Observations from Basel: Eating

Food is not only essential to survive, but also is part of the definition of a culture. When someone says “French cuisine”, you immediately form an image in your mind, and perhaps imagine a certain taste in your mouth or scent in your nostrils. Pizza and pasta are strongly tied to Italy, but are both well known and eaten in many parts of the world. Pretzels and beer are a well-known German combination, as well as a variety of barbecued sausages that we eat across the globe.

As I became more familiar with Basel over time, I also became more familiar with its definitive foods. There is no specific Basel menu, and many of the dishes I will mention are also recognized and perhaps even eaten the world over. At the very least you will find them throughout Switzerland, or perhaps any German-speaking part of Europe. It is the combination and regularity of these dishes that make them part of Basel’s culture, and the way that they are eaten – particularly when. I hope to clear up what I mean by that in what follows.

Note: I apologize for the lack of photos, it seems I don’t spend enough time photographing my food before eating it…

Breakfast

Highlight: Bircher Müesli

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Pretty cappuccini

Some of my colleagues breakfast before arriving at work, but just as many take something to the office for Znüni (see below). At home, one might eat a boring cereal or toast. Toast is a bit of an odd thing over here. Toast is actually the package of bread you buy, to put in the toaster. It is not the toasted bread that comes out of the toaster. Bread is a big deal around here (though I don’t find Swiss-style breads very good compared to that of our neighbour bakers in France and Germany), bought in an unsliced, unpackaged loaf, slipped into a paper sleeve. But for toast, you buy Toast – a smaller, sliced loaf of white bread that fits comfortably in any toaster. The other popular breakfast bread is Zopf which literally means braid, and is a braided white bread. It’s soft and buttery, eaten with confections like honey or jam. When its done well its nice but generally I avoid it.

I prefer a delicious, home-made Bircher Müesli. I think this type of müesli is known in much of the English-speaking world, if not pronounced very elegantly. It is primarily a mixture of yogurt, fresh fruits, rolled oats, nuts and seeds, and maybe a splash of milk to help soften the hard bits. This is best prepared in advance – the night before, or in a larger container to provide several morning’s worth.

Znüni

Highlights: Chocolate and coffee

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Swiss chocolate

Znüni is based on the Swiss-German word for “nine”, and is a little morning coffee and snack you enjoy around 9 am with your colleagues. This is comparable to the “water-cooler” conversation opportunities in a North American office but with better food.

A lot can happen at Znüni but if you are lucky it will be the birthday of someone at work. In this case they are obliged to bring food for everyone on their team to enjoy. I may have to expand on this concept in a future post, but basically it’s the win-win way to recognize a birthday or other event (new births, work anniversaries, etc. are also reasons why you must feed your coworkers) and also accomplish some self-promotion.

A good Znüni will include a variety of croissants (note: the German word for croissant is Croissant, but the Swiss-German word is Gipfel or the diminutive Gipfeli) – Laugengipfel, Buttergipfel, Vollkorngipfel – based on the type of dough used. But my personal favourite is the Schoggigipfeli, which is a chocolate croissant. If the birthday-celebrating coworker is on the boring side and only brings butter croissants, it doesn’t really matter. Because someone in the office will have a box of chocolate sticks (branches) that you insert into the once boring Gipfeli to make a delicious sweet treat.

Sometimes you will get other things stuffed in the croissants, such as hazelnut, raspberries, cream – the possibilities are endless. Other bakers’ confectionery are usually brought for the birthday celebrations too, like the classic pan au chocolat and poppy seed snails and various Danish pastries.

While stuffing your face and chatting, you will also likely be drinking a hot beverage. Italian style coffee is the most popular – what in North America would be called an Americano – but the insomniacs will be shooting espresso and the healthier minded, eating their whole grain croissant, will be drinking tea, often herbal. I’m not fully integrated in this regard – I tend to start my morning with a nice cuppa Earl Grey. At a restaurant breakfast or brunch, cappuccino would probably be the most popular hot drink. Standard fruit juices are also welcome and, of course, a sparkling glass of Processo.

Lunch

Highlights: Älper Makkaroni and Fondue

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Dairy lunch

In my observation, very few people bring a bagged lunch to work. I find it far more common with my German colleagues than with Swiss. The larger companies in Basel and in most of Switzerland provide a canteen for their employees, which offers a few menus each day, and this is where most people will eat. If you are lucky to have your workplace in a restaurant-laden area then you might go out to eat.

Sometimes of course you might just want to grab a sandwich but lunch is generally a big meal, with traditional meat and vegetable dishes, as well as pasta or pizza, and sometimes an international option will also be available. Usually there is some kind of salad buffet and/or vegetarian dish on offer too (the pasta may be), which range in appeal. The popular dishes I have seen in various canteens and appearing regularly are schnitzel and cordon bleu, which I find far too heavy for a midday meal.

I am a very big fan of Älper Makkaroni, or alpine macaroni, but this seems to be a seasonal dish, eaten when its cold outside. It is, large macaroni noodles covered with a creamy cheese sauce and bits of ham. Usually this is then sprinkled with dried onions, and accompanied with a little bowl of applesauce. Its very subjective what one might do with the applesauce. I take the salad instead (I am really not very good at integration!) but usually the apple is eaten as a side dish or poured into the macaroni mixture.

Sometimes in the winter we also have the option of Fondue in the canteen, which is always a lot of fun. You sit and drink apple juice and black tea while canteen staff regularly refills the bowls of boiled potatoes, cubed bread, and fruit (often pear slices) for the hot cheese mixture in the fondue pot. The cheese is usually “bottomless” as well. This is best enjoyed in a decent-sized group. There are lots of rules about your bread/potato/fruit falling off your stick into the fondue pot that seem to change with the group, but consistently the women are told they have to kiss every man at the table, every time they lose their bread. Afterwards you have to crawl back to work and can do little more than digest for the following hour.

Zvieri

Highlights: More chocolate

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This Zvieri is not suitable for work!

This is the perfect compliment to Znüni, taken from the German word for “four” (vier) and takes place around – well I’m sure you can guess. It’s likely the last taste of coffee you will have during the work day. It’s most often espresso, for that little kick of energy, but there are no hard rules. Usually the communal food is pulled out at this time, which might be what the Swiss call a cake but is really some kind of sweet loaf, or some form of snackable chocolate, like branches or Lindor balls. I guess its a bit of extra sugar in case the espresso isn’t enough to get you through the next hour. The atmosphere of Zvieri is very much like Znüni – another social opportunity, though since any events are already celebrated, people tend to move toward the coffee machine in smaller groups rather than as an entire team.

Dinner

Highlights: Raclette

This meal is really hard to generalize. I think on a work day it is typically a smaller meal than lunch. Not even a good Swiss citizen wants to have two Schnitzels in one day. However if you dine out, especially on a weekend, this can also be a larger meal, even multi-coursed. Wine is often enjoyed regardless of the size of the meal. Afterward you might drink an espresso or a schnapps, “for digestion”.

My absolute favourite dinnertime meal is raclette. The French and Swiss fight for ownership of this meal and they both have a strong argument. It was technically invented in France, but that part of France where it was invented has long since been a part of Switzerland. But I will try to avoid mixing politics and food and only note that this is a lovely meal enjoyed across Switzerland, at least in the French and German speaking regions.

Raclette is actually the name of a cheese, and the raclette cheese is the main ingredient of the meal. It is usually bought pre-sliced into the perfect sized rectangle for your raclette grill. The grill is flat on top, and heated from beneath. Beneath the heat coils you place your individual cheese tray with the rectangular slice of raclette on it, and once it melts you pour the cheese over whatever you might have on your plate. This is typically pearl onions, small pickles, and boiled potatoes. However with that flat grill on top you might fry up some mushrooms or bell peppers, or any other vegetable worth grilling.

You may notice that raclette is a vegetarian meal, which might seem strange after what I mentioned as the traditional lunch dishes. Well, that’s because it’s not really a vegetarian meal. There is a special cured meat from Switzerland that is often eaten on the side, called Bündnerfleisch, made in the east of Switzerland primarily from beef. Of course you can easily forgo this bit (just don’t tell anyone) and the meal is still quite delicious. I should mention its also seasonal and you might get strange looks if you order it in summer.

Another dish I associate with Christmastime in Basel is fondue chinoise, which translates to “Chinese fondue” though I’m suspicious of its actual origins. In this fondue you heat up broth, maybe with vegetables inside. When its nice and hot you stick some raw meat (usually a red meat) with your fondue fork and let it simmer in the broth for a few seconds. Then you have a variety of sauces to dip your cooked meat into. You can buy the sliced meat prepared specifically for fondue chinoise either fresh or frozen. It’s very tasty and there is a sauce for everyone – which you can also buy pre-packaged in a variety pack.

I should mention one last popular Swiss meal, which I have seen eaten for both lunch and dinner, and that is Rösti. This looks to me very much like hash browns – the long grated ones. It is in fact grated potatoes squished together and fried up with other stuff – egg, ham, cheese, mushrooms, onions – you will usually see quite a few combinations on a Rösti restaurant menu. It’s quite tasty but also heavy, requiring a bit of digestion time.


I know there is more to cover with food in Basel but I hope this covers the basics at least. What would you recommend to a visitor in Basel, or in Switzerland, to try? Have you had the opportunity to enjoy a znüni or zvieri while in town?

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