By Sharon Hudgins
Photos by the author
Crave chocolate? Do you salivate when someone utters those sweet syllables? Whether you call it chocolate (Spanish, Portuguese), xocolata (Catalan), chocolat (French), chocola (Dutch), Schokolade (German), Schoggi (Swiss-German), cioccolato (Italian), choklad (Swedish), sjokolade (Norwegian), czekolada (Polish), suklaa (Finnish) or okolaad (Estonian), it’s all the same: delicious!
As a woman at a Swiss chocolate factory told me, “You don’t need to know any other languages to talk about chocolate. Chocolate speaks for itself!”
FROM BEAN TO BAR
The Olmecs, Mayans, and Aztecs were enjoying chocolate as a drink for centuries before Christopher Columbus bumped into the Western Hemishphere on his way to the spice-producing lands of the East. Both Columbus and Hernán Cortés are credited with bringing cacao beans (from which chocolate is made) back to Spain in the early 1500s, where the Spanish eventually figured out that the bitter beverage of Central America tasted a lot better with sugar, vanilla and spices such as cinnamon and cloves added to the brew.
Sweet, foamy, dark and thick, hot chocolate soon became a favorite drink of the Spanish nobility, and Spain monopolized the market for cacao beans for nearly a century. In the 1600s, the popularity of chocolate—still consumed only as a beverage—began to spread to other parts of Europe, including France, England, Austria and the Netherlands. By the early 1700s, chocolate-drinking establishments in London were already competing with the popular coffeehouses there.
It was the Europeans who turned a ceremonial drink of the Aztec aristocracy into the affordable chocolate products that we enjoy today: chocolate powder, chocolate candy, chocolate syrup, chocolate spread.
In 1828 a Dutchman named Coenraad van Houten developed a process for removing the natural fat (cocoa butter) from the cacao beans and turning the remaining solids into powder. By the mid-1800s, European chocolatiers had figured out how to combine sugar and cocoa butter with a paste of ground cacao beans to make bars of “eating chocolate.”
The British were also pioneers in the development of chocolate technology, but the Swiss were the leaders in the field. Cailler, the first brand of Swiss chocolates, was established in 1819. In 1875, Daniel Peter in Switzerland invented milk chocolate, soon to be marketed by Nestlé. Four years later, Rodolphe Lindt created the world’s first “melting chocolate” for use in pastry- and candy-making. And in 1913, Jules Séchaud introduced a process for manufacturing filled chocolates. By that time, the Swiss were already the largest producers of chocolate in the world.
Today, the Swiss, Belgians, and Germans lead the world in chocolate consumption, happily eating 24 to 26 pounds of chocolate per person every year. The British, Austrians, and Norwegians are close behind, consuming 18 to 22 pounds each. And what tourist traveling in Europe can resist those triangular Toblerone and purple-packaged Milka bars, square Ritter Sports, round Mozart Kugeln, gold-wrapped Ferrero Rochers, fancy French and Belgian handmade bon-bons, chocolate Santas at Christmas, chocolate bunnies and cream-filled eggs at Easter time?
When I told a Swiss hotelier that I was surprised to learn that the Swiss eat an average of 12 kilograms (over 26 pounds) of chocolate per person annually, she looked surprised, too. “So little?” she asked incredulously. “I eat 200 grams of chocolate every day. Let’s see, that’s…”—she stopped to calculate in her head—”3 pounds each week, which is about 150 pounds a year. And I’m such a happy person!”
Several countries in Europe have fascinating museums that focus on the history and process of making chocolate, from bean to bar. And many chocolate producers—from major multinational companies to small independent artisans—offer tours of their facilities, with a chocolate tasting included. The Swiss even have a Chocolate Train that takes you on a round trip from Montreux to visit the Cailler-Nestlé chocolate factory in Broc, as well as a cheese factory in Gruyères.
For more information on European chocolate museums and factory tours, check out the following sweet links: