Food Glorious Food: Vevey’s Alimentarium

Alimentarium, Vevey, Switzerland

If I were to show you an outline drawing of a nest, with a mother bird bringing food to two little chicks, what would you think of?

I grew up on Nestlé products – I drank Nesquik for breakfast, Nescafé was always in the kitchen cupboard and Milkybars were a special treat.  The little logo of the birds and the nest was a comforting image to see for a kid growing up in Turkey – it meant quality and it meant tasty, and it meant someone had just been to Europe.

Vegetable planting outside the Alimentarium, Vevey, Switzerland

Vegetable planting outside the Alimentarium, Vevey, Switzerland

I think it’s wonderful that the headquarters of this incredibly influential company are in the sweet, slightly sleepy town of Vevey.  It was here that Henri Nestlé created his game-changing ‘farine lactée’ and where food history was made.

Heinrich Nestle was born in Frankfurt in Germany, to a Swabian family.  In the local Swabian dialect, ‘nestle’ means small bird’s nest – hence the cute little logo.  Anyway, Heinrich served an apprenticeship with a pharmacy before travelling to Switzerland.  The reason why he made this move isn’t known, but in 1839 he was authorised to practise as a pharmacist in Lausanne.  He changed his name to Henri Nestlé and settled into making contributions to a run of experimental industries – rapeseed production, liqueurs production, and the manufacture of carbonated mineral water and lemonade, gas lighting and fertilisers.

Then came the breakthrough with his infant formula.  Despite the fact that he and his wife didn’t have children of their own, Nestlé worked on this with his customary enthusiasm.  Child mortality was a serious issue and many children died through malnutrition due to their mother’s inability to feed and because fresh milk wasn’t always available in cities.

Nestlé and his friend Jean Balthasar Schnetzler, who specialised in human nutrition, developed a formula of cow’s milk, sugar and a wheat flour with the acid and starch removed – these being elements that are difficult for babies to digest.  Not only was the formula good for babies unable to breast-feed, but it was easy to prepare, only needing to be boiled prior to feeding.  The formula was produced from 1867, and it was so popular that by the 1870s it was even sold in America.  Child mortality rates were lowered.

Another bonus of this production was the fact that Nestlé’s process of milk condensation enabled Daniel Peter of Vevey to perfect his milk chocolate formula in 1875 – in a neat example of cooperation, Nestlé supplied him with the condensed milk, and Peter created a successful commercial product.  In 1904, Nestlé took over the export sales of Peter & Kohler and began selling chocolate for the first time.

What I find most interesting in Nestlé’s story is the fact that he sold his company in 1875 and thereafter lived quietly between Montreux and Glion, helping the community.  The company kept his name, and employed chemists to help expand production and sales.

Another significant story is linked into Nestlé’s.  The American brothers Charles and George Page established the Anglo-Swiss Condensed Milk Company in 1866.  Milk in Switzerland was abundant, and the brothers established Europe’s first production facility for condensed milk in Cham.  They supplied industrial towns in particular, marketing their Milkmaid brand as a safe and long-life alternative to fresh milk.  By 1878 Anglo-Swiss and Nestlé was locked in fierce competition as they both sold rival versions of each other’s products.  In 1882, Anglo-Swiss expanded into the American market, but in 1902 they sold that arm of their business.  In 1905, Anglo-Swiss and Nestlé merged and had three offices – one in Vevey, one in Cham, and a third in London, to focus on sales.

It’s a fascinating story of practicality, hard work and innovation, and goes some way to explaining how the name of a Vevey pharmacist is one of the best known brands in the world.

Now for the Alimentarium.  I wasn’t sure what to expect from it.  The modern world is so good at writing blah-di-blah things which sound fantastic, but don’t mean anything – I mean, that doesn’t really tell you what you will really get at the museum.  They tell you you’ll get food and games, and activities with virtual and sensory experiments.  Meaning?

The Food Sector

The first area you get to explore looks at food in terms of its production, transportation and cooking.  What this means is that you get to watch some films, use some multimedia stations and see some objects which relate to the production, transportation and cooking of food.

Honestly, a lot of it was aimed at children, but as an adult you can get something out of it.

The Society Sector

The focus of the second area is how food defines our society and culture – or how we are defined by our food. Taboos and rituals relating to food, as well as general cultural attitudes to food are looked at.  This area also explored the way that social media shares food images and information, and various screens display the scary amount of images that are being uploaded every moment for #pizza or #burger or whatever.

The Body Sector

The effect of food on the human body is the focus of the last section.  There are various hands-on and multimedia bits and bobs to explore.  I found this the weakest section for an adult-only group.  All it did was remind me of the amazing French/Canadian/Japanese/Belgian/Swiss/Italian cartoon, Once Upon a Time…Life.  I kept thinking the little white blood cells were going to charge up and carry us away.

One nice thing was that there was a lady on this floor who told us all about chocolate.  We were the only group there at the time, so we had her undivided attention, and could ask all the silly questions we wanted.  We got to sniff and feel cocoa beans in their various phases and tasted different percentages of chocolate.  I’ve read about chocolate production loads of times – I’ve been to Cadbury World – I’ve seen programmes – but this was the first time I actually walked away genuinely understanding the process.  It was great!

Despite the fact that there wasn’t much to the museum in hindsight, I enjoyed it.  There was a real attempt made to tell stories, and get visitors to think about food from different perspectives.  The weakest gallery was on the body – but the kids seemed to be enjoying it, so I guess they know their audience!

I wish they had more on Nestlé itself, both in terms of its history and its current position in the world of food.  When I visited the NEST museum down the road, I expected to get that – but didn’t.  That museum is closing in September 2019.  I hope they take advantage of this opportunity to combine resources, and incorporate an exhibition on this amazing company and its formidable history within the Alimentarium building.

Further Information

There is a fee to enter the museum, but various ticketing options are available.  This being Switzerland, you can access information on this, and everything else you’d need, on the museum’s website in the major European languages: www.alimentarium.org

As well as information about the museum, its collection and events, there is an awful lot of supplementary stuff on food and nature, which is genuinely well done.  I think teachers would find the site especially useful, but anyone who wants to find out more about subjects like bread, or a butcher’s life, should enjoy the website.

Promoting good food is one of the main purposes of the Alimentarium, and they have a rather nice cafe and restaurant to visit.  They even have a cute play area for kids.

How To Get There

The museum is very centrally placed in Vevey, a short walk from the train station, down by the lake.  There is a giant fork sticking out from the waters just outside it, so that’s a handy sign.  For information on how to get to Vevey by public transport, check out the excellent www.sbb.ch

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Alimentarium

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Alimentarium 46.458452, 6.846424

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