I arrived in Zurich jet-lagged and bleary-eyed. It was just past six in the morning when I touched down and the airport’s shops and cafes were off to an equally sleepy start. Espresso machines heaved their first purr as smartly suited shopkeepers drew up their shutters. With half an hour to spare before my train to Lucerne departed, I headed to the airport’s supermarket, a ritual that I indulge in each time I arrive in a new country. I’ve found that a casual jaunt around the supermarket’s tempting maze of produce is akin to turning a nation’s belly inside out. The habits of a nation can be read between the aisles.
The modest supermarket was brightly lit and neatly curated, and it was there that I had my first encounter with Swiss chocolate. There was nothing romantic about it. I did not black out over a lush body of 90 per cent cacao. I was intimidated, dumbfounded and dwarfed by a great wall of colourful bars whose greedy reach conquered an entire aisle. If supermarket anthropology is anything to go by, this is a country that takes its chocolate seriously. I ended up spending more time in the supermarket – or more specifically – the chocolate aisle, than I had intended to.
In the process of scoring myself some handsome snacks, I missed my train, arriving at the platform just in time to see it pull away. Therein was my second lesson on Switzerland — punctuality is non-negotiable. For a country that has turned out some of the finest watchmakers in history, it is certainly fitting that the Swiss have polished the art of timekeeping to a high sheen. So began my journey through one of the most beautiful countries in the world. I had arrived to eat my way through the abundant Swiss land, but none of the guidebooks — not even Google — prepared me for the wild beauty and vast richness of this land.
It is no surprise that chocolate grazing is a national past time, and you’ll want to head to a boutique chocolatier such as Max Chocolatier. Grisons-sourced granite walls and solid oak fittings set the tone for this elegant outfit situated along the picturesque boardwalk of Schweizerhofquai. Head up a flight of stairs at the back of the shop and you’ll find Willy Wonka land, where morsel after morsel of exquisite treats are birthed.
Similar to the world of haute couture, Max Chocolatier releases four distinct collections of chocolate each year. Each collection features creations centred on the flavours of the season. I sampled a milk chocolate square which featured rich cream sourced from the nearby Napf region, delicately flavoured with hay gathered 2,023 metres above sea level from the Seewlialp mountains. On the tongue, the chocolate melts like butter. While the texture is seductive, there’s something incredibly addictive about combining the richness of cream, slight bitterness of cocoa, and sundried crispness of hay.
Head down south to Ticino and you’ll find yourself in the Italian-speaking canton of Switzerland. In many ways, the languid vibe and Mediterranean riot of colours here echo those of Italy. When asked why someone would choose to settle in Ticino over a neighbouring Italian province, a Ticinese man jested, “I enjoy all the joys of Italy here – with the added bonus of Swiss efficiency”.
Here, I was surprised to find rice flourishing in the Maggia delta. Some of the top grains come from the Terreni alla Maggia farm, which grows Loto, a risotto-grade rice unique to this part of Switzerland. It is only fitting that a beautiful risotto is paired with a wine unique to the region – merlot bianco. Produced by soft-pressing red merlot grapes, this unusual variety is an elegant, straw coloured wine. The white merlot has gained such prominence amongst vintners that it is almost a byword for Ticino. Discover the white merlot by visiting local wine-producers or by following a network of wine routes.
True schnapps is formed by first fermenting fruits before putting them through a distillation process. The result is a clear but powerful brandy best enjoyed neat. Schnapps to the Swiss is what vodka is to the Russians. They drink it neat, soak bread in it, and kick start their day by dousing their morning coffee with a swift shot.
At Brennerei Stalder, I was received by Xaver, owner of this five-hectare farm and distillery at Weggis. This family-run business turns out 2,000 litres of schnapps in a year. Xaver showed me around the distillery in all its steam punk glory and I marvelled at how surprisingly small the outfit was. But it is not about quantity, but quality. When the time came to taste the fruit of his labour, I was all ready to down a shot or two. While the schnapps was deceptively sweet on the nose, it turned out to be a crisp knockout laced with a fruity aftertaste. And at 37.5 per cent volume, I could almost feel the hair growing on my chest. That must be the taste of victory.
Garden of Eden
In the summer of 1940, Emil Richterich brought together plantain, lady’s mantle, elder, marshmallow, peppermint, thyme, sage, cowslip, horehound, burnet, speedwell, mallow and yarrow to form what is one of the most recognisable herbal cough drops in the world today — Ricola. More than 70 years later, the proportions of the 13 herbs in the Ricola recipe remain a well-guarded secret. The 13 herbs are sourced from some 100 independent farmers from all across Switzerland, keeping the Swiss heritage of herb cultivation well and alive.
If you have time on your side and a spirit for adventure, a visit to each herb farm makes for a great road trip. A visit to the herb garden at Klewen Alp in Nidwalden begins with a slow cable car ride through the clouds. Once you arrive at the gardens, perched 1,600 metres above sea level, you’ll also find panoramic views of Lake Lucerne and the grand mountain ridges beyond.