Flavors of Switzerland
Although fast food has made inroads in Switzerland, it's still a country deeply rooted in seasonality and fresh produce—it's been locavore all along. Wherever that has wavered, it's coming back as farmers and environmentalists encourage a move away from mass-food production. Other trends? Revived interest in Swiss recipes and regional cuisines: Swiss-German, Swiss-French, and Swiss-Italian, as well as the cuisine specific to Graubünden. In addition, Swiss wines are coming into their own as never before.
The countryside is a patchwork of farms, vineyards, and fields of cereals and plants used for cooking oil, like sunflower and rapeseed. Various "belts" include Vully (Vaud, Fribourg), known for its rhubarb; Bern's Guerbetal for cabbage (and sauerkraut); and Geneva, which grows its own specific type of cardoon. Apples and pears are also common, as are natural or cultivated walnuts, chestnuts, and berries. Wild mushrooming is a national pastime during summer and fall, and honeybee keeping is popular: those houselike boxes, often painted in primary colors, that you see along forest edges are hives. Saffron crocuses grown in Mund (Valais) produce the highly prized spice. Alpine herbs flavor teas and bitters.
The country's lakes and rivers provide a bounty—some 50 delicacies, including crayfish. And the Swiss like their (fall) hunting season fare: hare, deer, wild boar, and game birds.
More than 450 types of cheese are produced in Switzerland; some 11, including the quintessential "Swiss cheese," Emmental, are labeled AOC, which means production is controlled and protected. The term "Alp cheese" designates cheese produced from summer milk when cows graze in high-altitude meadows. But there aren't only semihard cow's milk wheels—there are hard cheeses, too, like Sbrinz AOC (made in central Switzerland), and soft patties like Tomme (made in Vaud). An October-through-March must-try is spoonable Vacherin Mont d'Or AOC. Unusual regional items include Schabziger from Glarus: small, green, cone shaped, and redolent with the smell of blue fenugreek.
Fondue and Raclette
Whether a mix of Gruyère and Vacherin (known as moitié-moitié) or a less pungent mix of hard cheeses, fondue is a countrywide staple. Although locals prefer it in winter, rest assured that in the summer high up in the Alps, fondue is not only for tourists. When temperatures fall in the evenings and a cool breeze sets in, a caquelon of melted goodness will leave you warm and satisfied.
If fondue seems too rich, try raclette. Originally a dish from the Haute-Savoie region in France, this heated half wheel of full-bodied cheese is scraped piping hot onto boiled potatoes and consumed alongside pickled cucumbers, onions, and a selection of dried meats. It's a full, delicious meal in itself.
There’s a reason meat is pricey in Switzerland—farmers here receive the second-highest subsidies in the world. These taxpayer funds allow farmers to continue dairy farming and ranching in a traditional manner, much as their families did several generations ago. Tens of thousands of small-to-medium family farms coexist alongside larger facilities, many with "Bio" (organic) distinction.
Each canton has its dried-meat specialties, but the most well known comes from Graubünden. Bündnerfleisch is made from beef shoulder marinated in white wine and herbs before the lengthy five-month drying process begins. Pressed periodically to rid the meat of excess moisture, the final product is rectangular shaped, deep red in color, and eaten in very thin slices.
Switzerland might not be as sausage-crazy as Germany, but there are several distinct types that merit tasting. Cervelat, the national sausage, is made from a mixture of beef and pork. It can be found at every barbecue, grilled with the ends sliced in quarters to resemble a flower. St. Gallen is the country's top spot for sausage making; its famous smoky Schüblig and milky-white St. Galler bratwurst are tasty options available in most cities.
A national treasure, Swiss chocolate ranges from the ubiquitous Lindt to handcrafted pieces from boutique chocolatiers. But there’s more to Swiss desserts than simply chocolate. Specialties featuring local ingredients abound, from the Vaudois carac, a bright-green tart filled with sweet chocolate ganache, to the popular chocolate mousse. In a country teeming with fresh, creamy milk, it’s no surprise that this rich, whipped blend of chocolate, cream, and eggs can be found on nearly every menu.
For a lighter way to end a meal, sample some of the sorbets and gelati in Ticino. Traditional favorites like salted caramel and pistachio can be found alongside experimental flavors such as basil lemongrass and lemon ricotta.
October is harvest season in Switzerland's six main wine regions: Valais, Vaud, Geneva, Ticino, the Swiss-German area including Graubünden, and the Three-Lakes area around Neuchâtel. Following a trend to diversify grape varieties, there are now hundreds, but top players include red Pinot Noir and Gamay, Merlot in Ticino, and Chasselas white.
Fall wine festivals abound—participants revel in freshly pressed grape juice called Most or moût. Slightly fermented, lightly effervescent wine called Sauser is a favorite with hunt-season meals in German-speaking parts. In May, some areas feature "Open House Days" when wineries open for tastings to launch wines made from the previous year's harvest. You can get more information from the Swiss Wine Exporters' Association (www.swisswine.ch).
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