the honor system, so be sure to have cash with you if you visit.
Bündnerfleisch: delicious thinly sliced Grisons beef that has been air dried
Appenzeller Mostbröckli: cold-smoked and then air-dried beef which is thinly sliced
Salsiz: beef and pork sausage which is air dried and pressed into a square shape
Landjäger: two long skinny sausages which are often made out of ibex and marmot
To round out your meat and cheese plate find yourself some delicious local bread, pickles, and mustard. Mmm…
Lodging with a Kitchen
If you are lucky enough to have booked lodging with a kitchen, your tasting opportunities increase exponentially. Although the Swiss are not fans of convenience foods which is evidenced by a meager offering on the grocery shelves, there are a few staples that can cut down on the time necessary to whip up a great local meal. I’m also not one to promote pre-made dishes, but the following two options are an absolute exception. (OK, I admit I like a good boxed cake too!)
For example, rösti in a bag is a very common shortcut. Rösti can be most likened to hash browns. It is a typical mountain food and is often topped with a fried egg and/or bacon. In the US we would normally eat hash browns for breakfast, but Rösti is a lunch and dinner food staple in Switzerland and is definitely a people pleaser! I’d recommend serving the Rösti with a nice Nüsslisalat. This salad leaf is found year-round in Switzerland, but the leaves are much more delicate in the summer months. In English, this lettuce is called either corn salad or lamb’s lettuce. Find a small bottle of Französisch salad dressing, similar to ranch, to top the greens.
One of the more popular dishes that people want to enjoy in Switzerland is Fondue. All that is necessary is to open the bag, heat up the cheese and get dipping! When choosing the fondue at the market, you’ll likely run into many different varieties. Be sure to choose one that says “fix fertig”, meaning—you won’t need to add any other ingredients to it, just dump it all into the fondue pot. There are also varieties with and without wine, so be sure to check the label.
If you are renting an Airbnb, it is very common for a fondue pot to be included in the kitchen supplies. If you think you want to give fondue a go, before arriving send your host an email to see if they can make sure a fondue pot as well as sterno paste fuel is available. In a pinch, the local supermarket can also supply the sterno for you.
We like to cut up chunks of bread to dip (I throw them into the oven for a little crisp up before serving), but potatoes, apples or pears, dill pickles, and pickled onions are also delicious options to dunk in the oozing cheese. If you want to really have a Swiss experience, go to the spice isle and find the Raclette/Fondue seasoning mixture. Let your family sprinkle at will or put a bit in the whole pot of cheese. The biggest trick to eating Fondue is that when you dip, you must stir the cheese a bit each time. My favorite part of the fondue event is the crusty delicious cheese left on the bottom of the pan!
Whatever your situation while visiting or traveling around Switzerland, you will find many opportunities to sample local favorites without breaking the bank. Taking a stroll through the local grocery store or market will not only fill your belly with delicious local treats, but it will also give you some insight into the Swiss food culture. Enjoy!