Chef with sausage, 1955. Swiss National Museum

The nation’s sausage

The history of Switzerland comes with a big slice of ‘Wurst’. National dish or globalised cervelat: Swiss identity is all tied up with a very special sausage.

Hannes Mangold

Hannes Mangold

Hannes Mangold is exhibition curator and head of cultural outreach at the Swiss National Library.

Everything was arranged for the big festival of football. Switzerland was to host the 2008 Men’s European Championships, together with Austria. But then a decision from Brussels ruined the joyful anticipation. In 2006 the European Union tightened its import regulations for animal products from Brazil, deeming the risk of transmission of the bovine disease BSE too high. Through the veterinary agreement, Switzerland was bound by the new rule. The importation of Brazilian bovine intestines was cancelled. Production of Mr and Mrs Swiss’s favourite sausage came to a halt. Everyone was talking about the ‘cervelat crisis’. A task force looked into the problem. The feverish search by the sausage specialists finally led to an acceptable alternative in 2008. Argentine and Uruguayan intestines were also usable. In the meantime, the crisis had brought cervelat a great deal of attention and a marked increase in sales. The sausage had emerged as a national institution that contains a good portion of globalisation.
Lora Lamm, Bell, poster, 1963.
Lora Lamm, Bell, poster, 1963. Swiss National Library, © Bell Food Group AG

‘The worker’s steak’ for everyone

When it comes to establishing and reinforcing a national identity, foods are an old favourite. Goulash in Hungary, spaghetti in Italy, and fondue in Switzerland – these are thought of as the national dishes of their respective countries. In Europe, groups also assert their common identity through their shared preference for a specific sausage. Our European neighbours shake their heads in astonishment over the Helvetian love affair with what they see as a pale and pasty sausage speciality, while the Swiss chomp their way through around 160 million cervelats each year. Is it the history of the sausage, rather than its taste, that explains the Swiss obsession with cervelat? Recipes for cervelat can be found in cookbooks dating from the early modern period. In its current form, however, it dates from the 19th century. At that time, firstly, the meat mincer made it possible to chop the filling mixture more finely. Secondly, industrialisation and urbanisation radically transformed the meat sector. Centralised slaughterhouses brought in mandatory hygiene rules and work processes. Narrowly defined production standards made cervelat an inexpensive mass-produced item. The so-called Proletenfilet, the ‘worker’s steak’, gave factory workers the opportunity to get some animal-based proteins despite their low wages.
View of the E. Schläpfer-Siegfried butchery in St Gallen, around 1905.
View of the E. Schläpfer-Siegfried butchery in St Gallen, around 1905. Swiss National Museum
When the meat market globalised after 1945, Swiss butchers acquired a taste for the intestines of Brazilian Zebu cattle. But even an increasingly global chain of production did nothing to change the status of our national sausage. In the post-war period, meat consumption grew along with the economy and cervelat established itself as a unifying normality on the dinner plates of all our language regions.
Making a cervelat in the butcher’s shop, 1985 (in German). SRF

The Landjäger too

The VIP of the sausage world, cervelat does radiate a certain glamour. This is partly because the sausage converts leftover meat into a delicacy. As with most national and regional sausage specialties, this is also the case with the Landjäger, another Swiss sausage favourite that also dates from the industrialisation of the meat industry. The shape of the smoked, square-pressed raw sausage, sold in pairs, has been firm and standing to attention like the legs of a village policeman since the 19th century. The contents of the Landjäger, on the other hand, have been reworked repeatedly. A century ago, the Landjäger still offered a place for whatever was left over from butchering. The pig’s intestine casings were filled with beef, pork, veal, horsemeat, or all of them together. Today, however, the Landjäger combines about four parts cow meat and one part pork fatback, plus spices and nitrite salting mix for the reddish colouring.
Knitted Landjäger sausages by the artist Mme Tricot, 2019.
Knitted Landjäger sausages by the artist Mme Tricot, 2019. Swiss National Museum

Alternatives for the future

Historically, attempts to reduce the meat content of sausages have often been based on a desire to lower costs. Recent history, however, has given meatless sausages a boost for ethical reasons. Since the turn of the millennium, vegetarian substitutes have become more and more popular on retail counters. This growth has raised new questions: should we even be referring to a vegan product as ‘Landjäger’ or ‘cervelat’? In 2020 the Federal Food Safety and Veterinary Office proposed a compromise: ‘vegan alternative to cervelat’. Is that the name of the national sausage of the future? Maybe we will know after the next European Championship.

Meat – An exhibition on the Inner Life

Meat – An exhibition on the Inner Life
04.03.2021 30.06.2021 / Swiss National Library, Bern
In the exhibition ‘Meat – An exhibition on the Inner Life’, the National Library takes the current discussion about meat-based, vegetarian and vegan nutrition as an opportunity to explore historical, literary and artistic perspectives on this special substance. For a look at the exhibition, visit the website

Further posts