Regional Differences in Swiss Cuisine

Oct 26, 2014 by

[This post was originally published in March 2013]


My previous post discussed the differences in voting patterns between French-, German-, and Italian-speaking areas of Switzerland. Similarly, distinctions in regional cuisines are quite pronounced, leading Marianne Kaltenbach, the author of Cooking in Switzerland, to remark that “Switzerland’s cuisine is as varied as its landscape”. Indeed, the ingredients used differ considerably depending on whether you are in a mountainous area, on the shores of a lake, or in a fertile valley. In the Alps, where the cows graze during the summer, cooks rely heavily on dairy products such as milk, butter, cream, and cheese; indeed, Switzerland has the world’s fourth largest dairy consumption per capita, over 315 kg (695 lbs) per person annually. The country’s lakes and rivers have varied fishes such as char, pike, and whitefish, while the valleys and plains offer an abundance of fruits and vegetables.


The first two of the three Cs that Switzerland is most famous for—cheese, chocolate, and clocks—can be found in Switzerland’s greatest contribution to the world’s gastronomic repertoire, fondue (meat fondue, known as fondue bourguignonne, is also popular). Yet, even when it comes to cheese fondue recipes, each canton has its own twist on the classic. Freiburg, which situated on the border between the French and German speaking parts of Switzerland, claims the oldest fondue recipe, the only one that does not include wine. A more classical fondue recipe comes from Neuchâtel; it uses Gruyère, Emmentaler, or the spicy cheese from Jura just to the north, and local white wine. More generally, melted or cooked cheeses appear to be commonly eaten in mountainous areas in Eurasia, for example in Georgia. Swiss Alpine regions are home to such gooey melted cheese specialties as raclette and the Malakoffs. Raclette hails from Valais in the south. According to the local lore, it was invented by accident by a group of wine-growers who built a fire to warm themselves; a piece of cheese felt into the fire and melted, the hungry winemakers spread it on their bread, and they loved the results. Today, special raclette ovens or mini skillets placed over table grills can be used for melting the cheese, which is then spread on hot, unpeeled boiled potatoes and eaten with cornichons, marinated onions, and assorted pickles—and of course white wine. Malakoffs, or cheese fingers deep-fried in batter, supposedly owe their name to the Vaudois mercenaries who brought the recipe back from Russia (Genevois sometimes claim to have originated the recipe). Other cheese recipes from different parts of Switzerland include cheese pastries called chäshappech from Appenzell in the northeast; Basle cheese toast, which uses onions, and Bernese cheese toast, which uses milk and kirch; cheese soup found in many variations in the mountainous regions such as Graubünden and the Valais; and Geneva cheese soufflé.

The local cuisine in French-speaking cantons, especially in Geneva and Vaud, is unsurprisingly heavily influenced by the French. One favorite meat dish in western Switzerland, typically eaten for Easter, is gigot d’agneau, a leg of lamb braised in the oven. Other meat offerings from Vaud include fricassee à la Vaudoise, made from pork, and jambon à l’os, ham on the bone. This canton is also home to the papet vaudois, a filling dish of leeks and potatoes. Unique Vaudois recipes also include the gateau aux nillons, a cake with a dark, rich topping of pressed walnuts, and a tarte au vin vaudois, Vaudois wine tarte with a filling of white or red wine mixed with some cream and baked over dough crust. In Geneva, many restaurants feature dishes from the nearby Lyon, arguably the gastronomic capital of France. But some of Geneva’s culinary offerings have a more local flavor. Lake Geneva offers char and perch, cooked gently and served with a sauce of white wine, butter, and eggs or cream. Some Geneva specialties have an interesting story as well. One such dish is the “Mother Royaume” soup, served in a special large pot known as the marmite during the Escalade, an annual celebration in memory of an unsuccessful attack on the city in December of 1602 by the Savoyards. According to the legend, such hot soup was poured over the heads of the enemy by a courageous woman, Mère Royaume, thereby saving the city.

The cookery of Ticino canton in the southeast is heavily influenced by the Italian cuisine from the Piedmont and Lombardy regions. For example, polenta is still quite popular. Traditionally, polenta was cooked over the fireplace or over charcoal in a copper kettle and stirred for 40 minutes in one direction; today, many cooks prefer a faster cooking version. Other typical dishes, also inspired by the Italians, include the hearty minestrone (vegetable soup) in its many variations such as busecca (Ticino tripe soup), the manzo brasato (a beef roast with a rich red wine sauce), the osso bucco (calves’ knuckles), and of course risotto. Both risotto and polenta are often served with wild mushrooms. Risotto always makes an appearance during the Ticino carnival, when it is served in the street to both locals and tourists alike—this is known as risotto in piazza. Italian flavors and techniques are also apparent in some of the traditional dishes of Uri, a German-speaking canton north of Ticino that was one of the founding members of the Swiss Confederation. These influences came from the Italian workers who were participating in the construction of the St. Gotthard tunnel. One example is the rispor, a type of risotto with leek (called porro in Italian), garnished with browned onions. Pasta—in the form of straight hollow noodles or small dough bits known as chnöpfli—is also commonly eaten in Ticino and Uri, though the poor traditionally mixed pasta with the cheaper potatoes. Another popular Ticino dish called vermicelles has nothing to do with long, thin Italian noodles though that is where its name derives from; instead it is a chestnut puree dessert.

Gastronomical influences of the neighbors are found also in the two eastern cantons bordering Austria: St. Gallen and Graubünden. St. Gallen has always had very close ties with its monastery, and many of today’s specialties were created by the monks, such as the St. Gallen monastery cake, which is nonetheless reminiscent of the Austrian Linzer Torte. In Graubünden (where Romansch is spoken, alongside German and some Italian), traditional dumpling variations combined with vegetables and dried fruit, as well as lamb and venison dishes and meat pies, are reminiscent of Habsburg cuisine. The canton’s bakers, especially those from the Engadine region, achieved great recognition for their “Engadine Nut Cake”, which would make any Viennese konditorei (specialist cake-maker) proud.

Citizens of Basle, a rich and scholarly city since the Middle Ages, maintain the cuisine of the neighboring Alsace. Their typical regional dishes include the lummelbraten, a roast prepared from fillet of beef. Another traditional offering is a spice wine known as hypokras, which dates from the Middle Ages and is traditionally served with Basle leckerli, spiced honey-nut cookies invented at the beginning of the 15th century for the dignitaries of the Basle council, because ordinary lebkuchen (honey cake) just was not good enough for them. But local dishes include simpler fair as well, such as the ziiblewäje (onion pie) and flour soup, a traditional offering served in the early morning hours after the “Morgenstraich”, the official opening of the Basle carnival, as well as after the marked parade through the city streets.

The northern cantons of Aargau, Schaffhausen, and Thurgau feature fish dishes based on delicate fresh-water fish from the Rhine and the Lake Constance. Citizens of Rheinfelden, a small town in Aargau, celebrate the Rhine’s bounty in annual cookout organized by the Fishermen’s Guild in August. In Schaffhausen, local favorites include grayling, a fish with tender flesh and a slight flavor of thyme, typically fried in plenty of butter, as well as pike, sliced and deep-fried. Fish is also commonly eaten in Zug, a small canton south of Zurich. Many gourmet visit Zug in November to taste the tender röteli, a fish from the char family with reddish meat and an extremely short season. It is usually braised with herbs and white wine or boiled and served with melted butter. Thurgau specialties include whitefish, either roasted with white wine, assorted herbs, and copious amounts of butter, or cooked and marinated in a white wine and vinegar sauce flavored by onions, carrots, and leeks.

The cuisine of other German-speaking cantons exhibits German culinary sensibilities. For example, Solothurn’s speciality is suure mocke, a version of German sauerbraten, meat roast marinated in local wine. A Lucerne specialty called Schnitz und Härdöpfel is as German as it gets: it is a peculiar combination of bacon, potatoes and dried apples or pears in a sweet and sour sauce. The so-called “Bernese platter” includes everything produced from a typical slaughter day, known locally as Metzgete: ham, bacon, blood- and liver sausages, boiled beef, pork parts such as shank, snout, tongue, ears and tails, served on a bed of sauerkraut or beans. According to the local story, the Bernese Platter was created in the vicinity of the city when victorious soldiers returned from a long battle. The women welcomed their men home by bringing everything they had in their houses to a nearby inn where the food was cooked and eaten. This dish also reflects the fact that historically meat was served only on Sundays and then usually only for men. This was particularly true in the mountainous cantons, where most people could seldom afford meat at all.


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