Switzerland, to the casual observer, has little foodie pretensions beyond cheese, chocolate and fondue. I used to feel the same about Swiss food - Italian and French definitely, Turkish and Lebanese certainly and Thai and Cantonese absolutely. But who would consider on a Friday night going out for a Swiss meal? I had never come across a Swiss restaurant in the UK, even in London, and until my recent tour of the country, never held their cuisine in high regard.
The Swiss on the other hand take their cuisine very seriously; mealtimes are an important aspect of family life and the Swiss proverb - 'food and drink keep body and soul together' - sums up the local attitudes to food nicely.
During June I had the opportunity to sample their local dishes and varied cuisine first hand, starting in Zurich and finishing in Geneva. We travelled across the four cantons or sub-regions; French, German, Italian and Graubünden. Suffice to say, each region clearly heavily influences the style of the local dishes, although there a many generic dishes specific to Switzerland.
One aspect that unifies cuisine across Switzerland is the simplicity. Despite the importance of haute-cuisine in Swiss hotels and restaurants, most Swiss would ultimately plump for a home cooked meal over an elaborate seven-course tasting menu.
Historically, they were a country of farmers so the corresponding cuisine relies on simple ingredients, such as the ubiquitous cheeses and potatoes. Some classic dishes include: fondue - simply bread dipped in melted cheese; rosti - a dish of fried potatoes; cervelas - strongly flavoured sausage; leckerli - ginger and honey biscuits. Nothing terribly complex or sophisticated but as I can attest, all delicious.
As an aside, the Swiss prefer to eat our equivalent of dinner at midday, rather than the evening. A typical meal would involve vegetable or cheese soup followed by a hearty meat dish, poultry or beef being available in abundance. Dessert is often skipped but at about 4pm, a working Swiss may take an espresso with some leckerli. Dinner tends to be light and fondue is always for sharing with friends - no Swiss would contemplate making a fondue pot for themselves.
From a regional point of view, we spent quite a bit of time in Zurich during the tour, capital of the German-speaking Swiss canton, and so got to know their preferences quite well. Unsurprisingly, Zurich's inhabitants seemed to like German-style cooking and dishes which leans on the heavier side, although there are plenty of high-end restaurants in Zurich that serve more sophisticated, French-influenced fare.
In a typical tavern you could expect: emmental apple rosti - found almost everywhere; zopf - traditional Swiss bread eaten on Sundays; cabbage soup - self-explanatory; and zurcher geschnetzeltes - veal braised in a cream sauce with mushrooms and cervelas.
Beautiful Geneva is the cultural centre of the French-speaking canton - food here is lighter, perhaps a touch more refined, even in simple dining establishments.
Geneva has a large international population so dining options are wide and varied, those seeking a break from Swiss food will be happy to hear. The Canton of Vaud's most famous dish is fondue, enjoyed the world over.
Papet vaudois is also popular; a baked dish of leeks and potatoes often served with poached perch fillet, which is absolutely divine. Saucisse au choc (cabbage sausage) makes a regular appearance. Those with a sweet tooth should try a carac, a pastry made from chocolate.
The canton also by reputation produces the country's finest wines; varietals to look out for good Pinot Noir and Chasselas and Cornalin.
The Italian-speaking canton offers less internationally recognised dishes. Naturally, pasta and pizza are available in abundance but the Italian Swiss cannot lay claim to owning the rights to carbonara. That said, some great dishes do originate from this part of northern Switzerland, my favourite being saffron risotto. Polenta is also a staple dish in this part of the country.
Merlot is planted quite extensively in the Ticino canton, a softer, lighter version that can be found in Bordeaux and the new world.
Finally, we come to the least well-known canton, Graubünden. This corner of south-eastern Switzerland does not feature as highly on visitors' itineraries, but if you were to explore the region, you could expect to taste a Chur - the local ubiquitous meat pie, and Graubünden barley soup - which apparently features on pretty much every tavern menu. For dessert try a Bunder Nusstorte cake - a delicious cake made from ground nuts that is wonderful with Oloroso sherry.
So ended my Swiss culinary tour, several pounds heavier and definitely more enlightened. I was won over by the quality of the regional cooking and the pride with which chefs presented their local produce. Still not my favourite place to eat, admittedly, but far, far better than I was expecting.