In Bern, as in many parts of the world, autumn is the season of cool, crisp air, golden light, falling leaves—and hunting. But here it isn’t just the hunters who get to enjoy the meat they bring down: venison steaks are for sale in local grocery stores. As far as I’m concerned, though, the best way to enjoy game is out.
Between early September and mid-November, most of the restaurants in Switzerland serve some form of Wild (game), be it filet of wild boar or Rehpfeffer, a spicy stew of roe deer meat cooked in red wine and vinegar. Hare, red deer, and chamois are also common on Swiss menus; sometimes you see mountain goat, too, or game birds like partridge and quail. But I wouldn’t enjoy game season so much if it weren’t for the traditional foods that accompany the meat: baked apples stuffed with fig preserves, poached pears, glazed chestnuts, red cabbage, Brussel sprouts flavored with bacon and drenched in butter, sautéed field mushrooms, porcini, and chanterelles in cream, and piles of Spätzli, little flour dumplings that are first boiled and then fried crisp in butter.
My family and I usually celebrate my October birthday in a local restaurant, eating game with all these delicious side dishes. When I first moved to Bern, I assumed that the meat we ate each fall was supplied by local hunters, but that would be impossible—the Swiss eat much more Wild than could ever be shot in this tiny country. Yet it turns out most of it is wild, not raised, since Switzerland buys its game from Austria, Germany, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic, where hunting associations sell what they shoot to wholesalers. Only a small portion of the red deer we eat (about 12%) is farmed. (New Zealand, by contrast, raises 1.2 million deer on over 3,000 farms, and venison is served in restaurants year-round.)
So what animals are killed in a typical season? In 2020, hunters in the canton of Bern shot 5,726 roe deer, 732 red deer, 259 wild boars, and seven woodcocks: all these are commonly eaten. They also shot 573 badgers, 24 pine martens, and 178 magpies, among other unexpected wildlife. Now that upsets me! Who the hell eats magpies, and what harm do badgers do? But, given the way we humans keep stealing the land that animals need to live on, perhaps Bern’s badgers must be culled to keep a decent-sized habitat for those that remain.
A piece of good news for vegetarians: most restaurants in Bern serve large plates of mushrooms, sprouts, Spätzli, and all the other wonderful accompaniments to game without the meat. E Guete mitenang!*
And what about you? Do you like game? Do you have strong feelings about hunting and eating wild animals?
* Bernese German for Enjoy your meal, everyone.