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Eating gluten free on vacation holiday in Switzerland

This article was kindly contributed by Julie Schindall, a coeliac who travels regularly in Europe

For centuries, hardy Swiss farmers have toiled in the high alps, living off a diet heavy in cheese and potatoes. While Switzerland is also famous for it’s delicious cakes and breads, traditional Swiss food is very Celiac friendly and their core national foods are often naturally gluten-free.

Preparing for your gluten free Swiss trip

If you know you will not have access to a microwave or kitchen facilities during your stay (although many hostels, pensions, and hotels can provide you with these facilities when you explain your gluten-free lifestyle), plan to bring some GF starches from home. You can maintain a well-rounded diet in Switzerland as long as you do a little planning. When going out for the day, I like to bring a GF energy bar, GF crackers, or rice cakes. I then supplement my carb with fruits, vegetables, dairy products, or meat bought at the grocery store or at a restaurant or cafeteria. There are also specialty GF products available in Switzerland, which I discuss below.

Labelling of gluten free and wheat free products

Labeling of wheat and gluten in food products is more evolved in Europe than in the United States. “Gluten” is an international word and food manufacturers are fairly good about labeling the possible presence of gluten in their products. This is especially true of chocolate, which one has to be extremely careful with. Note that Lindt, Sprüngli, and Cailler chocolate (the top brands) are not gluten-free. Nestle and Cadbury chocolates have a policy of labeling for gluten and store brands of chocolate at Coop and Migros are often gluten-free. Labeling will be clear and do not eat chocolate that is not labeled.

Translations for ‘gluten’

Swiss food products are labeled in three languages: German, French, and Italian. Learn key words indicating gluten ingredients like “starch” and “wheat.”
Starch: German - Stärke; French - amidon; Italian - amido. Note that “amidon de maïs” in French means cornstarch.
Wheat: German - Weizen; French - blé; Italian - frumento

Buying gluten free food in Switzerland

Switzerland offers high quality at a high price. Dining out is a rare experience and budget travelers will end up eating at take-out restaurants, making dinners from grocery stores, or eating at the in-store cafeterias of major supermarket chains Migros and Coop. For a gluten-free traveler, grocery stores may be more Celiac-friendly then restaurants, although one must pay attention and plan ahead to get access to nutritionally important starches like rice and potatoes.

While sandwiches and breads are the cheapest and quickest eating option in Switzerland, yogurt, cheese, and other dairy products are delicious, nutricious, abundant, and extremely affordable. In years of living in Switzerland, I still have not tried all the flavors of yogurt available at Coop and Migros. At the checkout, don’t forget to grab the free spoon next to every register. The cheese is also lovely and I don’t miss the bread or crackers when eating it. A good hard cheese like gruyere is also an excellent carrier for Switzerland’s delicious preserves and sweet treats like Nutella.

Another excellent find in the grocery store is the high-quality, local produce. Fruits and vegetables are abundant year-round and they are often grown nearby. Don’t forget to weigh and label your produce buys yourself before going to pay.

Dining out

Switzerland, like much of Europe, is overabundant in “continental French/Italian” restaurants serving standards like pizza and pasta. While the pizza is tasty (I have lived in Switzerland both before and after my Celiac diagnosis), you’re not missing out on too much. Avoid these restaurants in general unless you want a boring salad that’s not worth your money.

In large cosmopolitan areas, ethnic dining is available, although often it is even pricier than Western restaurants, which are already hugely more expensive then the American dining experience. I stick to Indian and sometimes Thai food. In Geneva there is also a good, inexpensive chain called “Piment Vert,” which is Southeast Asian food and nearly everything is gluten-free, including the small crackers, which are not made from flour.

Traditional restaurants in Switzerland are excellent for the Celiac traveler. Main Swiss dishes include fondue, rösti, raclette, and many types of delicious sausages.

Fondue: hot melted cheese in a pot that you eat with dipped bread. Not very Celiac friendly, but you needn’t miss out on the wonders of melted cheese. Try instead…

Raclette: In restaurants, giant wheels of cheese are place over heat and large pieces are sliced off and sit melted on your plate. Served with small jacket potatoes, pickled cucumber, pickled onions, and various other condiments. Pour the cheese over a potato and use plenty of salt and pepper. Hot, tasty, and completely gluten-free. *TAKE NOTE: another popular Swiss condiment served with raclette is a spice mix called Aromat. This is NOT gluten-free and always tell your waiter that your food cannot have any of this mix when prepared in the kitchen.

Rösti: My favorite at traditional restaurants. Grated potato fried to make a delicious potato pancake. I often ask for mine with an egg on top (like a fried egg) to get some extra protein in my meal. Rösti will often be prepared with Aromat so be sure to tell your waiter that you only want salt and pepper.

Sausages: There are hundreds of types of Swiss sausages, many of them homemade. As in the U.S., some sausages contain gluten and others do not. Do not eat a sausage unless you know all the ingredients. Many Swiss people will eat their sausage without bread and instead with potatoes or rice, so don’t worry about the “bun.” Be sure to add plenty of whole grain mustard!

Other Types of Restaurants

I’ve had many delicious dining experiences in Switzerland, ranging from Ethiopian to Mediterranean to continental-style dishes. I look for restaurants including meat, fish, and egg dishes, because if I’m going to spend the money to eat out, I know I don’t want to get salad or vegetables like I can buy from the grocery store. Be sure to ask for your food plain and without sauces, unless you’re sure that those products are gluten-free. As is anywhere in the world, good communication with your waiter is key. English is widely spoken in major cities like Geneva and Zurich, and Swiss people in general are very willing to help you. Be sure to learn the proper greetings and thank-yous in their language, whether it be French, Swiss-German, or Italian, depending on the region.

(Remember to take our free coeliac language cards in French, German and Italian. )

Specialty Gluten Free Products

Switzerland has relatively good awareness of Celiac disease and the gluten-free diet. While the dietary choices in the country are not as broad as in the U.S., there are a number of GF products available at some large supermarkets and specialty shops.

Dietary Specials: European brand of GF pastas, breads, and more. Yellow and purple packages with the logo “DS.” Most of their products are corn based. Buy them at the large Coop supermarket in Bern and Geneva. Their website (available in English) has a way to check every sales point in Europe. http://www.ds4you.com/en/ds-salespoints/

Reformhaus: Chain of specialty food stores in the Swiss German part of Switzerland. They have gluten-free sections with delicious GF cereal and granola, grains like quinoa, and even cookies and cakes! Their website is in German only, but click on “Verkaufsstellen” for a list of cities and towns with Reformhaus locations. http://www.reformhaus.ch/

Celiac Association of Switzerland: Under various translations, there are national and regional Celiac associations with helpful tips, links to doctors, and other information. On the Swiss German association site, there is a list of restaurants that can accomodate the gluten-free diet. In German only. http://www.zoeliakie.ch/gastronomie/mitglieder/index.php
For French speakers: http://www.coeliakie.ch
For Italian speakers: http://web.ticino.com/celiachia/

Migros: The largest supermarket chain in Switzerland sells house-brand speciality gluten-free products. For a list of store locations selling these products, refer to the store website. In German only.

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