A Melting Pot: The Best Swiss Destinations for Food
For an introduction to the Swiss larder like no other, here are three worthy pit stops across the French-, German- and Italian-speaking regions of this culinarily creative nation
09 March, 2023
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Fondue might be the classic Swiss dish, but there's nothing normal about our first fondue in Switzerland. We're sitting alongside damp-haired swimmers at Geneva's Bains des Pâquis, where students, international guest workers and lifelong residents flock throughout the year to linger in the sauna, leap into the lake, tap away on their laptops and eat the best fondue in town from a café run as a social cooperative. We aren't just imbibing gruyère, we're absorbing the slightly madcap joie de vivre that drives Swiss urbanites to eat melted cheese in their sodden swimsuits, be it December or July. Surrounded by happy, half-naked diners, we realise we're in for a true treat, embarking upon a gastronomic adventure around Switzerland. Because the Swiss appetite is for decadence tempered with diligence, madness melded with meticulousness and creativity underpinned by confidence, and it's this delicate balance that has given rise to one of Europe's most exciting culinary scenes.
Bisnona restaurant, left, and Ascona in Ticino canton
Plates with purpose in Geneva
Geneva is a city built on big ideas and high ideals; the natural home of hundreds of NGOs and non-profits that bring a truly global workforce, energy and flavour to the city. The official language spoken here is Swiss French, but walking the neighbourhood of Pâquis we hear Arabic and Amharic murmured around Mediterranean, South Asian, South American and Middle Eastern food stalls, and in longstanding Ethiopian and Lebanese restaurants such as Awash and Parfums de Beyrouth. Venezuelan chef Andrés Arocena, who worked his way through high-gastronomy restaurants in San Sebastián before moving to Geneva, believes that it is the city's international character that makes it such a draw for the world's best chefs.
"You can find any nationality of food here, so there is an endless source of inspiration," he says, as he talks us through the five-course tasting menu at his Michelin-starred La Micheline. "And also the most discerning diners in the world. In Geneva, people support a good idea, but you need to impress them. There are no second chances."
Geneva is home to innovative restaurants including zero-waste Refettorio, right.
Ideas are the lifeblood of Geneva, and the most buzzed-about restaurants and cafés in the city aren't necessarily the ones with the best menu, but the ones with the boldest sense of purpose. This is perhaps best typified by Refettorio, a new kind of restaurant and community space headed by Milanese chef Walter el Nagar, who first came to Geneva to open a restaurant for the Ritz-Carlton. Refettorio was founded on a zero-waste and scholarship policy, with its pioneering (and ambitious) business model offering free dinners to those in need, paid for by the lunchtime service. "I came here to open a Ritz-Carlton restaurant, but to me, Geneva is the very opposite of the snobbishness, waste and exclusivity found at high-end restaurants," says el Nagar. "Geneva is about diplomacy, human rights, science, possibilities and humanitarianism, and I want to work in a gastronomic enterprise that reflects these ideals." This is high-concept dining, both in the menu - heavy on fermentation, with playful echoes of molecular gastronomy - and the humanitarian ideals that underpin it, making for the ultimate Swiss feel-good feast.
Basel is a creative city with heart, but ruled by a heart that knows what it is doing. There is a quiet confidence across the food scene, which goes hand in hand with an imaginative spirit
Mind-expanding menus in Basel
Swiss German-speaking Basel magically manages to be both a relaxed and free- spirited university town and a global epicentre for art, tech and architecture. It's this combination of efficiency and enterprise married with a love for life that has flavoured the city's gastronomic scene. A wander around the expansive, brutalist, purpose-built Markthalle is a good place to start. The Ukrainian food stall has the longest queue. A new arrival, rapidly welcomed into the space after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, it is where hungry students, tech workers, pharmaceutical company staff and designers all queue up to buy authentic borscht and dumplings.
Basel is immediately associated with Art Basel, the billionaire- baiting interantional art fair, and this spirit of eagerly championing new ideas seasons everything we eat or drink. At Sudhaus, a cultural complex housed in the former Warteck brewery, we devour inventive plant-based dishes at Cantina Don Camillo while listening to a pleasing mishmash of languages and accents at surrounding tables, some debating Renaissance philosophy, others the merits of microdosing. (This is apt: Basel, not California, is the birthplace of hallucinogenic science; the first-ever LSD trip was taken here by Albert Hofmann in 1943.) Everywhere we eat, we notice the city's taste for innovation. We're wowed by the flavours at Mystifry, but also struck by a cork noticeboard in the corner, where customers have "paid it forward" and contributed doughnut vouchers for "a recently out queer kid who's in need of a sweet treat" or "a solo mum who deserves to feel like a queen".
Squadra Violi, left, and lunch at Markethalle.
Later, we're sipping spritzes on the upper deck of a stranded ship called the Gannet in Holzpark Klybeck, a surreal harbour district where various artists' studios, bars and cultural collectives are housed in former shipping containers, old boats and wooden shacks. We're starting to truly get a taste of Basel - a creative city with heart, yet ruled by a head that knows exactly what it is doing. There's a quiet confidence across the culinary scene here, which goes hand in hand with an imaginative spirit.
At a pop-up lido beach bar just over the Rhine, we ask Fabio Salerno of culinary cooperative Squadra Violi, what makes him so open to experimentation. "It's not being afraid of failure," he says. "If failing doesn't scare you, there's no limit to what you can dream up and create."
Ticino's world-class cuisine
Effortlessly combining fiery Italian passion from the south with cool Swiss efficiency from the north, the region of Ticino is a highlight of any trip to Switzerland, and the genteel, cultured, lakeside city of Locarno makes the perfect base from which to explore it.
Back in the 1920s and 1930s, Europeans migrated here in search of the good life, building or occupying belle-époque mansions like the one that today houses the elegant Hotel Villa Emden, an island retreat that once played host to decadent parties and is now home to a botanical garden, restaurant and hotel.
Bohemians flocked here throughout the 20th century, too, drawn by its mix of Mediterranean and Alpine scenery and ingredients. On the outskirts of Ascona, another lakeside resort town just around the headland from Locarno, you'll find Monte Verità. Once a hippy commune, it's now a hotel, restaurant, conference centre, museum complex and Japanese tea garden, Today, a new generation of young chefs, producers, winemakers and entrepreneurs is returning, putting skills learned in the restaurants of Sydney, London, Paris and beyond into practice with some of the best natural produce on the planet.
Villa Emden, left, and the Monte Verità plantation.
This is immediately apparent at Osteria Bisnona, which was set up by four food-obsessed friends.Head chef Kira Ghidoni worked in the kitchens of hotshot British chefs like Simon Rogan and Robin Gill, and ran the show at Auckland's famed The Grove, before returning home to Ticino. "There is a real energy in Ticino, with young with young winemakers, chefs, farmers and producers doing really cool and innovative things: experimenting with different business models for farms; developing fermentation businesses. It's wonderful to feel part of this; to bring what we've learned abroad back to this beautiful corner of the world."
How to get there
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