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Switzerland is overshadowed by its near neighbours when it comes to food and drink, and yet the country nurtures a wide and absorbing range of local cuisines, taking in influences and styles from the surrounding diversity of French, German and Italian cooking while sticking close to its rural and Alpine roots. Extreme cultural decentralization means that if you dig below the surface of the national staples, you’ll consistently come across delicious regional dishes relying on local ingredients and idiosyncratic styles of preparation that are unknown in the next canton, let alone elsewhere in Europe.
The Swiss take the joy of communal eating to heart, and many eateries rely on old-style rustic decor, wood beams, plenty of Swiss kitsch (cow-bells, alphorns and the like) and a cosy, hearty, family-like atmosphere – and that may just be for a diner in Zürich’s financial district. For the Swiss, much as for the Italians or the French, eating is an expression of local culture, and many people have no time or patience for foreign cuisines. High levels of immigration over the 1980s and 1990s has resulted in a host of Turkish, Arabic and, to a lesser extent, East Asian eateries opening up in towns and cities across the country, but they tend to be fast-food joints for wolfing down kebabs or chow mein on the hoof rather than musing on the subtle flavours of the orient – you’ll only find quality international cooking in Geneva, Zürich and possibly Bern.
Every town and village market groans with top-quality farm produce, much of it organically produced, and you’re very likely to stumble on unpretentious family-run restaurants around the country that serve up inexpensive village fare to the locals. That’s not to say that you can’t eat like a gourmet in Switzerland – you can, and very easily – but your most memorable meals may well come from the simplest of kitchens and the most ordinary-looking of restaurants.
Unsurprisingly, Swiss cooking is firmly rooted in dairy products – cheese, milk, cream, butter and/or yoghurt find their way into most dishes. It’s far from impossible to find good-quality, interesting and varied vegetarian options, and all but a handful of places offer vegetarian set menus alongside the standard meaty ones, but veggies should be aware that most restaurants default onto meat-based dishes: innocent-looking tomato soup may have bits of bacon added, and fresh salads may come layered with ham or salami. Switzerland must be the only place in the world where you can order a Fitness Teller (“healthy meal”) and be presented with a thick slab of veal in a cream sauce. Vegans will no doubt come prepared to cook their own food at least some of the time but, with careful choices, you should be able to pick your way through a menu with the help of accommodating restaurant staff. Alternative-style co-operative-run diners, many in squats in the major cities, offer budget vegetarian and vegan meals as standard.
See p.75 for advice on tipping.
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