I travel for the Culture

The Trouble with Swiss Markets

by Lou Cuthbertson

The grocery cart, seen from Lou's iPhone. The Corn Flakes look like they want to eat the kid.

This is the next installment of the Swiss Family Cuthbertson, our new Expat Chronicles series. 

Supermarket shopping is never fun, even at the best of times. But I look back in near-fondness to the days of Sainsbury's on the Cromwell Road in London when faced with the weekly shop here in Zurich. (Ah, the glamour of my life). The shops here are overrun by women carrying delicate little wicker baskets that fit a bunch of asparagus (in season, natürlich), and some butter for the Hollandaise. Nothing else. They're the kind of baskets you're inspired to buy on a Mediterranean holiday, only to realize when you get home can't fit anything more than a bunch of asparagus and butter without giving you tennis elbow. They then gather dust at the bottom of the hall cupboard once the suitcases are unpacked. I'm sure they're featured in the Boden catalogue amongst the bunting.

But I digress. The worst thing that can happen in a London supermarket is no more Rice Crispies, at which point you'd have to get Marks & Spencer Own Brand Gently Roasted Rice Puffs. Here, however, in the land that gave us Birchermüesli, you're lucky to find Weetabix. You've hit the jackpot if you spot Cheerios. (Muesli is fine on a health kick, but not so good for a a five year old who thinks it's made of cardboard and is only good for rabbits. Can't say I disagree with him.)

It's a complete hit and miss as to what you'll find from one week to the next. You might be able to buy hummus in June, and not again until December. (It makes hors d'ouevres planning a complete nightmare.) Maybe the shops here need to work on their planning operations systems; maybe there's no link up from the cash register to the buying department. Or maybe it's simply because Switzerland is full of mountains and the trucks can't beat their way to your door fast enough; those hairpin bends take painstaking negotiation, along with the best of Swiss mechanical engineering.

But to call these shops "supermarkets" is completely inaccurate. There's nothing super about them. They are small. The baskets are small, the aisles are small, the range is small. Even the shopping trolleys are small. Once you've put in nappies, cat litter, and a six pack of beer, it's full. Where are you supposed to put your pasta, yogurt, and other staples? From observation, I've realised that the Swiss are like the French. They shop every day, market-style, and cook what they buy that evening. God help you if you have a job.

I realize I'm ranting. It must be said that once you've squeezes all your produce into your trolley with Tetrus-like precision, packed it into the hemp bags that you remembered to bring from home as shops only provide plastic bags strong enough to carry a ball of cotton, and negotiated the car out of the tiniest parking space on earth, you will have a wonderful meal. The vegetables are crispy, the fruit is fresh, everything is seasonal, and the dairy is from the healthiest cows in the world (picture them frolicking in Alpine pastures complete with bells, clover, and flower wreaths). Ah, and we haven't talked about the wine yet. Waitrose, eat your heart out.

Lou Cuthbertson

Lou is an Irish expat living in Zurich, Switzerland. She travels for the food. Always the food.

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