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COOKING

The Swiss regional comfort foods you just have to try

Swiss chef Ulrich Koepf has worked all over the world but his favourite dessert remains a cake from his home canton of Aargau. Here, he takes us on a culinary tour of Switzerland, picking out the local dishes you should look out for.

The Swiss regional comfort foods you just have to try
The Aargauer Rüeblitorte. Photo: Ulrich Koepf
Switzerland’s food is heavily influenced by the fact that this small country is surrounded by five other nations, all of whom have their own signature dishes. These specialities show how influences from France, Germany, Italy, Austria and Lichtenstein crossed the border into Switzerland. 
 
Uri: Ryys und Boor 
 
Photo: Ulrich Koepf
 
One of the most significant culinary influences is from Italy. During the building of the Gotthard tunnel from 1871 to 1882, Italian workers used to share their risotto with the Swiss workers. The Swiss then added potatoes and leeks to it in order to create a more substantial, heavier meal to get them through the day working in the tunnel. 
 
That is how the dish  Ryys und Boor  (rice and leeks) was created which is still today a specialty in the canton of Uri where you find the northern entrance of the Gotthard tunnel.
 
Zurich: Schnitzel
 
Photo: Ulrich Koepf
 
In the German speaking regions of Switzerland, popular items such as pork Schnitzel with French fries, veal Julienne with mushrooms in a cream sauce served with potato hash browns (Rösti) are likely influences from Germany and Austria, according to cookbook author Alice Vollenweider, who discovered old recipes from the 19th century which described Geschnetzeltes (Schnitzel). But it was not until 1947 when today’s version of Zürcher Geschnetzeltes (Zurich-style Schnitzel) appeared in a cookbook by Rosa Graf.
 
Aargau: Schnitz und Drunder and Rüeblitorte
 
Photo: Ulrich Koepf
 
I was born in the northern Swiss canton of Aargau, and one of the food items I grew up with is a dish called Schnitz und Drunder, a one-pot dish consisting of potatoes, bacon, dehydrated pear and apple sections. A rough translation would be ‘sections and stuff’. 
 
During my childhood when times were rough and we couldn’t afford to buy meat my mother came up  with a shortcut of this dish by using leftover bread slices toasted in butter and then she added steamed apple sections to it and mixed it all up.  It always did the job by filling our bellies! 
 
For dessert there was Aargauer Rüeblitorte, a local carrot cake  which derives from the name Rüebliland (‘root’ land) since in the 19th century the people living in the region around the capital of Aargau mainly cultivated root vegetables, especially turnips.
 
My favourite dessert in the world also originated in Aargau. It’s called Bundesrat Schaffner Torte and was created for a newly elected federal councillor by the name of Schaffner back in 1961 when the small community of Graenichen organized a reception for him and the baker/confectioner Ernst Wolleb created this special cake consisting of multiple layers of meringue, cream and sponge. 
 
When I tasted this cake the first time it almost blew my mind, the texture was absolutely amazing, light, fluffy and not too sweet, it was like having angels dancing on your tongue! It is still a popular dessert in most parts of Switzerland but sold under a different name  and in my opinion not quite like the original.
 
Vaud: Ramequin and saucisson en croûte
 
Photo: Ulrich Koepf
 
Should you  be travelling through the French speaking regions of Switzerland you will note the influence of neighbouring France, especially the Alsace region.
 
My friend Patrick Calvetti and his family own a restaurant in the village of  Orbe in the canton of Vaud where he cooks many specialties with French influences. One is Ramequin, which consists of slices of white bread baked with regional cheeses, covered with a tasty seasoned egg and milk mixture poured over the whole dish before baking. 
 
Another is saucisson en croûte, a well seasoned pork sausage, poached in a broth with seasoning, leeks and white wine, then wrapped in a pizza or pastry dough and baked for about 30 minutes. Mustard is then added to the broth and thickened with egg yolks to be served as a sauce with the sausage.
 
Neuchâtel: Jacquerie Neuchateloise 
 
From the canton of Neuchâtel comes Jacquerie Neuchâteloise, a one-pot dish consisting of Sauerkraut (choucroute), bacon, seasonings and white wine from the Neuchâtel vineyards served with chicken breast. The sauerkraut is slowly cooked with the bacon and white wine, thickened by adding a grated fresh potato, and then served with chicken breast braised in white wine. A sauce is made by adding garlic, butter, anchovies cream and parsley.
 
Lac Léman (and elsewhere): Filet de perch
 
Photo: Ulrich Koepf
 
Personally one of  my favourite foods in Switzerland is a  local fish from the lakes all across Switzerland such as Egli filet (perch), sautéed in butter with toasted almonds, lemon and parsley served with steamed potatoes and wilted garlicky spinach. Yum yum!
 
Bon Appetite, Buen Provecho, Guten Appetite, Buon Appetito!
 
A version of this article was previously published on Ulrich Koepf’s blog.
 

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

Will Switzerland be able to feed itself in the future?

Amid a worsening climate crisis and an increasingly unstable world food system, Clare O’Dea looks at what Switzerland and its population need to do to ensure there is enough food on the table in the years to come.

Will Switzerland be able to feed itself in the future?

Faced with a growing global population, the climate crisis and increasingly degraded agricultural land, the challenge of how to feed the world in the near future is one of the burning issues of the day. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has created a multitude of additional food security problems, contributing to already rising global food prices and rising input costs for agriculture, such as energy and fertilisers. 

Meanwhile, Switzerland’s food self-sufficiency rate is relatively low for Europe at around 50 per cent. The government’s new agriculture strategy for 2050 has set the seemingly modest goal of maintaining that level.

The 79-page strategy document, like most such publications, does not look beyond 2050. But this is just the point when climate change and increasing demand for food are expected to intensify.

Should we be alarmed?

One thing the Covid-19 pandemic showed was that not all countries are equally affected by a global crisis. Money is usually the main protection against disaster, but leadership, preparedness, and the ability and willingness to respond quickly are also important. 

For domestic food production over the next two to three decades, hope still rests on two main pillars – boosting productivity in a sustainable way, and changing consumer behaviour. There’s not much else that can be done. 

EXPLAINED: Why Switzerland’s inflation has rate stayed low compared to elsewhere?

The bad news is that the Swiss population is not eating a well-balanced diet and the average intake of calories is too high.

People are not eating enough dairy products, pulses, fruit and vegetables and consuming too much meat, sweet things and alcohol. 

We all know this.

But did you know how harmful this love affair with our stomachs is? The strategy document spells it out: “The environmental impact of consumption could be halved if people adopted a healthy diet, based on the nutritional recommendations.”

With a different portfolio of food grown in Switzerland corresponding to a healthier diet, the self-sufficiency rate would increase too. Consumer behaviour is changing but not radically or quickly enough. It’s hard to see the harm being reduced without enforced measures of some kind. 

READ MORE: Seven products that are becoming more expensive in Switzerland

Another crying shame of our food system and lifestyle is that a third of the food produced by farmers ends up being wasted between field and fork. All that energy, money and ecological impact for nothing. 

Although food self-sufficiency carries its own risks – vulnerability to local shocks, extra pressure on the environment – being too reliant on imports is not ideal. Overall, the EU is a net food exporter. But the Swiss government has made it clear that Switzerland will continue to rely significantly on imports for the foreseeable future. 

One simple reason is the limited availability of agricultural land. Currently 36 per cent of Switzerland’s land surface is given over to agricultural production and pasture. Farmers have to compete with growing urbanisation and, of course, the non-negotiable presence of the mountains that cover 60 per cent of the land’s surface.

During the Covid-19 pandemic we saw that money can, up to a point, buy you health. Switzerland nabbed so many of the globally available vaccines that it has had to donate or destroy surplus. Money can also buy you food, and this, along with proximity to supply, puts Switzerland is a rather secure position. 

In fact, Switzerland came fifth out of 113 countries in the Global Food Security Index which considers the issues of food affordability, availability and quality, as well as natural resource and resilience. By which we could conclude that everything is under control. 

The victims of this year’s global food crisis – the 323 million people who will become acutely food insecure, according to the UN – live in the countries that routinely appear at the bottom of such indexes. 

Nevertheless, according to the Swiss agricultural research body Agroscope, we should not feel a false sense of security. Apart from dependence on foreign countries and climate change, power supply is one of the key threats to Swiss food supply. 

In its latest annual assessment of threats to food supply, Agroscope wrote that the probability of and the potential damage from a serious power shortage are particularly high compared to other risks. “Supplies of vital foodstuffs would be massively affected, the effects would be manifold, and would not be overcome quickly.”

If the worst comes to the worst, Switzerland stockpiles compulsory stocks of essential goods for bridging in case of crisis and shortages. Mandatory storage facilities around the country hold three to four months’ worth of basic foodstuffs like sugar, rice, cooking oils, cereals and animal feed. 

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Is that reassuring? Three months doesn’t feel like a lot.

These stocks are only released when the economy itself is no longer able to satisfy demand. In any case, Agroscope says “household emergency stocks are of great importance”.

I don’t know about you, but I’m off to the supermarket.

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