Eating green, sustainable, local, foraged… these aren’t just watchwords for avant garde chefs in Switzerland, but a growing movement everywhere you go. We travelled across the country to track the vegetarian trend and find out just how deep the change in mindset goes, from mass market to Michelin-starred eateries.
The times are changing and so are all of us.
As a first-time traveller to Switzerland 15 years ago, I thanked my lucky stars that I was flexitarian, because the pure vegetarians in the group were having a hard time of it. It was a running joke that they were being fed like the Swiss cows are… a lot of fresh, raw greens, and little less. For the hosts, it was incomprehensible that anyone would even turn down their salad dressing as ‘non-veg’ because it contained egg! And fish? “Now, isn’t that vegetarian?” they’d ask, knotting their brows in acute puzzlement.
Over the decades, Indian tourists in Switzerland, especially the vegetarian ones, have found ways to circumvent the country’s meat-centric menus. They either resign themselves to eating fondue, raclette and roesti daily (spelling an overdose of cheese, potato, and bread), eating at Indian restaurants, or taking along their own cooks and ingredients for the journey! But, today, there’s a brave new breed of vegetarian travellers who want to eat local, to try something beyond cheese, and these are the ones who now stand to benefit from the Swiss’s push for vegetarianism and sustainable eating.
For, Switzerland has not only started to think vegetarian, but even celebrates a Veggie Day (October 1) to encourage more discussions around going vegetarian, and to encourage people to at least consider eating less meat if not completely converting to a plant-based diet. They believe that if everyone in Switzerland were to eat vegetarian for just one day a week, they could save the equivalent of 3.7 billion kilometers worth of car emissions in just one year!
Their reasons for vegetarianism may be different from that of many Indians, who eschew meat and seafood because of their religion or upbringing, but the consequence of them veering towards vegetarianism means that Indian travellers now have a lot of options.
On a night out on the town in Zurich, catching up with a childhood friend who has been vegan for several years, it was heartening to see a number of local restaurants catering to this new and fast-increasing customer demographic, with clearly marked items or even separate sections in their menu.
Moulding mindsets in Zurich
One of them has been doing this for more than 120 years, though. Haus Hiltl, an all-veg restaurant in Zurich, has been featured in the Guinness World Records for being the world’s oldest vegetarian restaurant.
I’m at the Hiltl Academy on the fifth floor of the headquarters on Sihlstrasse, talking to fourth-generation owner Rolf Hiltl. Sensing the argumentative Indian in me starting to question the claim, as there are so many old vegetarian restaurants in India too, Hiltl quickly jumps in with “The full title is ‘the oldest continuously open vegetarian restaurant in the world’. And let’s say ‘run by a family’ too.”
The traditional idea that consuming meat is the only way to be healthy and robust has been subverted by this successful restaurant that has been proudly vegetarian since 1898. While Rolf is admittedly flexitarian, he notes that there is a growing clientele of local Swiss residents who now seek out a good vegetarian or even vegan meal quite regularly.
Apart from the lavish buffet area, an à la carte menu, and almost 80 per cent vegan offerings at Haus Hiltl, the brand also has the Hiltl Academy where a dedicated team is constantly developing new dishes, has published several bestselling recipe books, catered to events across Switzerland, entered collaborations for different restaurants, and even started the ‘first vegi butchery of Switzerland’ selling mock meat.
Considering their thrust on veganism in a country where milk and cheese are the biggest industries, I ask Hiltl what the government’s position on this is. He says, “It’s very political. On the one side, the vegans are radical. Maybe they have to be, like Greenpeace was at the time, to move something. On the other side, you have farmers and especially the government, who gives them money for rearing cows for the milk.”
Hiltl elaborates, “They should support farmers growing wheat, vegetables, etc. For example, my co-investor has to use yellow peas, but they don’t get them in Switzerland, and have to import them from France! If the people want more plant-based food, we have to grow more plants… it’s just logical.”
The magician of Madulain
Chef Paolo Casanova, whose Michelin-starred restaurant Chesa Stüva Colani in a 17th century building in Madulain, has a considerable fan following, finds that creating all-vegetarian and vegan degustation menus gives him a sense of great satisfaction.
“When we abuse animal protein and fat, it’s not healthy. It’s not healthy for the Earth, not healthy for us… the doctors say this. People are interested to see how I can do an eight-course vegan or nine-course vegetarian menu without any animal protein or fat. They wonder, what will I create, how will I present it, plate it? But, when they finish the meal, they are amazed,” he smiles.
There are only 230 residents in Madulain, but this picturesque town in the Upper Engadin Alpine valley, which is less than 20 minutes away from the sophistication of St Moritz, gets a lot of visitors, thanks to its gorgeous hiking and skiing trails, the fascinating ruins of an ancient castle, and Casanova’s pathbreaking Michelin-starred restaurant.
Not surprising, really. The Michelin guide says about the Italian-born chef, “Absolutely up to the minute in technical terms, Paolo Casanova’s cooking is elaborate and anything but ‘off the peg’. This is a chef who is extremely dedicated to his cause, seeking inspiration in the region and the seasons, gathering, and growing his own herbs, fermenting, and pickling… All of which gives the dishes a personal touch as well as extremely interesting nuances of flavour.”
A big part of Chef Paolo’s creativity comes from the ingredients that he and his team forage for in the surrounding mountains and countryside. It involves being very much in tune with nature and the seasons, I glean from our conversation as we drive up some stunningly beautiful trails bright with fall colours.
“Sometimes, I’m sitting by the cliffside, and I see various ingredients growing around me and the idea for a dish just comes together all at once as I daydream,” he shares, admitting that he spends a lot of time in the forest and outdoors.
We visit an artisanal cheese manufacturer for a tasting with local schnapps. But the high point of the experience is certainly to feel the excitement when Chef Paolo spots some mushrooms halfway down the hillside and hops nimbly out of the car to go and pick them. They’ll be vetted by a mushroom expert before they’re served, of course, but to see him in action is almost as special as the most memorable nine-course wine-paired vegetarian lunch that follows.
Vegetarian wizardry in Vals
Just as passionate about foraging and using local produce is charismatic Chef Mitja Birlo, whose restaurant 7132 Silver is in Vals on the other side of the Graubünden canton of Switzerland, more than a hundred kms away from Madulain. Chef Birlo works very closely with the local farmers to source everything from vegetables to dairy products to beef and pork sustainably. And since every slice of bread or croissant is made inhouse in their own bakery, they like to give back to the community by supplying their high-quality baked goods to the village café too.
On the eve of trying his fabulous nine-course all-vegetarian wine-paired dinner, Chef Mitja takes me through his spotless kitchen (where he also hosts chef’s tables as well as one course of the tasting menu for everyone), introduces me to his team and his secret stash of sauerkraut!
Originally from the lowlands of Germany, he has fallen in love with the mountains of Vals. As we sit down to chat, the crisp air carries the sounds of cow bells and the pleasant buzzing of insects far away. It underlines how much Chef Mitja resonates with the region, as he waxes lyrical about the local produce. “Every chef is different, but for us, it’s not a big problem to develop vegetarian dishes. To be honest with you, a carrot coming from a farmer here can have as much value for me as a piece of beef filet. So, we treat this with the same kind of respect and the possibilities are endless,” he says. Not just the produce, but even the local rock has been used by him in unique ways at the restaurant!
He has offered a nine-course vegetarian menu that’s just as well planned and executed as the non-vegetarian one right from day one of operations almost a decade ago. Just as he says, I find that the vegetarian experience is so superlative, (the wine-paired version starting with Cristal Champagne and ending with the option of Schnapps poured from vintage bottles custom crafted by Swarovski for Silver) that even a regular meat and seafood lover like me doesn’t miss those at all.
The two Michelin stars and 18 points on the Gault & Millau scale are truly well deserved. “Excellent ingredients and sophisticated techniques go into each course of his set menu, which is stamped with his own distinctive style,” says the Michelin guide, promising that Chef Mitja’s cooking is well worth a detour, and I would agree wholeheartedly.
Wowed by vegetables in Vitznau
Vitznau, at the base of Mount Rigi and located on a beautiful bay of Lake Lucerne, has attracted tourists for centuries. And yet, it is much more charming and less overrun with day-trippers and desi hordes than spots such as Interlaken. In the historic art nouveau hotel Vitznauerhof, I sip my cocktail named ‘Life is Better on the Lake’ as I sit in their gorgeous lakeside bar and can’t help but count my blessings.
The dashingly Dutch Chef Jeroen Achtien talks me through the history of how he came to take on as Executive Chef of the hotel and to elevate the experience at the lakeside restaurant Sens to its 18 Gault & Millau points and two Michelin star status. What was once a boathouse is now the sophisticated stage for some serious gastronomical drama.
Chef Jeroen’s culinary creations have been hailed for their wildly adventurous pairings and from the meal that he serves on the serene lakeside deck, it’s clear that his is the daredevilry of a tightrope walker assured of his talent.
The Michelin guide says, “Dutchman Jeroen Achtien, who cooked for many years in Jonnie Boer’s three-star restaurant, presents a surprise menu that is technically very sophisticated, but unpretentious for all that. Intense flavours are creatively combined in exciting ways and with a truly delicate touch.”
Chef Jeroen tells me he especially likes to work with fermented vegetables, sourcing a lot of produce from their own back garden. He says, “The nature around Vitznau offers an extraordinary variety of resources to experiment and create new things. Working with the regional products around Lake Lucerne and combining them with flavours from around the world is the most exciting thing for me. In addition, vegetarian dishes play an important role on the menu of the fine dining restaurant Sens.”
Swisstainable is an attainable goal
These are just a few of the many restaurants in Switzerland that are now actively taking vegetarian cuisine seriously. In fact, over 1200 local restaurants and businesses participated in the Swisstainable Veggie Day on October 1 this year, by offering a vegetarian-only menu for a day, while the country’s national airline SWISS joined in by serving only vegetarian meals to business-class travellers for the day. Through this day of action, Switzerland Tourism, together with HotellerieSuisse, GastroSuisse and Planted, aimed to set an example for sustainable gastronomy.
The Swiss already consume the most organic products per capita, and the country’s retailers have been leading the international sustainability rankings for years. Promoting a plant-based diet is the logical progression. They say just five per cent of the Swiss are vegetarians and the figure is rising by the day as more and more people are getting aware of the health and ecological benefits of going vegetarian.
Ritu Sharma, Deputy Director, Switzerland Tourism, adds, “Switzerland has always offered a complete culinary experience for every kind of traveller, which is why it is also such a popular destination for Indians. We believe in all things natural, and some of our best traditional dishes include vegetarian ones like raclette, fondue, the Valais vegetable cake cholera, polenta from Ticino as well as the popular röesti (made with grated potatoes).”
This is all part of their Swisstainable programme, an initiative that helps travellers discover Switzerland in a more sustainable way, by enjoying nature up close and at firsthand; by experiencing the local culture in an authentic way; by consuming regional products; and by staying longer and delving deeper.
There’s something about Switzerland
Will travel for chocolate? A delicious day out at the world’s largest chocolate museum
A vegetarian’s Sydney diary