Food is such an accessible window into a culture. However, as hungry tourists, it’s easy to fall prey to over-priced, flavorless fare, served up in kitschy surroundings purporting to be authentic. How can we really get into a culture through food and avoid being sold something subpar?
The best advice I can give is to go to the source. Whenever possible, seek out the farmers and producers of local foods and meet them where they are. Whether that’s a farm, farmers’ market, factory, dairy, or winery, your best bet is to get away from the offerings along the well-worn tourist paths and get to the food’s origin.
Ready to eat? Here are some exceptional Swiss food experiences I’ve enjoyed over the years:
Gruyère cheese is often copied, but there’s nothing like the original. In order to be called true Gruyère, it must be made here from this region’s cows’ milk. The cheese is aged into several categories, becoming stronger and more complex the older it gets. Every day, 36 farmers deliver their milk to the factory where it becomes nearly 50 wheels of fresh cheese. Up to 7,000 wheels are aged in the vast cellar for between 6 and 24 months before being shipped all over Switzerland and the world. Don’t miss a fondue lunch in the restaurant!
Nothing says Switzerland like chocolate. Or is it cheese? It’s hard to choose, so don’t! Board the Chocolate Train’s “Belle Époque”-Pullman 1915 vintage coaches in Montreux for a first-class cheese and chocolate experience. You’ll tour La Maison du Gruyère and then have lunch before heading to Broc, where you’ll tour the Maison Cailler to see how their chocolate is made. It’s a fascinating look into this Swiss specialty and, yes, there are plenty of samples!
Kambly says that they make biscuits. I’m sorry, I’m going to have to disagree on that one. Kambly makes cookies and whether it’s the simple Bretzli, melt-in-your-mouth almond Butterfly, chocolatey Matterhorn, or any of the other 100 varieties that are available for sampling, they’re all downright delicious. Milk from local dairies, flour from local grain, and sugar from local sugar beets make for a surprisingly regional treat. If you’re traveling from Lucerne or Bern, you can ride on the Kambly Train for an even more cookie-centric experience with yet more free cookies. Er, biscuits.
This Central Switzerland gem lies just west of Lucerne within the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve Entlebuch. The UNESCO designation came after locals banded together to protect the land and encourage sustainable agriculture, responsible use of natural resources, and eco-tourism. The Food Trail is presented as a scavenger hunt where walkers collect clues as well as tasty cheeses, meats, and other food items from the area. Included is a visit to meet water buffalo and a gondola ride to ice cream-with-a-view at the end of the trail.
A stone’s throw from Lucerne, the Culinarium Alpinum fills many roles. Billing itself as the “home of the culinary heritage of the Alps,” it resides in an old Capuchin monastery and is open as a hotel, restaurant, and market for local goods most days. Rooms are made from monk’s cells and are spare but beautiful. Here, they’re helping to ensure that historical Alpine flavors continue to exist while also testing new crops for the future. Come for a night and a meal and load up with locally produced specialties from the market on your way out. This is truly a taste of Switzerland.
While I prefer my cheeses funky and my chocolate sweet, the Funky Chocolate Club helps put the “fun” in funk. Interlaken is thought of as the adventure capital of Switzerland, with its easy access to hundreds of Alpine peaks, canyons, and rivers for hiking, exploring, and rafting. But all of that activity can leave you with an adrenaline hangover. The cure? Funky Chocolate, where you’ll not only learn the secrets of Swiss chocolate, but you’ll make and decorate your own. Groups are welcome.
The Julen family has raised the traditional Valais Blacknose Sheep breed in Zermatt for generations. In the process, they’ve also become restaurateurs and hoteliers, but the family business is still anchored to the land through the sheep. During the winter, they offer tours of the barns every Wednesday, where you’ll learn about the farm’s biogas reactor and its relationship to tourism in Zermatt. You’ll also get to meet the adorable sheep, including plenty of very young, fuzzy lambs. You’ll also sample the farm’s cheeses, dried meats, and local bread and wine.
Farming isn’t just relegated to the countryside. In Zürich, Anna Hochreutner, through her apiary business, Wabe3, raises honey bees on rooftops across the city. When I visited, Anna pointed out that Zürich is a very clean city, and that there was a surprising diversity of flowering plants there compared with the monocultures of rural agricultural land. Her friend and baker, Anet, incorporates that honey into all manner of bee-related products at the Honigkuchen (literally: Honeycakes) shop. Find food and beeswax items in the store and connect with Anna at Wabe3 if you’re interested in touring the rooftop apiaries of Zürich.
There is evidence that there were grape vines grown here in Roman times, but the terraced vineyards date back a thousand years. The world-famous Lavaux wine grape-growing region is a small, 20-mile-long stretch of vineyards on the south-facing, northern shore of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. While shooting for Real Road Adventures, we spent a day e-bike touring on the small roads and pathways, stopping to visit winemaker, Blaise Duboux, along the way. We sampled his organic white Chasselas, a specialty of the area, and basked in the afternoon sun overlooking the lake and the French Alps beyond. As a side note: Visit the nearby pop-up wine spa, La Vigne. There, you can soak in a copper tub while sampling more Chasselas and get a spa treatment featuring the byproducts of winemaking.
The charming medieval town of Murten lies on the border of German- and French-speaking Switzerland. Here, you can sample a traditional caramel cream cake called Nidelkuchen. The most famous Nidelkuchen is made by Bäckerei Aebersold, where they’ve refined and perfected the recipe over generations. A barely-sweet, yeast dough is brushed with three layers of cream and sugar and two layers of Gruyère double cream (not to be confused with Gruyère cheese) during baking. This results in a melt-in-your-mouth confection that can be enjoyed with an espresso or a glass of local Traminer white wine.
All this talk of Swiss food is making me hungry! If you’re interested in trying some real Swiss imported foods, check out our iGourmet store here.
What are your favorite travel food experiences that have given you insight into a culture? Let us know in the comments and subscribe to our newsletter for more!