The perception of Swiss cuisine as being all about chocolate and cheese, fondue and rösti is as old hat as suggesting that fish and chips exemplify British cuisine.
Fondue and rösti still feature as national dishes, but food and wine in Switzerland have undergone a revolution in the past three decades. As with so many aspects of Switzerland, there has been an emphasis on quality, helped by consumer demand for produce that is organic – or bio as it’s usually termed. Switzerland was the second country, after Italy, to establish a Slow Food movement, strongly supported by the Coop from the early 1990s.
This chimes with federal support given to mountain farms to help them maintain the non-food aspects of agriculture that are valued and need to be rewarded if marginal hill and mountain farms are to survive – the appearance and beauty of the landscape, rainwater retention, carbon capture and soil quality.
Growing interest in what we eat has helped to raise consumer expectations when they visit a restaurant, driving higher standards of ingredients and cooking. This has complemented one of Switzerland’s strongest culinary attractions: its three national cuisines drawn from France, Germany and Italy. Within the first two, comprising a number of cantons, there are also numerous regional and local specialities. As a consequence, Switzerland has a culinary richness matched by few other countries.
Vegetarians and vegans will have no difficulty finding delicious dishes in the cities. Haus Hilti in Zürich is the country’s oldest vegetarian restaurant, founded in 1898, and just one of a number of solely vegetarian restaurants. It draws inspiration from France, Greece, Italy, India, Lebanon and Thailand.
The two products most associated with Switzerland are chocolate and cheese. There are hundreds of dairies open to visitors or selling their cheeses, and some chocolate producers have factory tours and shops, notably Cailler at Broc. Swiss chocolate production originated in the 17th century, but the household names date from the 19th: Cailler, Suchard, Sprüngli, Lindt, Tobler and Frey.
In common with nearly all Western countries, the Swiss beer scene has been revolutionised by the establishment of craft breweries to challenge the four main big breweries of Calanda (Chur), Eichhof (Luzern), Feldschlösschen (Rheinfelden) and Rugenbräu (Interlaken). In fact, Switzerland has the highest concentration of breweries per capita in the world, though over 70% of beer consumed in the country is still German lager style, and it is a challenge for craft breweries to broaden consumers’ tastes.
Wine production, too, has undergone a transformation. Until recently many Swiss wines were a disappointment, not helped by Swiss wine merchants being allowed to mix imported and Swiss wines, a practice banned in 2006. Today the quality has improved so much that there is no need to order imported wine, but most visitors’ knowledge of Swiss wines is minimal since the Swiss drink it all: less than 2% is exported and most of that goes to Germany, so it takes time, or a sommelier’s advice, to develop personal choices.
The best-known vineyards stretch for 30km along the northern slopes of Lac Léman, passed by trains between Geneva and Montreux. The Lavaux Vineyard Terraces in Vaud were created by Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries in the 11th century and are now a World Heritage Site. The other principal wine-making cantons are Geneva, Graubünden, Ticino and Valais, which has Europe’s highest vineyard at Visperterminen where the vines are at 650–1,150m (2,132–3,773ft) above sea level.
The dominant grapes are Pinot Noir and Chasselas, followed by Gamay and Merlot, but there are many esoteric varieties such as Petite Arvine and Completer. The latter was revived from near-extinction by the Graubünden winemaker Martin Donatsch, who became world champion Pinot Noir producer in 2010 and 2011 from his 6ha of vines.
For those with a serious interest in wine, there are wine museums in Aigle, Au (near Wädenswil), Boudry, Salgesch and Sierre.