A hundred feet above my head, a lumbering municipal train rumbles on towards Zurich’s Hauptbahnhof station. Up there, commuters are reading their morning papers, daydreaming, or steeling themselves for the busy day ahead among the cut-and-thrust of Switzerland’s financial capital. Down here, though, it’s all about the food.
Over the past couple of decades, the Viadukt market has grown to fill the spaces beneath the railway arches in the vibrant Zurich West district – a former industrial area that doubles as social hub and source of great produce. At Berg Und Tal’s deli in the market, should you be minded to dwell for an idle moment, you can sample a real cross-section of the city’s food-and-drink scene. On this shelf is Blütenschmaus rose pesto and rose balsamic vinegar, infused with the petals of blooms plucked from within the city. On that one, you’ll see Saft With A Mission apple juice, made using fruit gathered from private gardens by disabled employees for whom the project provides year-round work. And here is Zürihonig, a thick, fudge-like honey, produced by bees hived on the roof of the city’s Marriott Hotel.
These products, and the many others they share shelf space with, are all emblematic of a renaissance in Zurich’s food culture – one that is founded in tradition but allows scope for invention. This energy and innovation can be witnessed at the new Food Zurich festival each September, when the city’s growers, artisans, restaurateurs and chefs combine to celebrate their thriving food scene with 11 days of special events, from pop-ups and tastings to foraging tours and street-food parties.
Mika Lanz is typical of this new wave. A filmmaker by trade, he quit it all to make sausages. So far, so traditional. After all, sausages are a cornerstone of Swiss culture. Back in 1522, Ulrich Zwingli, pastor of Zurich’s Grossmünster church, kick-started the country’s protestant reformation when he preached against the established church for the right of people to eat sausage during Lent. Over the centuries, each Swiss canton has developed its own recipe – these days, Zurich’s thirst for wurst is sated at city-centre eateries such as the cavernous Zeughauskeller and fast-food favourite Sternen Grill, to which travellers at Zurich airport have been known to make a whistle-stop pilgrimage between flights.
But Mika’s are different. For one thing, he uses only local pork – his stadtjäger sausages are made using only pigs reared and slaughtered within the city’s limits. “We have a style of sausage in Switzerland called landjäger, which means ‘countryside hunter’,” he says, in his workshop, a cellar beneath a church in a quiet residential neighbourhood. “‘Stadt’ means ‘city’, so mine are ‘city hunter’.” Mika tells us this could only happen in Zurich, and it’s true – it’s the only Swiss city with both livestock and an abattoir within its confines. None of which would matter much if stadtjäger wasn’t any good, but it’s superb – the dry sausage deeply savoury, its flavour rounded out with red wine. Not only that, but it’s a true handmade, small-batch product. “I use the whole pig – the fat-to-meat ratio depends upon the individual animal,” Mika elaborates.
During our visit, Mika was experimenting with making a sausage using Turicum Gin, and it is to their distillery, in the basement of a parkside suburban house some two miles across town, that we travel next. Merlin Kofler and his three young business partners were inspired by a visit to the City of London Distillery and decided –at around 4am at the end of a Sipsmith-soaked night in a London club – to have a go at making their own. They’re clearly doing well – we arrive to discover family and friends co-opted into a busy production line to fulfil a big order with a looming deadline.
Turicum, which takes its name from the old Roman name for Zurich, is the first gin distillery in the city. Water from Lake Zurich is used in the spirit’s production, and three out of its 12 botanicals are collected in the city. “We use local pine needles, rosehips and lime blossom, which we gather from Lindenhof,” says Merlin, referring to the peaceful, much-loved public square in the city centre, high above the River Limmat, where generations of Zurichers take their ease beneath the lime trees.
The result is a smooth, London dry-style gin with a clean taste and soft mouthfeel, with orange more prominent than juniper among its profile. Merlin is also working on a cream gin, aimed squarely at the Baileys Irish Cream market – though when we visited, he was yet to find quite the right thickener, though not for lack of experimentation.
This questing spirit is alive and well in the city’s restaurants, too. At his little bistro, EquiTable, set among the leafy boulevards of the Aussersihl district, Fabian Fuchs serves a menu of inventive dishes that reflect both their local area and responsible eating. “Take this dish,” says Fuchs, indicating a beautiful plate of lamb neck with yellow and red beetroot and artichoke heart and purée. “I believe in nose-to-tail eating, so here we have the neck and elsewhere on the menu we have breast of lamb – I never just rely on the fillets. And these vegetables are fresh, local and organic.” Occasionally, Fabian uses exotic ingredients in his cooking, but whenever they do crop up, they will be ethically produced.
According to Fabian, there’s a real appetite for this kind of sophisticated, responsible cooking in the city. “We may be a bit behind cities like London and Copenhagen, but Zurich is a good place to be a chef. You can experiment here. You can try things. It’s the only place in the country you can really do that. It’s the food capital of Switzerland.”
The envelope is also being pushed at nearby Maison Manesse. Here, at Miguel Ledesma’s slick and welcoming bistro, you’ll find some of the most wonderfully inventive and precisely executed cooking in the city. Take the starter of organic veal-head terrine, which comes laid across the plate in a thin strip like a ruler, adorned with mango and horseradish purée, pickled shallots, mustard cress and puffed achilles tendon, made by cooking the tendons from the same veal calf for several hours, dehydrating them, then flash-frying so they puff up. Similarly ‘out there’ is a main of cherry salmon that comes with a herby fennel escabeche, fermented green beans, pea purée and fish black pudding ‘puffers’ – fish skin-coated black pudding cubes, which puff up when fried from frozen. It’s down to the vision and skill of Aussie head chef Fabian Spiquel that such diverse ingredients are held in perfect balance.
All this creative cooking doesn’t mean, though, that there’s not really good old-fashioned fare for those who want to play it straight. Six of Zurich’s medieval guilds have their own guild-house restaurants, within whose wood-panelled walls the traditional ways are maintained. The stunning Zunfthaus zur Waag, home to the linen and wool weavers’ guild, rambles over several floors overlooking the Münsterhof fountain (apparently, the only one of Zurich’s 1,200 municipal drinking fountains capable of spouting wine) and the Fraumünster church, where artist Marc Chagall installed his spectacular stained-glass windows in 1970. Here, the menu includes perfectly pitched versions of local classics such as Zürcher geschnetzeltes – strips of veal in a creamy mushroom sauce, served with potato rösti. Across the river at the equally elegant Zunfthaus zur Zimmerleuten, where the carpenters’ guild is based, they take formality one step further and dish up your geschnetzeltes with aplomb from a tableside trolley.
After our visit to Zimmerleuten, we wandered up through the quiet alleys and pretty cobbled squares of old Zurich. There are bastions of culinary tradition here, too. H Schwarzenbach has been selling ‘Kolonialwaren’ for more than 100 years and stocks a huge variety of tea, coffee, dried fruit and sweets from all corners of the globe. Opposite, Café Schober is a grand café in the classic Mitteleuropa style. We lingered with a coffee and cake on its terrace while a guided group of Russian tourists passed by, en route for Spiegelgasse, which was home to the exiled Lenin before he headed home to lead the revolution in 1917.
On the other side of town in Zurich West, manufacturing plants are being made over into modern spaces to eat, drink and shop. Walk beyond the Viadukt market, which, in addition to its food outlets boasts design stores and chi-chi boutiques (the kind of clothes shops that suspend pushbikes in their display windows), and you come to another triumph of architectural upcycling: Frau Gerolds Garten. This block of former industrial scrubland is now a popular hangout, combining street-food stalls, cafés, beer gardens and a kitchen garden, whose herbs and vegetables find their way into much of the food on offer. Fittingly, recycling chic is the order of the day here, with bars built into shipping containers and tables fashioned from oil drums, wine vats and packing cases. Climb to the top of the Freitag Tower, an 85-foot-high stack of freight containers piled one on top of the other, and the view confirms what an oasis of greenery the garden is: look out one way and you see a half-mile-wide belt of railway tracks converging on Zurich Hardbrücke station; look across to the other and the viaduct raising the tracks clear of the tramlines appears like an old New York cityscape.
It was while drinking in this vista that we noticed a gathering on the other side of the tracks. Heading off to investigate, we found a street-food festival in full swing, part of the annual Food Zurich celebrations. Here, it seemed, the world had come to Switzerland, to hang out and party in a derelict lot by the railway line. There were stalls offering Argentine empanadas, Danish hot dogs, Turkish borek, Tibetan dumplings and Norwegian hot-smoked salmon. There was Afghan bourani – fried aubergines and peppers in a spicy tomato sauce with yoghurt garnish – being enjoyed by patrons lounging on carpet-draped wooden pallets, smoking shisha pipes. And there were Yemeni malawach puff-pastry pancakes, served savoury with boiled egg, aubergine, tomato and za’atar, or sweet with banana and coconut.
There were Swiss sausages and raclette on offer, too, and – amid the hubbub of children chasing bubbles, dogs straining on their leads to investigate the competing aromas, and grown-ups dancing to the live music – it was easy to infer that the scene was fairly representative of modern Zurich’s food culture. Yes, there’s a pride in the city’s traditional foods and an expectation that they will be prepared well. But equally, there is a desire to try something a bit different, to take a few risks and sample something new – a challenge the city’s chefs and artisan food producers are rising to meet in growing number.
The 2017 Food Zurich festival runs 7–17 September, with markets, special events and parties taking place across the city. Click here for details. If you want to get a sense of the truly international flavour that Zurich offers, The Street Food Festival is held periodically – last year, there were six. Travelling around the city is easy for visitors. Pick up a ZurichCARD online, or at the airport or train station, for CHF48 and you will receive 72 hours unlimited transport on the city’s trams, buses and trains, as well as free or reduced admission to most of Zurich’s museums and a 50 per cent discount on city tours operated by Zurich Tourism. Further information about Zurich can be found at zuerich.com.
Photography by Rob Streeter