Angela Warm, Health Editor
It was roughly 10 years ago that we first stepped foot in Switzerland for what was supposed to be a 2-3 year “temporary” assignment.
My husband, our 11 month old daughter and myself (2 months pregnant) arrived in Zurich and looked forward to our exciting expat experience. Of course one of the first priorities upon landing was to stock our tiny refrigerator.
I will never forget that feeling of panic and despair when I first stepped foot in the local grocery store. It was was no bigger than a Circle K or 7-11 by US standards.
How was I going to feed my growing family on just this?
Where were all my favorite foods?
Is Switzerland considered a 1st world country?
Why is the frozen food section so small?
Why are the eggs and milk not refrigerated?
and why does everything have so many dang words on it? Turns out ingredients are listed in German, French and Italian (none of which I was familiar with at the time).
These are just a few of the questions that swirled through my jet lagged / morning sickness head as I navigated the local grocery store for the first time.
Grocery shopping quickly became a stressful experience. Not knowing the language, learning how to weigh the fruits and vegetables, not knowing the difference between quark, yogurt and crème fraîche… it all quickly became overwhelming.
A guide would’ve been nice.
It would be several months later when a mom friend escorted me to a bigger Migros in her town (a 3M) and I literally cried for joy as there at my finger tips was peanut butter, cereals I recognized and even sliced bread.
Eating is something we all have to do everyday, but it also has deep emotional and sentimental implications as well. It can be unsettling to land in a foreign country and not know what you are buying or miss the comfort foods that you are used to.
So let’s break down the Swiss grocery store experience in a nutshell.
MIGROS VS. COOP
If you are new to Switzerland or have been around the block a while then you know there are two main grocery store chains here – Migros (pronounced Mē grō – silent ‘s’) and Coop (pronounced Kōōp or Ko ap, depending on who you ask). These two grocery store chains come in several sizes from 1M to 3M, the more M’s, the merrier. Same with Coop – Superstore is obviously bigger. It is also worth noting that most stores tend to cater to what the local clientle desire. So depending on the makeup of your surrounding area usually depicts what the local chain stores carry in stock on a regular basis.
I have met many a Swiss who have a strong allegiance to one or the other. They are either team Coop or Team Migros. This is not a discussion about which is better – to me they are similar. My main reason for being a frequent Migros shopper is that it is a stones throw from our apartment, meaning I can walk there whenever I want. A big perk in my book.
Once you get over the initial sticker shock of food prices in general, you will notice that most grocery stores tend to follow a definite pattern.
GEMUSE aka PRODUCE
Upon arrival you first have to walk through the fruits and veggies section (aka Gemuse). And that this section takes up a good portion of the store’s footprint.
True story, this summer I was at a new-to-me grocery store in the US that was huge. It took me 30 minutes to find the fruits and vegetable section as it was tiny and practically hidden in a very strange area of the store.
Not in a Swiss grocery store – the fruit and vegetable section is proudly displayed first and foremost (it makes my health coaching heart happy). This section is pretty straight forward for newbies even if some may have different names than you are accustomed to. In addition you may notice some new produce you didn’t have in your own country – for us romanesco, nusslisalat and kohlrabi were new to us (all things we’ve grown to love).
Fruits and vegetables that are not already packaged with a price tag, need to be weighed according to the number associated with it, less you get a disapproving look from the store clerks and the people waiting in line behind you. Tip – bring your own fruit bags to save plastic.
Another noticeable difference is that you may only find certain fruits and vegetables when they are in season. Meaning fresh local berries will usually only make their first appearance in early summer (some are imported). So you look forward to fresh local asparagus in late January to April, a variety of pumpkin and squashes in September / October and Brussel Sprouts in the fall.
This was at first frustrating coming from a country where you could get every fruit or vegetable at any time of the year. But as a health coach and former environmental scientist, it definitely made me stop and think about not only the ecological footprint but the health implications of seasonal produce. When you eat seasonally, you are getting the right vitamins and minerals at the time of year you need them most, plus there is no denying that seasonal produce tastes better.
The Swiss take pride in providing locally grown fruits and vegetables to the local grocery stores and markets. You can most likely find local produce at the farms themselves as well as green markets in your area. This is an amazing way to get not only fresh local seasonal produce, but get to know the farmers who grow them.
Once you’ve stocked up on your fruits and vegetables (remember your refrigerator is small so you will be shopping more often) we next enter the dairy section.
The Land of Cheese and Chocolate
Hello this is Switzerland, so a considerable amount of floor space is given to you guessed it…cheese.. Priorities people. The Swiss love their cheese and along with it comes copious amounts of yogurt, quark, milk (both refrigerated and unrefrigerated).
One thing most auslanders find odd is that eggs are not refrigerated here in Europe. There is actually a law against washing eggs as this typical practice strips the egg of its protective outer cuticle leaving it open to contamination. Unwashed/unrefrigerated eggs can sit at room temperature and just rinse prior to cracking or boiling them. Which is great considering your lack of refrigerator space. Also an interesting tidbit is that most eggs in Switzerland have a small letter / number mark or symbol on the egg showing which farm they came from. So you can actually look up where your egg was hatched.
Bread – ah the smell of fresh baked bread and brotli (small breads like weglis, gipfelis and the like). The bread in Switzerland is delicious and one of the first things I noticed is that it is made from simple ingredients that are easily recognizable with even my poor language skills. Zopf is similar to Challah bread and I am positive they must put some drug in it as it is very addictive. You can also typically find a local made bread in most stores that we love. So in our town it is called Lenzburgerbrot. Or better yet, check out the amazing local bakeries for other bread and pastry delicacies.
MEAT AND SEAFOOD
Although meat is part of most Swiss diets, the meat section of most grocery stores is relatively small in comparison. This is because since you shop more frequently and only buy what is needed for a few days at a time. You can find the typical cuts of meat (thankfully for any newcomers with a picture of the animal it comes from – pig, cow, lamb, turkey or chicken.
Crystal clear? One thing is clear – meat is crazy expensive in Switzerland.
For instance a typical package of pre cut Chicken breast cost 3.30CHF per 100grams. While an entire chicken costs around 8-9 CHF for approximately 1000grams. Which is the main reason we now prefer to buy and cook a whole chicken. We save money and I love making broth from the leftover bones.
The Swiss are big on their sausages aka wurst (bratwurst, cervelas, wienerli) made with a mix of different meats.
One thing you will not find much of in the meat department is turkey. You can find sliced turkey for sandwiches but you will most likely not find any ground turkey, let alone a whole turkey for that matter. They do cater to Americans and Canadians in October and November when you can special order one and buying a big bird becomes quite a spectacle for both the shoppers and the buyer. We have paid over 100CHF for a 7-8kg bird once a year!
And what about seafood? Switzerland being a landlocked country means you are not going to find local saltwater variety seafood (although it can be bought in the meat section but it has likely been frozen prior). Although I love Salmon / Lachs I also have come to appreciate the local lake fish such as Zander (pike perch), Forellen (trout), Egli, Felchen and Karpfen (carp).
The Swiss love sweets – there is a vast array of packaged cookies / biscuits as well as bakery items and ice creams to choose from. There are entire aisles even in the smallest of grocery stores dedicated to chocolate. I have to admit it is darn good chocolate.
What may be surprising is that you won’t find as much packaged or convenience food. Even the canned food section is small compared to US standards. As a health coach I am OK with this since prepackaged foods tend to have more of the not so healthy ingredients in them. But it would be nice if something as simple as canned black beans were a bit easier to find.
So if you are looking for a more nutritional diet, then sticking to the basics (veggies, protein and grains) more often and preparing fresh home cooked meals will do you a world of good. Although the lack of quick food can be frustrating to working families but if I can learn to cook healthy meals quickly – so can you.
One thing that I do find frustrating is the lack of dairy free and gluten free items. In the US this summer, I found my mouth gaping open and my head spinning at the sheer volume of gluten and dairy free items in the stores. Although it has grown considerably, there are still only a small selection of items to choose from here.
Things I love:
Frozen spinach in cubes. So great as you can toss them in scrambled eggs, or a soup or even a smoothie – love this.
Cubed bacon – same as above (minus the smoothie – yuck 🙂
Fresh baked bread made with simple ingredients.
Small bags of ground hazelnuts and almonds which can be a lovely addition to porridge, baking, smoothies and pancakes (which I have learned to make from scratch by now).
BUDGET FRIENDLY OPTIONS
Shopping exclusively at the bigger grocery stores does come with a price…. literally. I used to be shocked by the price of food in Switzerland. But my last few trips back to the US have proven that food has gone up quite a bit.
Both Migros and Coop have several levels of quality and pricing when it comes to their products.
Migros has M Budget, M Classic and then TerraSuisse/Optigal and their new Demeter brand.
Coop has PrixGarantie, Fine Food, Karma and Naturaplan.
You mix in the organic / bio products and you have several options to choose from based on price and quality.
Take your typical 1kg bag of carrots for Instance. M budget price is around 1CHF; M Classic is 1.95CHF, Bio is 3.40CHF with Demeter the highest at 5.20CHF.
If you are looking to save money, you can review the weekly specials ahead of time. I often plan my meals around what is on sale. You can download their respective Apps to have this information handy at all times (and easily make shopping lists that you don’t forget).
At our Migros there is a small stand for produce that has been marked down. We often find perfectly fine mushrooms and other items of good use. Coop also offers produce that may look a little strange at a discount – like odd shaped carrots and the like.
Also check out the App Too Good to Go for grocery stores and restaurants that mark food down at the end of the day.
Lidl or Aldi are other grocery stores that are known to be a bit less expensive. Our local Lidl has an impressive selection of organic / bio veggies for significantly less than the Migros or Coop. If you don’t mind waiting in long lines to checkout.
Also worth exploring are any multicultural grocery stores and/or local markets in your area. We are lucky enough to have a Turkish grocery store in our town where I shop for bulk pulses (lentils and dried beans) as well as unique spices. Bonus – it is open on Sundays!
Pre Covid I was known to cross the border on occasion and do some bulk grocery shopping at the big E stores across the border. I know some Swiss frown upon this, but when you are on a tight budget and can get the same products for a fraction of the price, it was a no brainer. I honestly haven’t been in over two years as I don’t miss the extra time and hassle of border crossing. But if a friend is going I may ask them to pick me up some Grade C maple syrup, large jars of bio coconut oil and peanut butter.
All in all Swiss grocery shopping has gotten much easier (don’t get me started with online shopping though). I enjoy the variety and quality of food from several different options now. I love showing new people or visitors around a store with confidence. I’ve come a long way since those early days of begging my family back home to send me pancake mix and tollhouse chocolate chips. I can navigate my way around our 2M Migros with ease and make some mean pancakes, soups and birchermuesli from scratch.
Have you downloaded our free ebook – 21 Hidden Gems of Switzerland? If you haven’t read it yet, be sure to download it while planning your Swiss Getaway.
To read posts from September, click here