Swiss Supermarket Discoveries Part I: Snacks
by Sonja Holverson
From the archives
I have found in my world travels that one of the highlights for revealing the secrets of the local culture when in a new destination is to go to the neighborhood supermarket. Even if you don’t need anything, this visit is a must everywhere. It’s fascinating.
Even if you don’t know what some things are, it’s amazing to observe the different presentation of goods as well as the packaging, transaction techniques and social behaviors in the store. Switzerland is particularly interesting because the country has four national languages (German, French, Italian and Romansch, which is an ancient Latin language). With various cultural backgrounds in different regions, you will find different food items available, but many products are, by law, labeled in at least 3 languages. The Swiss German supermarkets’ food items are quite different from those you find in the French speaking region (called “Suisse Romande” or “Romandie” in French), even if it’s the same store chain.
Feeling the need for a quick snack after walking around (or mostly up and down) in the clean Swiss Alpine air? Can’t wait for the later-than-you’re-used-to Swiss dinner hour? Then head for the nearest supermarket where you will find the locals snacking away. Sometimes there are benches inside and outside the supermarket door just for this purpose! This is not to say that there is not a wonderful choice of restaurants in Switzerland. Au contraire! But as a business traveler like me, you may find yourself hungry at odd times and lunch service is usually over at 2:00 p.m. Dinner does not usualy start until 7:00 p.m. in French-speaking Switzerland and 5 p.m. in German-speaking Switzerland, or later if your Swiss friends live on Lake Geneva and are très chic. There are exceptions. The reason behind this afternoon restaurant closure is that most waiters, chefs and owners work split shifts and need a break before dinner service.
Before you even get into the heart of the grocery store, there is usually some sort of food stand (even a café) or ready-to-eat items — sold separately and conveniently — located at the entrance of most supermarkets. If there is a hot food stand you will find items like Chausson a la viande (a crescent-shaped pastry “slider” filled with meat or a ramequin (like a mini quiche with different ingredients) or pâté traiteur (tennis ball size pastry filled with pate) which are local favorites. In some supermarkets that only have cold snacks, you can find canapés aux asperges (asparagus) or au saumon (salmon). Hey, I think your French is improving!
If your palate is still yearning for salty food, which is good for replacing salt and minerals used up when walking (up and down), go deeper into the mysterious Swiss food “cavern” for quicker culinary treasures. You can buy different kinds of olives in sealed plastic bags on the condiment shelves, but the best ones are in the fresh salad section with many flavors in small plastic containers, where you’ll also find other types of marinated anti-pasti to tempt you there.
While you’re in produce, you could always get some seasonal fruit. Swiss supermarkets have open bulk produce bins (as well as packaged amounts) and you can buy as much or as little as you like. In the very expensive gourmet food supermarkets you tell the clerk which fruits you want and how many or the weight then they retrieve and package them for you (and you really pay for that, but the fruit tends to be riper and truly delicious).
Most Swiss supermarkets carry a large variety of exotic fruits and strange vegetables which are unrecognizable (at least to me and mostly imported from Africa, Asia and South America). So if you’re adventurous, there is a myriad of interesting choices. Try the physalia/uchuva from Colombia. It is a round orange fruit about the size of a grape, but firmer and is covered with what appears and feels to be an Asian paper lantern. The first time I bit into them, I thought it was going to be sweet, but then it changed to a more neutral tasting experience, followed by a somewhat strange aftertaste. Now I know that most locals use them as decor on the plate of the main course or dessert as they are quite elegant, especially if you pull on the paper lantern wings and turn them into a tail of the fruit.
Do not even look for potato chips. although they may have something similar that are even called potato chips (or crisps in British English). This is a country where, even though there is a huge Proctor & Gamble company in Geneva, Pringles were never on the market in Switzerland until the 21st century. You will even find packages labeled “taco chips”. Don’t do it; they’re made in Belgium. What do they know about masa flour? You will only be disappointed. You can also skip the package with the picture of 1960s Party Mix. The only thing on that shelf that the Swiss buy are the fluted bread sticks for the apero later in the day.
Borderline healthy are cereal bars which here are far from the delicious granola bars that I remember (correctly?) in the USA. Do not buy cereal bars with the brand Farmers brand (Migros). I don’t care how hungry you are. They are like eating sawdust mixed with sugar and unidentifiable flavors. The safest bet is the Balisto brand (Coop) and only the Balisto NUTS product. Buy the whole box because they are small any way and you may need one another time.
Dried fruit and packages of nuts are very good and there is a large variety. The dates from Tunisia in the produce department are excellent and still on the stem. But I’m sure that you’ve already found the refrigerated dessert bin with fresh sweets such as tartlette filled with sweet fruit or what’s called the Tulipe – an ice cream cone shaped like a tulip and filled with cream and fruit. They are also already cut-to-go and packaged in single servings of lovely fresh pieces of gâteau aux pommes or with other fruits (it will be with prunes in September). Although gâteau means cake, the term is used loosely in French, and these are really wonderful slices of pie. Then there is the local omnipresent carac which is almost a Swiss institution. It is like a tart crust but filled with solid Swiss chocolate with green icing with one dollop of chocolate in the center. Not to be missed.
Whatever you do, do not buy the cookies (called biscuits in British English and French). I don’t care how good they look; they are dry (unless you love that). Even the imported Pepperidge Farm cookies are coffee dippers only. There is one exception at Christmas when there are special soft and chewy gingerbread and chocolate cookies shaped like stars.
Unless you love cupcakes, do not buy “muffins” and expect muffins. In fact, as a rule of thumb, don’t buy anything that looks American because it isn’t. Anyway, I think I’ve given you a good overview for getting started on your own personal discovery of Swiss snacks.