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FOOD & DRINK

How to make the most of Swiss spring vegetables

Want to know how to cook Swiss chard? Need some ideas for asparagus season? Food writer Fran Wick tells us how to make the most of local, seasonal vegetables this spring.

How to make the most of Swiss spring vegetables
Photo: Fran Wick
The Swiss winters are long and mostly grey and dull. And personally, as much as I love winter vegetables, I'm now ready for the spring produce. Of course there are summer vegetables available to buy all year round these days but I'm mostly sticking to seasonal fruit and vegetables, for several reasons. 
 
One is that I'm part of an awesome Zurich vegetable cooperative which means spending 20 hours a year working alongside our professional gardeners in return for a weekly basket of freshly harvested vegetables. All our vegetables are grown in Zurich, which means during winter it's either stored vegetables that were harvested in autumn or the few things that grow on Zurich soil in winter. 
 
Another reason why I'm not buying any summer vegetables such as courgettes, tomatoes and aubergines in winter is that almost all of them are being grown in southern Spain where many workers, mostly immigrants from Africa, are living in slave-like conditions. The other issue is that the huge area in Spain where northern Europe's vegetables are being grown is using up the little water that's available in the mostly dry area, turning large parts of the region into irreversible desert. Local winter vegetables such as beetroot, celery, carrots, lambs lettuce and the likes are full of vitamins too, and the absence of the summer vegetables makes the arrival of spring so much more exciting!
 
Leek tart. Photo: Fran Wick
 
This year the spring vegetables are a little late due to the wet, cold weather we've had in February and March, but the first produce is coming in now. Spring in Switzerland usually starts with lettuces such as Batavia, curled leaf lettuce and head lettuce. These lettuces make a great salad together with radishes, fresh garden herbs such as parsley or chives and some mixed salad seeds. Swiss chard, another fast growing vegetable, is in season in early spring too – the large, dark green leaves are bursting with vitamins and minerals and therefore a real superfood. Swiss chard can be eaten raw in smoothies, cooked as part of stir-fries or baked as tarts. The return of leek is another sign of Swiss spring. Leek is such a versatile vegetable. My favourite leek dishes are the Swiss leek tart, a Thai stir fry with leek, chicken, red chillies, roasted cashews and soy sauce, and the quick and easy way – chopped up leek fried in a little oil and then seasoned with Maggi seasoning.
 
 
In early spring, the forests are bursting with garlic smell from the wild garlic leaves. They can be cooked in various ways, there's an abundance of recipes online. Just be careful to only pick wild garlic and not the very similar looking but toxic lily of the valley. If you're into foraging, you can also pick the young, tender dandelion leaves for salads, or elderflowers for making this delicious syrup – just make sure to leave a fair share of flowers on the trees so the birds get to pick some elderberries in autumn.
 
The vegetable the Swiss are awaiting most impatiently in spring is asparagus. The season is short, which makes it even more exciting and enjoyable. Green asparagus is delicious as a salad, cooked in salt water and then chopped up and served with a vinaigrette. Both green and white asparagus are delicious boiled and served with a Hollandaise sauce. Asparagus makes great soups too, and my all-time favourite green asparagus recipe is this spring salad with lentils, potatoes, radishes and herbs. But of course that salad calls for a barbecue; for a Swiss-style barbecue you could make these chicken skewers, a bratwurst or the good old cervelat, Switzerland's national hero.
 
Pick your own strawberries. Photo: Fran Wick
 
And then there are rhubarb and strawberries. Rhubarb makes a lovely sweet Swiss tart, and it's delicious in many desserts when stewed and sweetened. As for the strawberries, there are so many uses for them. One of my favourite desserts during strawberry season is the strawberry Swiss roll. Strawberries taste best and are cheapest when self-picked. There are pick-your-own strawberry fields all over Switzerland. Here are some instructions if you'd like to visit a strawberry field.
 
 
Knowing what fruit and vegetables are in season can be tricky as the supermarkets stock most things all year round. There are many seasonal calendars available online, for example this one or you can order a free paper version here.
 
Read more of Fran's food writing at Little Zurich Kitchen
 
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FOOD & DRINK

You are not Swiss until you try these seven weird foods

Switzerland is not exactly known for innovative cuisine but for hearty and, some say, uninspiring food. But can some of the country’s dishes be qualified as ‘weird’?

You are not Swiss until you try these seven weird foods

Unlike its neighbours France and Italy, Switzerland’s culinary tradition is relatively plain.

After all, how many foreigners would actually say “I am going to Switzerland for the food”?

Still, don’t rule out some surprises on the culinary front. Whether you consider these dishes as ‘weird’ or just very unappetising depends mostly on how adventurous you are and how solid your stomach is.

So let’s begin.

The Berner Zungenwurst (Bernese tongue sausage)

Some of the wackiest foods have a regional flavour — literally and figuratively.

One of them is a traditional “tongue sausage” from Bern.

A cookbook from 1835 states that two or three pig tongues should be used as ingredients, along with meat and blood from pork and beef. What’s not to like?

These days, however, the tongue has been phased out, but the name remains. Contemporary cookbooks call for Zungenwurst to be made from pork and beef meat, along with crackling and spices. 

In 2019, Zugenwurst achieves EU protected status, which prevents imitators from reproducing the sausage, unless they do so under a different name.

If you can get over its appearance, you might actually enjoy it.

Photo: Photo: Tamorlan, CC BY-SA 2.5/.

READ MORE: Three things to know about Switzerland’s protected ‘blood tongue sausage’

Saucisse de choux

West of Bern, in Vaud, another sausage reigns: the so-called “cabbage sausage”.

No tongue or blood here; this traditional smoked sausage is made from white cabbage, pork and bacon, and eaten boiled with potatoes and leeks — another typical Vaud dish called “papet”.

According to legend, the origin of this sausage dates back to the year 879, when the family of the Emperor of Germany stayed in the Vaud town of Orbe for several weeks.

As the meat ran out, locals mixed cabbage with the sausage meat to fill the stuffing. The smoking stage appeared in the Middle Ages, when it was realised that by smoking the meat, it could be kept longer.

Cenovis

Unless you grew up eating Marmite in the UK or Vegemite in Australia, it may take you a whIle to develop your taste buds to accept, and actually like, Cenovis —  the dark brown paste made from yeast extract.

This very salty paste is spread on a slice of buttered bread.

READ MORE: Six common myths about Swiss food you need to stop believing

How did this idea originate in the first place?

According to the company website, “it was in the mind of a visionary brewer from the Rheinfelden region in the canton of Basel-Country that the idea of using the precious yeasts from the production of beer germinated”.

Spiny thistle

If you think this plant is unfit for human consumption, Genevans will disagree with you.

That’s because cardon épineux genevois is not only a local specialty, but it is also  the first vegetable to be included in the official Swiss registry of origin.

It can be eaten, for example, as a gratin — grilled with (Swiss) cheese on top — to accompany meat or fish.

First consumed around Europe in the 16th century where it was widely cultivated, these days canton of Geneva is the only place that still produces thorned thistle.

Genevans make a dish out of this plant. Photo by Pixabay

READ MORE: Ten varieties of cheese you should be able to identify if you live in Switzerland

Rivella

That Switzerland has its own beverage is not in itself unusual (and certainly not weird) — after all, it does have plenty of cheese and chocolate of its own.

What is slightly odd, however, is that this carbonated drink is made from milk whey.

Perhaps it is because Swiss cows produce too much milk and this surplus had to be used somehow — we don’t know. What we do know is that in 1950 two men, Roberth Barth and the biologist Hans Süsli, got together in Zurich and used a recipe initially conceived to produce a whey beer to create a soft drink that tastes a bit like a mixture of ginger ale and bubble tea.

As is the case with Cenovis, you probably have to train your taste buds (or trick them) to like it.

Chestnut paste tarts

To the untrained eye, these little tarts, called vemicelles, look like worms piled on top.

In fact, in Latin “vermiculi” actually means “worms”. But if you can get past the appearance and the name, these pastries are actually quite delicious.

And making them from scratch (rather than buying them ready made) is almost an art form: traditional recipe calls for about half a kilo of chestnuts.

An incision has to be made in each chestnut before boiling. Then, chestnuts should be shelled, simmered with milk and sugar before being pressed through a special machine to create the long “worms” of chestnut paste.

Photo by Robert Patti on Unsplash

Last but not least…cholera!

OK, what is actually weird about this dish is not its content  but the truly off-putting name.

There is a reason for that: this dish was invented during the cholera outbreak in the 1830s when people were scared to leave their homes and made a pie with whatever leftovers they had on hand: potatoes, onion, apples, bacon, leek and cheese.

As far as we know, this is the only food still in existence that was created out of necessity during a health crisis. To this day, there is no dish called Covid (although all of you budding chefs out there may see that as a challenge). 

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