Swiss Supermarket Discoveries Part III: Take a hike!
If you actually want to hike in Switzerland (and of course you do!), there are all levels from hikes for flatlanders to experts to alpinists. (See Swiss Alpine Wanderlust Packing List for Serious Hikers.)
So don’t let those enormous Alps intimidate you, because you can do a lot at lower altitudes. You might start by hiking around the Swiss vineyards, a common practice in Switzerland, or even in villages; you can hike down to the lake and the one of the relaxing and scenic cruises on Lake Geneva. Whatever the activity you will need a picnic lunch and the best place to find the ingredients is the Swiss supermarket.
- Alpine picnic image courtesy of Olivier Bruchez
The Importance of Carrying around Swiss Food Snacks and Picnics
There are chalets and cafés, often referred to as buvettes, in unlikely locations in the Pre-Alps and Alps (even at 6,000 feet and higher), but you should still carry food and water, because they can often be few and far between. It is imperative if you are traveling with children.
Even if you do not plan a strenuous day, you should always pack more than you think you will need in terms of food (although as light in weight as possible because the altitude makes it heavier!). For one thing you can make friends if you have food. I have shared my energy food-filled backpack with many a desperate tourist half way up the mountain who had nothing to eat and who underestimated the effort of the hike and the time involved in order to reach their destination – almost always uphill!
This is not to say that there is not a wonderful choice of restaurants in Switzerland if you are hiking through villages. Au contraire!
But if you’re used to traveling American style, you may find yourself hungry at odd times and lunch service is usually over at 2:00 PM. Dinner does not start until 5 or 7 p.m., depending on the region, and it’s almost impossible to get served after 10 p.m. The reason behind this is that most waiters, chefs and owners work split shifts and need a break between lunch and dinner. You may also want to buy food items for breakfast if your hotel only serves continental breakfast (bread and coffee or tea). But some hotels have excellent breakfast buffets with muesli (a mix of raw cereal grains to which you add milk or yoghurt and fruit and nuts), fruit, cheese, meats, and even eggs and other hot dishes. Load up on that and you can probably hold out until 3 p.m.
The Lac Léman boats and Belle Epoque paddle steamers are wonderful, but the food on board (depending on the boat) usually leaves a lot to be desired, especially the sandwiches. Most locals take their own picnic. Except in the inside restaurant which usually has fairly good food, you can eat at any table on the ship. There are, however, some special cruises for lunch and dinner that have finer dining.
Swiss Food Choices for Visitors on the Go
There are a lot of practical prepared choices available in high-end specialty delicatessen stores. However, they cater more to local people taking it home or high school students eating it there in the store. So head for the big orange M (Migros) or the Coop supermarkets for snack supplies.
Make your own sandwich. Swiss French-speaking regions tend to sell what they call a sandwich which is a baguette with butter and a slice of either (not both) ham or cheese. Choices are expanding, but the concept of sandwich is not yet fully understood in Switzerland, except at rather expensive gourmet food stores. You will more than likely be disappointed with ready-made sandwiches but they are improving.
Or just get the ingredients and eat them separately. You can never go wrong with fresh bread, hard or semi-hard cheese, and dried Valaisan air-dried meat (a specialty with many varieties and easy to eat as well as delicious). Other good choices are ham (it comes cooked or raw or cru which usually means it’s smoked), fruit such as apples, bananas, or kiwis which travel well, and nuts (for the salt that you will lose walking or hiking) or Swiss trail mix.
So what is Swiss trail mix? Sorry but there are no M&Ms; just an excellent healthy dried mix of fruits and a great variety of nuts (no peanuts). A little slab of pâté en croute is also a good choice and easy to carry and you just slice it with your Swiss Army knife.
It will be difficult to decide on which Swiss cheese to travel around with as there are 100s of local varieties of cheeses in Switzerland. Sometimes while hiking in the Pre-Alps, you run across little summer chalets where they make it. You can never go wrong with those homemade cheeses, but just in case you don’t find any, take some with you. It’s less important if it’s cold out, but in hot weather, it’s better to buy hard cheeses such as Emmental (the one with the holes), or Gruyère, which are both named after their region of production.
Babybel minis in a sack in the commercial cheese section (regular and now low fat “light”). It tastes something like Gouda but according to Swiss (and certainly the French) standards, it’s tasteless. I like it.
Be sure to read the labels on cheese at the supermarket. The ones just mentioned are pasteurized but there are cheeses that are not and even though they are delicious and there are only rare cases of food poisoning, your vacation is not the time to experiment with them, because you might not have the antibodies required to digest them. Look on the label for pasteurisé. If you are unsure, ask a store clerk. Someone in the store usually speaks English.
Our Daily Swiss Bread
Bread is especially important to buy daily here and they do not sell day-old. This is because it does not contain preservatives, and also because the climate is dry here.
If you cut slices and leave them out, you will have toast. I use a bread sack to keep it from drying out so quickly, but I never cut the bread in advance. Bread is always sold whole, not sliced. So if you buy bread and ingredients for a sandwich, make sure that you wrap it well so that it does not dry out in I’m talking about minutes, not hours. Since you will no doubt buy a Swiss Army knife here, you will be prepared for this.
There is sliced bread available in packages (with preservatives), but in French they call it toast and it’s used to make canapés. It’s not good for real sandwiches.
Switzerland is a paradise for healthy bread lovers. France is catching up but the baguette is still omnipresent, which can be delicious, but not healthy as a staple. In Switzerland we are able to buy fresh bread full of a mix of whole grains (called céréales in French) and then varied by mixing the dough with fresh nuts, sunflower seeds, or pumpkins seeds, which are also put on the top of the loaves. In addition there is delicious potato nut bread and olive bread that is abundant with olives.
The choice is unlimited. In supermarkets as well as in bakeries — which only put the bread in a sack when you buy it (if you ask) — the bigger stores — where they bake the bread in-house so the smell of hot bread baking leads you straight to the bread section — now put it in sacks. They also have fresh bread on the shelves in the wrappers which are partly transparent so that you can you see what’s inside.
From the Green Swiss Pastures
In the produce section of the supermarket, you can usually buy prepackaged items or buy bulk. For the bulk produce, look for the number listed by the price and go to the nearest set of scales, enter the number that you find listed on the produce item tag and your pricing label will print out and you stick it on the sack (saves a lot time at the checkout and money for the store!). Plus you realize how much you are paying and may change your mind.
Regular or organic food (which is called bio in French) is readily available, but the regular produce is also very healthy even in the supermarkets here because they use a lot of “natural” fertilizer which gives it more aroma, like the air out in the pastures (which are quite close to the city!). There are small food shops and dietetic shops that sell gluten-free and other specialty foods, but there is still not a lot of choice of those products in the supermarket unless you go to a large Manor.
By law, all foods in supermarkets must have the origin of the produce or other product information on the label (or the near the price tag on the display) so that you know where the food comes from and what’s inside. Local Swiss food is excellent and usually (but not always) less expensive.
Give Me Some Swiss Sugar!
I know that you’re going to want to carry Swiss chocolate and it’s excellent for quick energy to be sure, not to mention that it is some of the best in the world. Before you start feeling guilty about loving and indulging in Swiss chocolate, remember that cocoa (and especially dark chocolate) has concentrated amounts of iron and is in the first iron-rich food group. You can verify that with the Red Cross blood donor units. If it’s summer, you already know the probability of it melting, but if you wrap your chocolate in paper and do not put it in plastic, you have a better chance of avoiding that. Actually, newspaper is the best and is what chocolate shops use, but of course, you will need to cover your chocolate with a clean paper napkin first. More and more of the chocolate bars are packaged in cardboard which is helpful. They are also bigger and more expensive this way…perhaps a little too much iron for you!
Some of you may already be familiar with the famous Swiss breakfast drink Ovalmatine which you may know as Ovaltine, the product name that was exported abroad in 1905. There are many snack variations now.
The Swiss Army recommends OvoSport (really). It’s a chocolate-covered, high energy power bar with Ovalmatine inside (of course) and provides you with 13 vitamins, calcium and magnesium.
Another Swiss sweet to top off your picnic or to carry as a snack (sorry no chocolate in this one) is the very traditional Bischofberger Baerli-Biber – an authentic Swiss classic! It’s a round shaped large “cookie” made of gingerbread and filled with sweet hazelnut or almond paste. Easy to carry and most appreciated at the end of the afternoon. Stick with the Swiss sweets such as any of the above and forget about cookies which are usually dry and bland.
What to drink? Stay tuned. Bon appetit!
This article was originally published on Nile Guides.
- Swiss Supermarket Discoveries Part I: Snacks
- Swiss Supermarket Discoveries Part II: Culture Shock
- Rosa’s Musings: Swiss Sausage Salad, An Unforgettable Food Experience
- Switzerland: Spontaneous Cuisine: Pan-fried Sérac cheese & potato salad
- Switzerland: Rosa’s Musings: Butterzopf, The History Of A National Sunday Bread
- Switzerland: Tomatoes and Swiss Chard, and it’s in Season!