If you've been reading this blog for awhile, you know that I'm all about busting stereotypes about travel destinations where it's supposedly difficult to be vegan. Think Italy is all about cheese? Nope, it isn't! Think you'll starve as a vegan in Spain? I promise, you won't! Italy, Spain, Greece, Portugal – these countries are all much more vegan-friendly than your guidebook would have you believe.
I make no such claims about Switzerland, however. Having lived in Geneva for more than five years, I can say with authority that Switzerland is NOT a vegan-friendly country. It should come as no surprise that, in a nation whose name is synonymous with cheese, the national cuisine is centred around ... cheese, meat, and more cheese. Remove the animal products from most any Swiss dish and you'll be left with...bread or potatoes. And maybe a few onions. Heck, even the national beverage is a soft drink made out of whey.
This doesn't mean it's difficult to find vegan food in Switzerland – you can always opt for one of the many other ethnic cuisines represented in the increasingly varied culinary landscape. Chinese, Ethiopian/Eritrean and Middle Eastern restaurants are all very common, and even many small villages will have a local pizzeria.
If you're hoping to experience Swiss culture through the national cuisine, however, you may be worried that you're going to feel left out. I've shared my thoughts before on why vegan travellers aren't missing out, but just in case you're not convinced, here are 10 traditional Swiss foods that can be enjoyed by vegans too!
Some are already naturally vegan, while others are available in vegan versions. All are delicious!
Nothing says “Switzerland” like the smooth, velvety mouthfeel of a Swiss chocolate bar. It was Rodolphe Lindt who, in the 19th century, invented the conching process that creates the creamy texture for which Swiss chocolate has become world famous. The Lindt & Sprüngli company still makes premium chocolate today, including a number of dark chocolate bars of varying intensity, and all their bars ranging from 70% to 99% cacao are vegan.
And if you prefer milk chocolate over dark, Coop (a major supermarket chain in Switzerland) sells a “lactose-free” milk chocolate that's actually made with rice milk. For more discerning palates, Migros (Coop's main competitor) offers a high-end chocolate bar made with coconut milk that is simply divine.
If you grew up in suburban America like me, you probably know these as the soft pretzels sold at the mall. While Americans tend to think of pretzels (brezel in German) as the hard, baked snack food that comes in several shapes and sizes, the original brezels were actually the large, soft variety, twisted into the classic knot shape. “Pretzel sticks” is thus a bit of an oxymoron in the German-speaking world.
While brezels are sometimes made with butter, there is a well-known chain called Brezelkönig where the brezels are all vegan. Yep, even the ones with seeds on the top. Brezelkönig can be found in many Swiss train stations, making this the perfect fuel for a train journey through the beautiful Swiss countryside.
Known as spéculos in French-speaking areas and spekulatius in German, these shortcrust biscuits flavoured with cinnamon, cloves and other spices originated in Belgium but are equally popular in Switzerland and neighbouring countries. They are traditionally eaten at Christmas time, though they are now sold year round. The cookie moulds used to bake them have been around since ancient Roman times, though the gladiatorial combat scenes and emperors' portraits have now been replaced by windmills and flower baskets.
Recipes can vary (and can change from year to year), so check the label to make sure they are vegan. At the time of writing, the ones produced by Favorina around Christmas time were (pictured), and so were the Lotus Biscoff brand that is sold throughout the year. Lotus even makes a vegan spekulatius-flavoured spread, which I hear is now being marketed by Trader Joe's in the US as “cookie butter”.
Thanks to Nat King Cole, I came to associate roasted chestnuts with winter weather and Christmas merriment long before I knew what they were. Growing up in Alabama, I thought of chestnuts the same way I thought of snowmen – as part of the backdrop to a fairytale Christmas wonderland that I would only ever read about in storybooks. Then I moved to Switzerland and discovered that, lo and behold, roasted chestnuts are real! As soon as the temperatures drop, stalls pop up all over town selling them by weight in paper cones.
I'll be honest, I'm not a huge fan of the taste of chestnuts, but sometimes I buy them anyway just because I love the idea of them. And the smell. I'm a sucker for the smell.
Are you a fan of overnight oats? Did you think it was a hip, new food trend invented by some busy food blogger who didn't have time to make breakfast one morning? Wrong! The concept was first created more than 100 years ago by a Swiss doctor named Bircher-Brenner, who advocated a whole foods diet (“vollwertkost”) and promoted the revolutionary idea that fruit and vegetables were healthier than meat.
Bircher-Brenner ran a health clinic in Zurich, where he treated his patients with a combination of whole foods and exercise. The menu plan included a recipe he called birchermüesli, which consisted of oats mixed with lemon juice, fruit, nuts and, oh yeah, condensed milk or cream. Bircher-Brenner may have been ahead of his time, but he was still Swiss, after all.
While the pre-made birchermüesli served up at hotel breakfast buffets will normally be made with cow's milk or yogurt, you could ask in advance if they are willing to make a soy version for you. If not, it's the easiest thing in the world to make on your own, and all the ingredients you'll need can be purchased at mainstream Swiss supermarkets. Even soy yogurt!
The Brits have their Marmite, the Aussies have their Vegemite, and the Swiss have their...Cenovis? You may never have heard of it, but this salty yeast spread is remarkably similar to the stuff spread on toast at breakfast tables in the UK and Australia. A by-product of the beer-brewing process, Cenovis is purely plant-based and is high in vitamin B1 (thiamine). As with its cousins from the English-speaking world, less is more. If you're trying it out for the first time, don't make the mistake of slathering it on like you would strawberry jam (or cookie butter!).
The main difference between Cenovis, Marmite and Vegemite seems to be that Cenovis comes in a tube that's plastered with bucolic scenes of children frolicking in Alpine scenery and edelweiss growing the shape of a heart. Just in case you were doubting its Swissness.
Remember how I said that if you remove the animal products from pretty much any Swiss dish you're left with potatoes? OK, so that's basically what we've got here: grated, pan-fried potatoes. You probably know them better as “hash browns”. Rösti can be found on the menu of just about any traditional Swiss restaurant, either as a side or as a stand-alone main dish. While animal products such as cheese or bacon are commonly thrown in, there's also a version made with apples. And really, the kitchen staff should be able to make it with any vegetables you want, on request. Just make sure they fry the potatoes in oil instead of butter.
Dinnete are a baked, bread-based speciality similar to the flammkuchen of Alsace. They can be made either round like a pizza or in a more oval, elongated shape. They're best when fresh out of the oven, and they can be topped with pretty much anything. They even come in sweet varieties with fruit toppings! It's true that the savoury varieties usually include animal products of some kind, but vegan versions are starting to pop up too. Yep, the vegan movement has made it to Switzerland! I snagged this vegetable dinnete at the Basel Christmas market, where is was specifically advertised as vegan. Yay! It only takes a few minutes to bake them, so even if you come across a vendor that doesn't offer vegan ones, you can ask if they'll make one to order while you wait.
(Photo by Gürkan Sengün, used under CC license.)
The word “kirsch” in German literally means “cherry”. Of course, cherries do grow in Switzerland, and they are most definitely vegan, but that's not what we're talking about here. “Kirsch” can also refer to a fruit brandy made from cherries that are fermented whole (with the pits still inside). Don't mistake this for a fruity liqueur; kirsch is not sweet, and in fact the cherry pits give it a slightly bitter almond taste.
It's typically drunk on its own, without any mixers, as either an apéritif (before the meal) or a digestif (after the meal). However, it's also used by confectioners to make chocolate-covered cherries, and it even makes its way into fondue. More about that in a minute, but first, let's talk about the other famous cheese dish in Switzerland...
Raclette is the name of a type of cheese and also the meal based around it. While it can be ordered in typical Swiss restaurants, it's also very common for Swiss people to invite friends over to their home for a raclette dinner. There's even a special type of grill made specifically for this purpose (affiliate link). The cheese slices are placed in little individual pans, then placed under the grill until they melt. The melted cheese is then poured on top of (you guessed it!) potatoes, and eaten with pickles and onions.
So, why am I telling you about this? Because the geniuses at Vegusto have made a vegan raclette! Vegusto is a Swiss company that makes all kinds of vegan cheeses and meats, including a cheese they call No-Moo Rac. I'll admit, I was a bit sceptical when I saw that it comes in a tube. In its uncooked state, it looks more like a vegan sausage than a slice of raclette. But when you put it under a grill it totally melts and gets all bubbly and sizzly and stuff. It's pretty amazing! You can even see a video of the sizzling action on the Vegusto homepage.
Vegusto products can be hard to find in stores, but you can order directly from their website and have it delivered anywhere in Switzerland or in the EU. So, next time your Swiss friends invite you over for a raclette dinner, you can bring your own No-Moo with you! Since each person at the table cooks their own individual portion anyway, you'll be participating in the festivities just like everyone else.
Fondue is THE typical Swiss meal, so it should come as no surprise that it consists of nothing but animal products (melted cheese) and a starchy food (chunks of bread). The veggies commonly used as dippers in fondue restaurants abroad are unheard of in Switzerland. If you're worried about missing out on this Swiss cultural experience as a vegan, here are a few things you should know.
First of all, Swiss people only eat fondue in winter, so anyone who orders it outside the appropriate season is scoffed at as a silly tourist. If you're visiting in summer and you want to do as the locals do, you can start by NOT ordering the fondue. Second of all, you can buy vegan fondue! That's right, it's Vegusto to the rescue again – this time with a cheese they call the “No-Moo Due”. All you have to do is throw it into a fondue pot or, failing that, a microwave, heat it until it melts, and you're all set.