One of my first impressions of Switzerland was a boat on Lake Geneva that collected every single leaf from the surface of the lake with a grit that slowly rotated under the boat, similar to tank tracks. I was shocked, coming from Berlin and its Wannsee where, swimming, one has to watch out not to be pulled down into the green blubbering depth forever by water lilies and less beautiful plants. But there, standing in a park by the lakeside in Geneva, red and white flowers formed a huge cross around me, best visible for those visitors arriving by helicopter. I stared at the crystal clear, now leaf-free, water, which was born just a few days ago in numerous springs up in the surrounding mountains. I opened my mouth to express my astonishment but in the face of the indifference of the people around me towards the spectacle I wasn’t able to say anything.
In the following 15 years my path went through Switzerland again and again and my relation to the country gained more and more facets, leaving my mouth open, full of astonishment a lot of times. It happened everywhere: up in the high mountains and down in the green valleys. It also happened when I was introduced to the milking machines that in their understatement and functionality resembled the unobtrusive weapons M hands over to agent 007 in the beginning of every James Bond movie.
Swiss life is so precise. The total lack of the unnecessary takes away every freedom of passiveness or complaining. Swiss life is good. And hard, sometimes. Since every minute and meter is used efficiently there is no space for melancholic (German) apathy. Weirdly, besides or because of all this, Switzerland feels exotic too. The little island in the middle of the EU seems to be from another planet, or, at least from another continent. No wonder Swiss Jodel singers are teaming up with Mongolian or Vietnamese musicians to perform the most impressive overtone chanting at Obwald Music Festival.
I got used to all of that.
But there is one thing I cannot quite get yet.
Aromat, the taste of Switzerland. It’s everywhere, in the high mountains and in the green valleys. It’s a powdered condiment with a strange mix of vegetarian flavours, a little bit too flat and aggressively salty to be called umami. There is no escape, no wonder what you are eating – spätzli, knöpfli, salad, boiled egg or spaghetti bolognese. The Swiss are not seasoning they are aromating. And although they are extremely progressive in organic farming and amazingly traditional in the production of regional authentic food – it just doesn’t matter: everything tastes the same.
How did it come so far? Even in our most dystopian science fiction fantasies where people only eat pap, there is still the choice of flavour.
The story begins in Germany. Aromat is a product of the German company Knorr, which was founded middleof the 19th century and is one of the first companies producing what we now call instant soups. Knorr got a real boost when it expanded to the Swiss municipality Thayngen in 1907 where one of the employed chefs, Walter Obrist, invents the golden powder. The story reaches its climax around 1950 when several factors play together into the hands of Knorr. A new discipline – Public Relations – emerges out of the former discipline Propaganda and makes advertisements become one of the most powerful and important tools of today. At the same time, technical inventions like refrigeration, vacuum cleaners and washing machines awakens the desire of housewives to be freed from the stove. And there it comes: Knörrli.
Knörrli is a little red squirt, which is very cute (and, as the name suggests, very Swiss) and which does actually free the housewives or at least promises to shorten their time in the kitchens. Knörrli promotes Aromat in the same successful way in Switzerland as Senorita Chiquita Banana promotes Bananas in America – in creating an irrevocable urge for something heretofore unknown. In creating a hype.
And this is how the story continues: Hype turns into emotion. The taste of Aromat equals the warmth of feeling at home. Everywhere. And growing older, it equals the warmth of being a child. Nothing comes there in between, not even the fact that Aromat contains Glutamat and exotic herbs that are from far away from home.
And this is something we will never fully understand, coming from the outside, just like Swiss-German.
Drinking a beer in a bar in Zürich, I recently discovered one of the typical Aromat cans in a little container that was made for holding both, Aromat can and hard boiled eggs. The bar was run by some young and stylish people and I was wondering if with that gesture they wanted to process their childhood in an ironic way, or if they just wanted to say: sit down and feel at home.