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A guide to a sustainable food trip through Switzerland

An ecosystem of chefs, producers and tech-based startups is making it possible to have a conscious food trip across the country—one that is responsible and highlights the local produce

The farmer's market in Lucerne is a great place to find local seasonal produce. Photo: iSTOCKPHOTO

By Avantika Bhuyan

LAST PUBLISHED 04.12.2022  |  07:04 AM IST

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For the longest time, a meal in Switzerland would whip up images of fondue, grills, and raclette—essentially dishes heavy in meat, cheese and other dairy. My friends and family would struggle to find vegetarian options in the country. However, all that is changing now, with restaurants of all formats opting for the sustainable route, after recognising the high carbon footprint of an all-meat menu. Aided by tech-based startups that assess food waste and help reduce carbon emissions, chefs are now highlighting the vibrant organic produce that grows in the countryside and crafting innovative sustainable menus. It’s become rather easy to chart a sustainable gastronomic itinerary through Switzerland now.

A picturesque train ride from Zurich airport takes one to the historic town of Sion, located in the south-western Swiss canton of Valais. A brief walk from the station leads one to Damien Germanier, a Michelin-starred restaurant. The dining area, tastefully done up with photographs and art, leads to the kitchen where Germanier and his team are working wonders with seasonal produce using techniques such as lacto-fermentation. The restaurant is unique for many reasons—it offers an option of an all-vegetarian tasting menu, and its contemporary style is a departure from the classic French cooking that influences most restaurants in this region. “When I started in the business, vegetables were used merely as garnish in meat dishes. However, when I started my restaurant, I decided to focus a lot on seasonal produce, using them in entirety, from leaf to skin," he says.

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Germanier showcases this philosophy in the meal that follows. There is a wonderful salsify broth garnished with juniper, which has a certain sweetness to it as it has been ground without being toasted. This is followed by a squid-shaped dish of red cabbage with hazelnut sauce and a hazelnut sable. Parsnips, celery and squash are highlighted in each of the dishes, with the vegetables taking centre stage. The piece de resistance is the raisin, nut and kumquat ice cream and the juniper berry and cider sorbet.

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What is sustainable gastronomy?

Sustainable travel doesn’t mean having to forego on experiences, rather it is about deepening your engagement with a region. It’s about immersing oneself in local culture and consuming regional products. Swiss Tourism is addressing this idea through the Swisstainable initiative, launched last year, with the aim of making Switzerland a sustainable travel destination. And food is an integral part of this. Ritu Sharma, deputy director, Switzerland Tourism, quotes a study by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, which states if everyone in the country were to eat vegetarian for just one day a week, they could save the equivalent of 3.7 billion kilometres worth of car emissions in just one year—that’s 90,000 times around the earth.

Raisin, nut and kumquat ice cream at the David Germanier restaurant in Sion

It is to achieve that the Veggie Day was also celebrated on 1 October to showcase only regional produce. According to projections by Eaternity, an organisation that develops solutions for the food industry to measure efficiently the environmental footprint of its products, this day would have saved 75 tons of carbon dioxide in a single day in Switzerland. “The demand for authentic vegetarian meals from tourists as well as locals has really pushed our chefs and restaurants to explore the world of vegetarian food," says Sharma.

Most people in Switzerland are flexitarians—including both meat and veggies in their diet, however they lean more towards the former. With lifestyle changes and rising alarm about the climate crisis, a change is seeping in, and restaurants are leading that by being part of such initiatives. Make sure to visit the farmer’s markets in Lucerne and Lausanne as well to buy straight from the producers—for instance, the market in Lausanne, located in the shadow of the Cathedral of Lausanne, features stalls after stalls of some of the best seasonal mushrooms. The one in Lucerne has a stall, among other things, dedicated to greens, which mentions the provenance of each.

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Startups for change

So, when you travel across Switzerland, make sure to check for the Swisstainable label at restaurants to see if they are committed to sustainability or not. There are other labels that you can look out for. One of these is by EcoCook, a sustainability assessment and certification programme for the food industry. Started by Olivia Grebler, a chemist and an environmental engineer, it helps restaurants achieve certain environmental and social markers—such as reducing energy costs up to 60 %, water consumption up to 20 % and waste management costs up to 30 %. This is in addition to all environmental impacts that could be avoided such as CO2 emissions, climate change, biodiversity loss and water/soil pollution.

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While setting up the consultancy nearly a decade ago, the first thing she did was to develop a standard. “We realised we needed to help caterers and restaurants in their path to obtaining data. Also, sometimes they work with amazing products but don’t have the time to communicate that to the final consumer. We help them do all of that," she explains. EcoCook is more than just a certification, it’s a consulting programme with an online platform, available in five languages. It can be accessed by restaurants anywhere in the world, and they can take the free online test to gauge where they rank on the sustainability quotient.

Today, EcoCook is recognised in public tenders and by the Swisstainable programme. The team works with more than 80 organisations such as the TOM Cafe at The Olympic Museum in Lausanne. “We have eight chapters, within which more than 250 criteria and assessment criteria have been organised. For instance, we assess how much waste they generate per meal. It could be paper and carton waste as well. We help them with improvement programmes for the short-term to long-term," elaborates Grebler. “For instance, for the short-term, they could choose a better option of food packaging from the same food provider. Ideally, they should have some vegetarian options. Every criteria has a different weightage, and they get a lot of points if, for example, they offer also healthy menus." If the restaurant is conscious enough, it obtains an independent certification level according to its sustainability level.

Dominique Gauthier has been at the helm of Le Chat-Botte since 2001

While travelling, make sure to speak to the chefs and the serving staff to know more about their idea of sustainability—for instance, what do they do with excess food at the end of the day. Germanier, for instance, is one of the 5,000 restaurants in Switzerland that has tied up with apps like Too Good to Go, which is a global social impact company. In its 2021 impact report, it states that nearly 40% of all food goes to waste. The company has tied up with brands, grocery stores and restaurants to help combat this waste.

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“You download the app. If the food service provider has any food that is getting wasted, they make boxes of it and put it up at certain discounted prices, which people can quickly buy. Too Good to Go is operational in many countries, but has a very strong presence in Switzerland," says chef Thomas Zacharias, founder of The Locavore, , which is committed to creating long lasting impact through food by bringing in diverse perspectives through storytelling, supporting partners whose work it believes in, and building purpose driven communities. He was recently on a trip to Switzerland to understand its sustainable gastronomy initiatives better. Zacharias also came across Kitro, an AI-based service, which tries to map data patterns within the food waste. “They have a weighing scale with a camera on top. Everytime the weight changes, images are uploaded to the cloud. Data is generated about problematic waste areas and thereafter actions are taken to address this," he adds.

Chef’s table goes veg

Today, more than 150 restaurants and cafés are offering vegetarian menus. Hotels such as Mövenpick too have a plethora of veg options now. Take, Alive, in Geneva, for instance. This 100% plant-based, gluten-free and organic vegan cafe and store offers dishes such as avocado toast, veloute of the day, and the Alive burger—I would strongly recommend this dish, which comes with a hearty portion of greens and wedges. A 10-15-minute walk away is Le Chat-Botte, a Michelin-starred restaurant located within the palatial Hotel Beau Rivage Geneva.

The two restaurants couldn’t be more different in their look and feel, but they are united by their zeal to give a platform to local Swiss producers, who specialise in mushrooms, zucchini flowers, Swiss chard, asparagus, and more. Dominique Gauthier, who has been at the helm of Le Chat-Botte since 2001, makes sure that 65% of his products are sourced locally. Even if the menu features meat, it is seasonal veggies that determine what shape and form the dishes will take. Gauthier grew up in France, very close to the Swiss-French border, in a home with a huge garden. “We never had to buy vegetables. But back then, folks would look down upon those who were vegetarian. Today, people who would never have eaten a veg dish, are surprised to see how good they can taste," says the chef, who ensures there are veg options on the menu.

The idea of sustainability in the country has changed over time. To him, it’s important to make menus smaller, to source only what is needed. “Since you are buying a few things, you choose wisely. The idea is to celebrate food and ingredients, which are seasonal and local. It takes a while to build such a network of producers but we are getting there," he adds. A meal at Le Chat-Botte is a sensorial delight with dishes such as: artichoke with chestnuts and hazelnuts, fresh goat cheese ravioli served with ceps mushrooms and coffee, a delightful butternut and pumpkin squash with truffle, and a decadent Orfeve Esterre 70 percent chocolate tart encased inside a blown sugar shell.

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Edible landscapes

It’s a word that you hear often at the Culinarium Alpinum, in Stans, a train ride away from Lucerne. Nestled within a sleepy village, with its pristine houses and churches, this unique space is housed within a renovated Capuchin monastery. It is run by the not-for-profit KEDA Foundation and features guest rooms, a restaurant and an edible landscape. Created in collaboration with ProSpecieRara, a foundation dedicated to the historical and genetic diversity of plants and animals, this landscape features around 500 varieties of fruits, berries and herbs such as the May Queen and Osterfree strawberries, Le Brassus blackcurrant and Safner raspberries.

“There are exotics as well. For instance, apricot is not indigenous to the region. When the monks travelled, they brought back seeds to be sown in the monastery gardens. They left in 2004 and in 2015 this project came up. Finally, in 2020, the Culinarium Alpinum opened up to people," says Florina, our guide to the space. The edible landscape is open to the community in the village, where people come to taste, swap recipes, and more. The idea is to promote seasonality and take this beyond the monastery—already the team is working with the village, and sowing seeds of edible plants in the playground.

This is not the only reason you should include Culinarium Alpinum in your itinerary—it also has a stunning cheese cellar, which houses Switzerland’s oldest alpine cheese, the Alpsbrinz. The cold cellar features an array of heavy wheels of cheese, some fresh and others in various phases of ageing.

Sustainability is a state of mind. And it is time to manifest it through the choices you make while travelling through Switzerland.

The author was on a trip to Switzerland organised by Swiss Tourism

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