LOCAL CUSTOMS, CULTURE AND FOODS OF SWITZERLAND
If the Swiss have a gentle but perceptible air of superiority, it is well deserved. For over 675 years, Switzerland has maintained her status as an independent nation – no small feat for a nation in the heart of Europe.
Switzerland is made up of 22 separate cantons, each almost a country in miniature, with its own history, food specialties, local government, and even a distinctly local dialect. The 6.7 million Swiss profess membership in 18 faiths (but predominantly Protestant), 3 main ethnic groups – Italian, German, and French – and speak 4 languages – German, French, Italian, and Romansh. Although German predominates, most Swiss can speak several languages, and the Latin-based Romansh is spoken mostly in the Grisons area.
This diversity in ethnic background and languages, as well as the number of distinct areas, is a unique situation, for no other country as small as Switzerland can claim such a patchwork, and a peaceful one at that. In fact, it is probably because each Swiss is a member of a minority group that they are so tolerant of other nationalities, languages, and lifestyles. However, their national tolerance stops short at any indication of autocracy or bureaucracy; it is believed that true Swiss will sell their souls to no one.
So loyal are the Swiss to their hometown that marriage outside of their canton is considered a “mixed marriage.” Emotional and traditional ties are strong: the family comes first, then the hometown, the canton, and finally Switzerland itself. Swiss society like Swiss loyalty is traditional and well ordered, and perhaps this too is a factor in individual security and self-confidence.
The Swiss characteristically rise early and work hard and often late hours. Quality and value-for money are basic concepts. They expect this same seriousness from everyone else and will not tolerate either shoddy work or inferior products. More than half the population is engaged in agriculture in small rural areas; the rest are involved in a diversity of specialized industries such as watch making and precision machines and tools. Yet Switzerland suffers from a chronic labor shortage and each year approximately half a million laborers are imported from other countries, even from as far away as Greece and Turkey.
It is also no accident that some of the finest chef and hotel administration schools are located in Switzerland. Not only do the Swiss have a penchant for education and culture, they are also famed for their hospitality and politeness. Customers are always considered as personal guests and their comfort and happiness are of prime importance. Guests enjoy warm, clean surroundings, bountiful food servings, and a surfeit of “good days” and “thank you” as well as the idyllic scenery of picturesque towns, green valleys, and snow-tipped mountains. Yet although their chef schools teach “haute cuisine” and their hospitality is all-inclusive, the Swiss are quietly reserved in their friendships and domestic life and prefer the simplest of menus.
Swiss life, as Swiss food, is very much influenced by neighbors: France, Germany, Austria, and Italy. Specialty dishes from each of these countries have long been intertwined with local regional specialties to produce a simple but substantial cuisine centering on soups, breads and nourishing cheese, egg and vegetable dishes. Recent trends in foods have attempted more exotic fare adapted from Chinese and Malaysian cooking but retaining mildness in flavor.
One of the most successful “food movements” was started by Dr. Bircher-Benner in Zurich. He invented muesli, a combination of toasted oats, shredded dried apples and nuts. His movement stresses the inclusion of fresh salads and wholegrain cereals, but it is muesli that has attained almost a worldwide reputation as a “Swiss breakfast.”
Switzerland is many things: mountains and lakes, specialized schools and industries, a peaceful mix of people and languages, a huge wheel of Swiss cheese or a chunk of smooth Swiss chocolate. But probably most of all, Switzerland is people – people who have learned more than any other nation in the world the consummate art of blending tolerance and politeness with innate simplicity, to end up with a subtle sophistication entirely Swiss. It is a phenomenon as incredible as their mix of foods adopted from other countries. Somehow, in Swiss hands, these foods become purely Swiss.