I recently got the opportunity to go to Zurich, Switzerland–home of cheese, chocolate, meat and potatoes. As a food scientist, I have curious taste buds, and Zurich did not disappoint in its variety of foods. Plus, with the Christmas season approaching, Swiss seasonal favorites were coming available too–like marroni (roasted chestnuts), gluhwein (hot mulled wine), and Raclette (pictured above; melty Raclette cheese over potatoes). Vendors served up these delights, and much more, on street corners and plazas along the Bahnhofstrasse (the main road through downtown Zurich). I couldn’t resist sharing the most delicious and interesting foods I encountered on my culinary exploration of Switzerland’s largest city!
The Swiss are well known for their chocolate–and with good reason–it’s DELICIOUS. It’s also ubiquitous; a different chocolate shop can be found on almost every block in downtown Zurich. To my additional delight, a complimentary piece of Swiss chocolate often accompanies any cup of coffee or restaurant bill.
The Lindt & Sprüngli factory is a short train ride from downtown Zurich, so naturally I had to go. I so painfully wish I could have seen their operations, but sadly, the public is only allowed to access the Lindt chocolate shop. The best thing about this shop was that the manager would let you sample just about anything in there if you asked nicely. Since I didn’t know what some of the German signs meant, I simply tasted a chocolate to find out its flavor (with permission, of course)! Later, I realized there was a fine-print description of each chocolate in English on the back of each sign. Good thing I didn’t notice sooner… :)
Evil Santas–now available in milk and dark chocolate! I spotted these in a couple of stores around Zurich. At first I assumed it was an oversight at the chocolate factory, but then I learned about Switzerland’s version of Santa Claus (or Samichlaus, as they call him). He comes with an evil alter-ego, known as Schmultzi, who is said to abduct and/or beat naughty children. I thought maybe this was a chocolate Schmultzi , until I learned that Schmultzi isn’t supposed to look anything like Santa. So the reason for these evil Santa chocolates is still a mystery. Maybe it’s a hybrid concept? Looks like Santa, but is evil like Schmultzi? All the more terrifying.
More Sweet Foods.
There’s no question that Zurich does chocolate right, but there are a lot of other irresistible desserts to be found in this city too. The best of which, in my opinion, is meringues with double cream Gruyère . Imagine three beautifully piped meringue cookies nestled into a thick, shallow puddle of double cream from the Gruyère region of Switzerland. The cream is so rich and flavorful, with a light buttery hue, that I involuntarily mmm’ed with every bite!
It would be wrong of me to neglect the Luxemburgerlis that have contributed to Sprüngli’s worldwide fame. These are Zurich’s answer to the French macaron, and they are delicious! Imagine a mini macaron with a perfectly crispy crumbly shell, but with a moist filling that, instead of being light and fluffy, is dense and creamy–almost like cream cheese. Just like macarons, Luxemburgerlis come in all flavors.
Swiss Savory Foods.
Zurich is close to the southern border of Germany, so cuisine in this city is heavily influenced by German traditions. Read: lots of sausage, cabbage, spaetzle (a sort of German pasta), and pretzels–done up Swiss-style.
At the top of this picture is the Spezial Servelat (beef and pork)–Sternen Grill’s take on what is often termed Switzerland’s national sausage. Below that is the St. Galler Bratwurst (veal)–a famously Swiss sausage which was awarded IGP (Protected Geographical Indication) status in 2007.1 These sausages were lovingly cooked on a grill until their skins became dry and cracked, as is the custom in Switzerland. The most surprising thing about Swiss sausage to me was the texture! Every sausage I tried had a delightfully crispy crust, but was eerily smooth and almost fluffy/spongy inside. Not at all like American sausages, which retain their ground meat texture. It was actually more akin to the texture of a hot dog than any other American food I can think of. But they weren’t as dense as hot dogs. They were…fluffier, for lack of a better term. I didn’t love that about it; but it was fascinating nonetheless!
Swiss Seasonal Foods.
Hunting for wild game is common in this region of Europe. Our visit, in late fall, was at the perfect time to be able to sample some wild game from seasonal restaurant menus. Venison was most plentiful, but I also saw rabbit and boar on several menus around Zurich.
Just like in America, the onset of the holiday season brings special seasonal foods that are available for only a few months a year. Zurich’s holiday food scene is delectable, and quite different from what we eat in the US. The Christmas season also brings out oodles of street vendors (in the form of Christmas markets) which hock delicious Swiss winter treats as you wander through the city.
In my opinion, the best of these winter treats was Raclette. Raclette is both the name of the dish and the name of the cheese that is used in its preparation. How it’s made: a wheel of Raclette cheese is cut in half, and then placed near an open flame (or other heat source) until the cheese begins to melt. Then the melted edge is scraped off and onto a little pile of piping hot yellow potatoes (or bread) and seasoned with pepper, paprika, and nutmeg. YUM. Raclette cheese has a bracingly strong barnyard aroma (you can always smell a Raclette place before you can see it), but once it’s melted over potatoes and served up with its customary seasonings, a few gherkins, and pickled pearl onions, that stinky cheese becomes a warm, gooey pile of PURE. HEAVEN.
Similar to Raclette is fondue. Switzerland is the birthplace of fondue, and they do it well. The flavor, strong smell, and seasonings are similar to Raclette, but it’s a bit thinner in texture. A blend of cheeses is usually used, and a dash of kirsch (Swiss cherry-flavored fruit brandy) or wine is added, as well as a touch of garlic. We ordered ours with tomatoes mixed in, which was delicious.
Marroni and gluhwein are two more holiday treats that deserve a mention. Marroni are simply roasted chestnuts. Street vendors use large charcoal grills/ovens and roast chestnuts all day. You buy them in 100 gram increments, then peel and eat them as you walk down the street. Slightly sweet, slightly creamy, nutty goodness! Just make sure you head to the gluhwein stand afterward, because their texture will leave you thirsty. Gluhwein is like mulled wine, but with a little sangria-y twist. It starts with red wine, then sugar, spices, and lemon and/or orange are added and allowed to steep until the flavors are infused. Then it’s spiked with your choice of alcohol—I preferred kirsch, but rum and amaretto were also available. You can sip it hot as you window shop down the Bahnhofstrasse. It’s perfectly boozy and warm on a cold and cloudy day.
I hope you enjoyed this food-centric tour of Zurich at Christmas time. If you feel so inspired, leave a note in the comments about interesting foods you’ve encountered in your travels. (Or maybe just gush about your favorite American holiday food…mine’s pumpkin pie.) Happy holidays!
1. “St. Galler Kalbsbratwurst: no. 1,” Switzerland Tourism, accessed November 27, 2013, http://www.myswitzerland.com/en-us/st-galler-kalbsbratwurst-no-1.html.