I wasn’t intending to write a second post about grocery shopping, but it seems that grocery shopping, and more specifically, figuring out where to find things, has taken up maybe 80% of my life so far in Switzerland.
Our temporary apartment is literally across the street from a Coop (locally pronounced Cope, rather than Co-Op, despite being derived from the word Cooperative and being a literal cooperative), the second-largest of Switzerland’s two major supermarket chains, and a little under a block from a Migros (the largest grocer, retailer, and employer in Switzerland, pronounced “me grow,” as in French, with a silent ‘s’, despite being founded in, and in our case, located in, German-speaking Switzerland. Migros is a cooperative too, known in full as the Federation of Migros Cooperatives), so basic foodstuffs aren’t very hard as long as I go out on weekdays during narrow Swiss shopping hours (typically until 8PM M-F, although a few larger branches stay open until 10 on weekdays, and until 6 on Saturday).
Both Coop and Migros are almost comically ubiquitous in Basel. Beyond our local (which also features a deeply mediocre, noticeably expensive buffet restaurant my kids fell in love with immediately—they’ve taken me there twice so far to watch them eat half a pretzel sandwich and a forkful of salad, and I have yet to spend less than 25 francs, but at least they gave them a free little stuffed toucan), there’s a larger Coop three blocks down the street, just before the train station.
Inside the train station itself, just over four blocks from where we live now, there’s a slightly smaller Migros than the one closest to our house. But this one is a Basel-Stadt institution because it is the only major supermarket in the city that is open on Sundays. I’ve never been there on a weekday, but I’ve recognized multiple fellow shoppers on successive Sundays… this city is not very big.
As I will detail in a later post, we are very likely to move to a different neighborhood on the other side of the river in the coming months. There are many things about our temporary neighborhood that I already recognize that I will miss dearly. One of the dearest is being perhaps eight minutes’ walk from the city’s main train station. The train station is maybe the only place in Basel that is noticeably bustling seven days a week, and it offers a large handful of very miscellaneous shops that keep some Sunday and/or evening hours.
So along with getting real food at the station Migros, or snacks at the pretty well-stocked-but-not-a-grocery-store Coop Pronto convenience and liquor store (Migros is officially dry; more about that below), I could also easily acquire overpriced muffins or takeaway sandwiches, German-language romance novels, Swiss Lottery tickets, low-end candy, greeting cards, or an umbrella on a Sunday if I had to. And our beloved Turkish corner store, as noted, can supply us with anything that has ever been pickled, as well as an interesting but not comprehensive selection of international delicacies, and a small range of household products, seven days a week.
The Turkish corner store does not, however, sell toilet paper.
So, to cite a hypothetical example, if you were to move into a temporary apartment just down the block with your family of four, at midafternoon on a Sunday, and find that your home has been stocked with a single small roll of toilet paper, you would have to look somewhere else.
But where? This question in many variations has consumed a surprising amount of my mental and physical energy over the past few weeks.
Below I offer some of what I’ve figured out.
What You Can (Maybe) Get Where: A Selective Guide for the Confused
What You Can Get at Coop
Most things you want to eat, particularly if you are a Swiss family. To get the obvious staples out of the way:
- A huge amount of chocolate (the store brand features a heap of organic and Fairtrade options, all of high quality and all fairly cheap; I recommend the Fairtrade Certified Choco-Brezeli). Fine chocolate is literally among the cheapest things in a Swiss supermarket, perhaps alongside store brand energy drinks, which come in a range of exotic flavors from “disgusting” to “mojito/also disgusting,” Ubiquitous taurine-slinging juggernaut Red Bull has the gall to sell a Coconut Blueberry flavor here, in both glucose and sugar free versions.
- Lots of cheese, nearly all white or pale yellow, mostly without holes. The stuff Americans call Swiss Cheese is actually one of many regional varieties, officially produced just in the Emmental, a valley in Canton Bern, and is known in Switzerland not just as Cheese, but as Emmentaler. There are maybe fifteen other common local types; I’ve probably tried half and like most of them more than I like Emmentaler. But I like the Emmentaler better here than in the US. The only orange-colored cheese I’ve noticed so far, apart from a convenient but depressing store-brand product called Tex-Mex, made of pre-grated yellow and orange cheddaresque shreds, is a packaged product that bears a suspicious resemblance to American cheese “singles,” known locally as “Toast cheese,” and formatted to fit exactly on the vaguely American-style square, usually white, sliced bread known as “Toast.” There is also a great range of patties made from cheese, sometimes breaded, sometimes seasoned, intended to serve as something to be grilled for non-meat eaters–the Swiss do a lot of outdoor grilling in the summer. The Coop house brand is called a Cheese Burger, and it bills itself as a “Schweizer vegetarische Alternative,” which is hard to argue with. Except for the fact that I’m definitely already eating too much cheese, I might try them.
- SO MANY KINDS OF MUESLI, including some really strange-looking ones such as “No Sugar Added Cocoa Muesli,” a store brand that I can’t help but imagine tastes like raw oatmeal with unsweetened cocoa powder dumped all over it (that is certainly what it looks like). Nobody in my family really likes muesli, so this is a section—fully half of our local’s Frühstück aisle—I have not explored in as much detail as Swiss patriots might think it deserves. We were warned before coming, by an expat forum participant, that Switzerland is “not a great scene, cereal-wise,” and this has proven only partially true. Incomprehensible quantities and varieties of raw oats and nuts, and a surprising density of deeply sugary cereals featuring shrieking monkeys, hyperactive pieces of anthropomorphic cinnamon toast, menacing bees, and manic baby tigers, among other mascots, yes. But also ready access to perfectly acceptable corn flakes, brand-name Rice Krispies, and a couple of other non-sugar-bomb processed breakfast foods. All cheaper than in the US.
- Very expensive meat, including Horse Fillets that can set you back a whopping 40+ francs per kilo. I’m pretty sure this was organic horse, however, and probably from somewhere expensive like France; I presume conventional horse, and/or Ukrainian horse, isn’t as pricey. Half of my family is made up of committed vegetarians, I make an effort to minimize the animals I eat, and basically all of our family meals are veg, so the cost of meat isn’t actually troublesome for us, but it makes it clear why Swiss customs prohibits the import of more than a kilo of meat per person among cross-border shoppers (and perhaps more about international shopping another time). Das Fleisch is an obvious revenue generator.
On the subject of vegetables, the selection is both smaller and quite a lot different than I was expecting. It took several trips to several stores to find celery, and while other lettuces seemed abundant (mostly Butter and other floppy varieties), there was no sign of any romaine for the first two weeks we were in Switzerland. Romaine lettuce is probably our Levi’s favorite food—Jessica and I frequently have to remind him that he “can’t just eat salad,” and he has recently been known to refer to himself as either the Salad King or the Saladmaster when performing superheroics at the dinner table. So it was a delight when, a little over two weeks into our Swiss sojourn, little tiny heads of romaine lettuce appeared, wrapped in packages of two or three, and labeled either Minisalat or Baby Salat; the perfect staple for our salad baby. We’ve since come to understand that the produce is just much more seasonal here—this leads me to assume that we will get to watch the Baby Salat grow up into Big Boy Salat, Teenager Salat, and eventually Grownup Salat as the summer goes on. (I wonder if Middle-Aged Salat is bitter.)
But back to the list of things you CAN get at Coop:
Potting Soil. It’s right out front, in huge bags. The small selection of potted flowers and plants is dwarfed by their bulk. I suspect that in the winter it gets replaced with firewood. But we shall see.
LED Lightbulbs. A tiny selection of mostly curiously small and oddly shaped light bulbs is available for sale. The range of bulb shapes and socket sizes is far more diverse here than in the US, but all skew small. LEDs and compact fluorescents only; incandescent bulbs are soon to be illegal.
You CAN’T, however, typically get batteries. I found mine at the electronics store on the same block as the Turkish market, after a few attempts; they were proudly Made In Switzerland (Swiss-made products are nearly reliably ostentatiously labeled as such) and cost close to three times as much as they would have in the US.
Kitchen gadgets, both international-standard and local favorites such as the Hob Scraper, a razorblade in a handle designed to chisel encrusted gunk off of a glass induction cooking surface… I smirked when I first saw it, but now I use it every day.
Undergarments. Hosiery, men’s and women’s underpants, and men’s undershirts, at least. Typically not far from the shaving and shampoo aisle. When I visited Switzerland back in March, before we moved, I picked up a pack of boxer briefs at Coop that are excellent; my Swiss supermarket underpants are now probably my favorite. Maybe a little insulting, though, as I, increasingly doughy but still usually a reliable American Medium when it comes to underpants, am evidently a Swiss XL.
Apart from this slight, and the fact that they’re really, really expensive (I think I paid CHF20 for a two-pack, or about ten bucks a pair), I would probably buy all my underwear at the grocery store from here on in.
And as far as I can tell, the main reason that the larger Coop three blocks from us has so much more square footage than the one right across from our house is that it has a much larger underwear section. Far greater array of pantyhose, and I saw a bizarre, green men’s boxers-and-tank top set, although it might have been pajamas. Everything else seems comparable in scale, just arranged or assorted a little differently—only the bigger one sells 1.5L cartons of pasteurized rather than “ultra-pasteurized,” that is to say refrigerated rather than flash-heated to be shelf-stable, milk containers. Only the smaller one sells caffeine-free Coke Zero.
Health, Beauty, and Voodoo. In just about any Coop, including the little convenience-store ones, there’s a selection of vitamins, soaps, shampoos, and sunblock, and maybe a small number of first aid supplies (at least sticking plasters/Band-Aids). You can also find a few ointments, as long as they’re basically cosmetic and not at all medicinal—no antibiotic ointment outside of an Apotheke (pharmacy) or Drogerie (Druggery? Drugstore? A strange name for something that actually sells fewer real drugs than its pharmaceutical sibling—a Drogerie cannot dispense prescriptions). Both Apotheken and Drogerien are curiously sparse-looking; the shelves accessible to visitors tend to feature mostly skin-care products, artfully arrayed. The actual medicines are hidden behind a counter or in a safe.
In any case, you can’t get anything resembling medicine, over the counter or otherwise, at a supermarket unless it has an Apotheke up front—maybe the same brand and loyalty card, but officially a separate store, with a discrete staff and till.
The closest thing you can find to medicine in the health-and-beauty department of Coop is a small selection of herbal lozenges (all 70 flavors of Ricola) and syrups, and weirder, typically a shelf or two of homeopathic remedies.
Drogerien do a lot of homeopathic business as well, as do some independent Apotheken. Maybe it has to do with das Homeopathie’s Teutonic roots, but it’s comparatively big here, in spite of being totally bogus pseudoscientific nonsense.
But as a physical therapist once told me, if the placebo effect works, the stuff works. On to other grocers!
What You Can Get at Migros (and a bit about what you cannot)
Maybe the most common differentiator cited among expats and many Swiss people between Migros and Coop is that Coop is slightly more expensive; this may be true, but the difference isn’t striking. To San Franciscans, groceries in Switzerland—fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy, processed foods—are quite similar in price to their Yankee equivalents.
But another important distinguishing feature of Migros is that the store was founded in a sort of paternalistic charitable framework, with a mission of uplifting and supporting poor farmers and working people, who in the past may not have had access to any markets at all across their remote valleys and hilltops. When the Migros Federation was first founded, it focused on selling a mere six staples, cheaply, out of mobile trucks, to people who otherwise couldn’t find them.
In keeping with these beneficent roots, Migros is now sometimes described as a health food store, and it’s famous for not selling alcohol or tobacco (you can find the Alkoholfrei edition of the ubiquitous local Schlossfelden beer in Migros’s soft drink aisle; given the typical mildness of Swiss beer overall, I wonder if one could taste the difference). Coop sells beer and wine in its regular aisles, and in most stores, tobacco and spirits out front, from a separate kiosk. (At Coop, this is also where you buy expensive local government-issued trash bags, but more about those in an upcoming entry.)
Until recently, there were no such kiosks out front at Migros, and technically, there still aren’t. But back in 2007, Migros bought Denner, the third-largest supermarket chain in Switzerland, which is primarily a discount grocer, but also a major mover of beer, wine, spirits, tobacco, and, more recently, the 1% THC, mostly CBD cannabis joints that remain legal in Switzerland’s curious patchwork of vice regulations (perhaps more about that later). Many larger Migros stores are organized in small shopping centers, with other Federation-owned companies, such as Migros Bank, occupying spaces in lobbies or adjacent to the supermarkets. So you can now frequently find a Denner, maybe most famous as the place to buy the cheapest wine in Switzerland, in the lobby of your local teetotalling Migros store.
Along with Switzerland’s cheapest rotgut and mock ganja, a brief selection of some of the highlights of stuff to buy at Migros:
Shoes. While Migros, like Coop, has a solid socks and underpants selection, Migros takes things one step further by selling flip-flops, knockoff Birkenstocks, slippers, and other footwear. Switzerland’s is mostly a shoes-off-inside-the-house culture; the boys’ school requires all students to possess indoor shoes, outdoor shoes, and indoor sport shoes, and chaotic low shoe racks line the elementary school hallways between the classroom doors, under the coat pegs. I just barely stopped myself from buying a pair of sandals at our local Migros, but I couldn’t decide if a pair of fake Birks from the grocery store would fall apart immediately and/or induce instant regret. They also weren’t cheap, at around CHF/US$50. So for better or worse, and it’s hard to imagine anything other than worse, I’m still wearing a pair of molded rubber sandals I picked up in a market in Kenya ten years ago, which may be even uglier than mock-Birkenstocks, but were immeasurably cheaper and seem to be indestructible. (Maybe next year, Migros shoes.)
Sushi. You can actually get supermarket sushi at both Migros and Coop, like at grocery stores around the world. Unlike at most grocery stores where I’ve purchased sushi, however, including such highlights as no-closer-to-the-coast-than-Switzerland Wisconsin, Swiss supermarket sushi gets startlingly expensive; it costs more to buy a roll from the grocery store in Switzerland than it does to get one from a restaurant in San Francisco, and a cup of edamame might set you back seven bucks. But in Switzerland, only the Migros sushi cooler offers the amusing Sushi Sandwich, featuring triangles of sushi rice, toasted sesame seeds, and seaweed pressed into a vague resemblance to slices of white bread, and filled with salmon, shrimp, or, not-very-sushilike curried chicken.
Toys. Nothing special to report, but Migros stores seem to have better/larger selections of cheapo, colorful plastic junk to serve as a child magnet than do Coops. A few board games and puzzles, even. I’m OK with the fact that I have yet to bring my children to Migros with me, although they’re increasingly well-acquainted with the ice cream and bread aisles, among other eyecatchers, at the much-more-adjacent Coop.
Farro, maybe? We have a dish made from farro, the Italian name for one of several varieties of coarse wheat grains, in regular rotation at our house. It comes in a range of types, both in terms of the wheat species used and in terms of the degree to which it’s been processed; our home ideal has been “semi-pearled,” or mostly husked, because it can be cooked in about 30 minutes, as opposed to who knew how long with the unpearled stuff, and yields a nice chewy mouthfeel. But it wasn’t anywhere to be seen in Coop. Jessica swore to me that she saw it among a great array of bagged grains, pulses and beans on some shelf somewhere, and I finally found the shelf she was talking about when I finally went to the station Migros. She mentioned that farro might be sold as Einkorn, Emmer, or Dinkel, and there it was, a fine, farroey looking bag of Dinkel.
Which, as it turns out, is entirely unpearled spelt, which may or may not even be the same species of wheat as farro. It cooks in… more than an hour, at least, because when I boiled the hell out of it one hot morning for use in a salad, I think I did so for about an hour, and the stuff was still near-inedibly chewy. I choked it down out of spite, but I think only the Saladmaster enjoyed it. But he also eats birdseed. We’ve since swapped the Dinkel out with very coarse bulgur from the Turkish shop.
Next week I’ll tell you about something other than things I buy at my local Turkish supermarket. Probably.