Bread has been a staple food of European, Middle Eastern, and Indian cultures going back to the Neolithic era. It has played an integral role in cultures as a symbol of welcome, hospitality and friendship. In the museum of Zürich you can see a bread that is 6000 years old making bread one of the oldest prepared foods. In Europe bakeries first appeared in monasteries during the Middle Ages. Today the number of bakeries in Switzerland totals over 3600 and when it comes to bread, you’ll find over 200 distinct varieties.
The uniqueness of Swiss bread can be attributed to the use in many breads of heirloom grains. Additionally, the choice of grains, where they are grown, the differences in the milling process, fermentation, shaping and the baking itself contribute to the great variety. Swiss take pride in their local breads. Many play a significant role in local culture on special occasions, celebrations, & festivities. Some of these have very interesting histories, but before sharing a few let’s take a quick look at some of the most recognized Swiss breads. By the way, each canton has an official bread designation, albeit some cantons share the same bread. You’ll find the list at the end of this article.
There is no national bread, if there was, Züpfe would undoubtedly be chosen. This braided bread as traditionally baked in Switzerland, unlike other similar breads like Challah, is not sweetened. Also called Zopf (braid) in German, tresse in French, treccia in Italian, is the bread of choice for Sunday breakfasts. When it comes to name recognition and association with a Canton, one bread stands out. Yes! The bread of the Valais called Pain de Seigle Valaisan in French and Walliser Roggenbrot in German. This rye bread with its long history used to be baked in communal ovens some of which are still available & in use today. Another well-known rye bread is the Bündner Roggenringbrot from the Grisons. While most Swiss prefer crusty bread, the people of the Tessin generally opt for a softer less crusty bread more akin to that of their Italian neighbors. The pane Ticinese is easily recognized by its segmentation which makes it easy to pull off separate pieces. This white bread is made with water and oil unlike milk and butter used in many Swiss breads.
Traditionally the end of harvest season is celebrated with festive meals. In the U.S. it’s Thanksgiving with its ubiquitous turkey. In the canton of Fribourg a special saffron-tinted bread is baked called “cuchaule”. Some breads like Neuchâtel’s “taillaule” celebrate special events while others like the wild-looking “Kopfbrot” of Schwyz & Zug have fascinating histories. You might want to check out the history of the “Agatha Bread” – no, nothing to do with Agatha Christie, and don’t forget to look up the history of the Züpfe.
If you have ever been tempted to bake Swiss breads, I invite you to pickup a copy of the highly acclaimed book by Heddi Nieuwsma SWISS BREAD. It’s available on kindle as well as a hardback. It inspired me to carry on the Swiss home baking tradition and I am sure it will you too.
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