Visit Bern’s Zibelemärit (Onion Market)

Each year on the fourth Monday of November, Switzerland’s capital city of Bern holds the Bern’s Zibelemärit (Onion Market), a very special folk festival.  The event draws farmers from the surrounding areas brining more than 50 tonnes of onions to Bern for this famous Zibelemärit.  From about 5am visitors, farmers and hundreds of stalls line the picturesque Old Town selling everything to do with onions and garlic.

By 6.30am even though it is still dark it’s almost impossible to move because of the sea of people and stalls displaying traditionally braided onions, flower arrangements, decorations and figures sculpted from onions, in the foreground of illuminated historical buildings like Town Hall, is an enchanting sight.

Other vendors offer seasonal vegetables, bread, Glühwen (hot mulled wine), bread and souvenirs.  No one seems bothered by the early start or the winter coldness.  The Onion Market attracts more visitors than any other traditional event in Bern.

Whether onion tart, onion soup, onion pizza, or sausage with onions – the restaurants in Bern’s Old Town off an array of onion-based dishes.  Swiss Rail put on extra trains for the event.  The market is well known for the confetti fights, enjoyed not only by small children but adult as well.  Some shops close early before the fight finale so as not have confetti everywhere.

The origin of the Zibelemärit remain ambiguous, with two versions being told.  Bernese folklore claims that on the afternoon of 14 May 1405, fire broke out in Bern’s Brunngasse, spreading within minutes across to the opposite bank of the Aare River.  Over a period of two months, the citizens of neighbouring Fribourg helped clear away the debris and displayed great honesty by handing in all items found in the process.  Allegedly, as an expression of their gratitude, the Bernese people gave the citizens a grant to sell onions in the city, yet in the chronicle of Conard Justinger, who was witness to the fire, there is no mention of it.

Historical researchers believe that the Zibelemärit actually began much later.  Around 1850, farmers’ waves, the so-called ‘marmettes’, began to turn up in Bern on the first day of the city’s ancient two-week Martinmas Fairs, selling primarily onions but also endives, leeks, celery, nuts, chestnuts and fruit.  Thanks to the excellent quality of the produce and the cheerful, friendly demeanour of the farmers’ wives who sold it, the new vegetable market rapidly blossomed until, as early as 1860, newspapers were proclaiming the Onion Market as the ‘traditional’ start of the Martinmas Fair.

During Zibelemärit its worth visiting Restaurant Volkhaus 1914, where chef of the Swiss national football team, Emil Bolli is in charge of the kitchen.  He estimates to have baked around 40,000 onion pies in his lifetime.  The simple dish made with onion, ham and cheese on top is a carefully balanced sweet and salty tasting delight.

The longer the day goes on, the emptier of onions and other produce the stalls get, while the smell of mulled wine, garlic bread and onion pies lingers until dawn.