Switzerland's oldest cookbook whets modern appetites

Culinary mysteries from the 16th century. Staatsarchiv Graubuenden

Want to whip up a storm in the kitchen just like the Swiss did 400 years ago? The oldest surviving German-language cookbook in Switzerland has been republished, and what once fed the clergy of the diocese can now be served up in your own home.

It's a weighty book, not just in terms of its many pages, but also in terms of the dense recipes found inside. "Ein schön Kochbuch" (“A beautiful cookbook”) dates from 1559 and contains 515 recipes. The handwritten original was found a few years ago in the attic of a house near Zurich. The owner donated it to Swiss historian Walter Letsch, and today the original is stored in the Cantonal Archives of Graubünden.  

Fancy beaver's tail or pike liver?

However, cookbooks don't really belong in archives, but in kitchens: and so, Letsch edited the book and translated it into modern German. The newly-published book, available in Swiss bookstores, not only contains the recipes but also additional explanations on the dishes and ingredients as well as the language used.

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With modern taste buds in mind, the recipes may take a little getting used to: deliciously prepared dishes such as beaver’s tail or pike liver might not count as culinary highlights for the contemporary palate.

However, the read is an exciting one for history nerds and food lovers alike. There are also instructions for storing wine and making “medicinal” cures for headaches, gout and constipation. 

Fine dining for the clergy of Chur

The writing in the historical cookbook shows that at least five people worked on the original. It was aimed at the cooks of the diocese of Chur, who fed the clergy. The dishes are proof of the fine dining they enjoyed. Take the large use of sugar for example – a luxury only the rich could afford – at a time when poorer people sweetened their food with honey.  

Into food? Take another look at how the Swiss culinary landscape has been shaped over time: 


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