Read enough travel writing about Switzerland and you might think it’s all about the Big 5: skiing, chocolate, watches, fondue, and spas. Of course, that’s not the real Switzerland, especially for those of us who live here. Ask locals, expats, refugees, and immigrants what they love about the country and there’s often a chorus of agreement that cites none of the above.
Among the most cherished qualities in multilingual Switzerland is its high-trust culture. You don’t need to scan tickets to board trains or trams; restaurants will mail you invoices instead of bills at the end of meals; people always—always—show up on time, even if you made the plan months ago. And the epitome of this high-trust culture is in the countryside, where you’ll find hundreds of independently run, unstaffed, honor-system farm shops. Called hofladen in Swiss German, they sell local produce, cheeses, and meats, with nothing but a cash box where you write down what you bought and deposit your own money.
But these aren’t your mama’s cold cuts. Expect home-cured venison sausage, chimney ham, and unique alpine cheeses. You’ll also find tangy homemade yogurts, goat’s milk butter, homemade carrot cakes, freshly picked apples, and rustic farmer’s loaves of fresh bread. There’s no written rule, but typically everything at a hofladen comes directly from the farm they’re located on and is usually cheaper than supermarkets.
Hofladens paint a more accurate picture of Switzerland: its self-reliance, the trustworthiness of neighbors, and communal economics. They offer hyperseasonal, sustainably grown, local food, a system that developed out of centuries of hardscrabble alpine necessity, not an urban dining fad. Ultimately, hofladens are about trust among humans and the humanity of eating. They are especially appealing as we all slowly re-examine how we travel and adjust to life in what is hopefully a postpandemic age.
During the pandemic, my husband and I discovered dozens of local hofladen on Sunday drives down backcountry roads (our escape from going stir-crazy in our Zürich apartment). Switzerland’s shops, restaurants, bars, and museums were all closed for several months during the lockdown. But hofladen stayed open—you don’t need to close when nobody’s working there anyway.
For visitors, renting a car is the best way to string together a hofladen road trip. There’s even a new website called Swiss Milk that’s mapped most of the farm stands. You won’t find them in touristy ski areas. Rather, you’ll need to go off piste to hidden valleys where vegetables and fruits grow, and to hills topped neatly with spun hay bundles, chocolate box barns, and—of course—cows. Every kind imaginable: red, blonde, black and white, jet black. Some hofladen are basic wooden sheds, some are hollowed out barns next to farmers’ houses, and others are blink-and-you’ll-miss-them roadside kiosks. Most are found along backcountry farm roads that connected the traders of the country’s cantons before the Swiss highways were built in the 1970s and 1980s.
One such hofladen we discovered this winter was Käserei Mosigen near Canton Lucerne’s Entlebuch, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Biosphere Reserve for its highland moors, karst formations, and wild alpine streams that few tourists ever witness. Summer is the ideal time to visit, but all that alpine biodiversity lay under a blanket of thick snow during our gray January visit.
We’d set out from Zürich to do a barn-spotting tour (my husband is an architect). This area is also known for its alpine walmdach, a style of hipped roofs found on Emmental farmhouses, which we passed many of along the way. We started to get hungry and realized nothing was open. Hofladen to the rescue. Mosigen is both a hofladen and a käserie, a cheesemaking facility, and its shelves were jam packed. Literally. Plum compotes, cherry preserves, apple gelées and other jams, jellies, and preserves lined the walls. Several refrigerators were stocked with things like chämischinken (chimney ham, named for being smoked in a fireplace) and a massive selection of Emmental cheese. This area is also the source of “Swiss cheese,” the famed buttery cheese with holes in it. Nobody in Switzerland calls it Swiss cheese; here it’s called Emmentaler, named after the region. So we loaded up with a fondue party’s worth of curds, including hunks of a 12-month-old, and a cave-aged Emmental.
Some hofladen are mere roadside kiosks. Such is the case of Susy’s Hoflädeli, tucked away in the village of Seewen in Canton Solothurn. We stumbled upon Susy’s last summer on a drive back from Alsace, France, only an hour’s drive from Zürich. It had been a failed mission to find citrusy green Reine Claude plums (called greengages in England, but here named after French Queen Claude, the 16th-century Duchess of Brittany). As we wound through country roads with a trunk full of Alsatian kraut, riesling, and kugelhof, I spied a table on the road with cardboard boxes of Reine Claudes stacked like mossy golfballs. We pulled over and loaded up, only to then by lured by the smell of Susy’s freshly baked bread.
Her hofelädeli was chock full of home-baked breads—hearty farmer’s loaves, olive breads, baguettes, bretzels stuffed with a thick layer of butter, and a few different kinds of gipfelli, the Swiss German word for croissant, including volkorn and laugen gipfelli, (a popular Swiss hybrid of a pretzel and croissant). Evidently, Susy has a sweet tooth, because pastries were everywhere—glazed mini carrot cakes, shimmery strawberry tarts, muffins, cinnamon buns, and rolls stuffed with sausage or studded with walnuts. A refrigerator next to the bread cases was filled with salami sandwiches and cold drinks like apfelshorli (sparkling apple cider). To pay, we dropped several thick five-franc coins into the box, which made a satisfying thud. And that was it. No receipt, no touching. No howdoyoudothankyoumaam. Food. Money. Go.
Not all hofladen are accessible by car. While hiking around the undulating green Jura hills just outside of Zürich, we discovered Leimbihof Hofladen. The old weathered stand-alone farm is located on trails an hour’s walk from our apartment in Switzerland’s largest city, but surrounded by cows, pigs, and walnut and pear trees. This hofladen exclusively featured Bio-Suisse (organic) food, including Swiss rapeseed oil, local beer and wine, sheep’s milk yogurt, pear molasses, homemade herbal teas, elderflower syrup, and locally pressed apple cider. There were mini tubs of homemade ice cream beside wrapped chunks of local antibiotic-free Swiss beef, pork, and chicken in the deep freeze. There was also a self-serve coffee machine. But my favorite thing at Leimbihof is the 12-hour Rohmilch Automaten. For 1.50 Swiss francs, you can place your own bottle (or buy one) in the machine to get a liter of cold, fresh, unpasteurized raw milk. The milk is never more than 12 hours old and comes from the 48 lovely cows in the wildflower strewn pastures surrounding the barn. These automatic milk machines are common at hofladen and offer the best way to do some on-site quality control with the local ladies of the meadow. As with many hofladen, Leimbihof has also started to accept forms of electronic payments like Twint.
The longer the lockdown lasted, the more hofladen we discovered. Appert’s Apfel Laden in historic Canton Schwyz, one of Switzerland’s four founding cantons, is a tiny shop manned by the happy Appert-Jauch family. Paintings of ginger cows adorn the shop walls, and the location is next level—set on a narrow farm road in the middle of an apple orchard, with a children’s swing set offering jaw-dropping views of 6,000-foot alp Grosser Mythen. Canton Schwyz is known for its fruit and fruit brandies, both sold here: apricot, cherry (kirsche), plum, pear, herb, and of course, apple brandies. There are also seasonal fruits, like mirabelle, pears, and plums, and interesting one-offs like hay vinegar, sweet and sour pumpkins, and wild garlic pesto. I even spied homemade caramels but resisted the urge.
So why do Swiss farmers trust strangers? Because farmers are busy doing farmer things—milking those cows, bundling that hay, and separating curds from whey. For better or for worse, they trust that we passers-by aren’t going to screw them over. (Stealing from a farmer seems atop the list of life’s most disgraceful acts, next to never returning library books.) That vulnerable trust makes me cry just a little bit for a rapidly disappearing Alpine goodness that many foreigners think only exists in The Sound of Music. (It’s Austrian, I know.) But that trust is alive and well in these Swiss hills today.