The chocolate was tantalizingly on display in the airport. Stacks and bins of it heaped up for all to drool over….every variety and flavor combination you can think of. Naples orange cream to Black Forest Bark. Happily this chocolate shop that I was waiting expectantly to open for a half hour after the scheduled time was in Zurich. I ended up smuggling a sizable quantity of this Swiss chocolate home and rudely discovered that the same taste and quality simply doesn’t exist on most U.S. shelves. It made me wonder, just how and why does Switzerland get it right while our standards seem to have declined over the years?
At first glance, it’s surprising that Switzerland is such a chocolate leader. It’s climate isn’t tropical and it’s never had any colonies in the cocoa-growing countries of South America or Africa. You would think that Costa Rica should have cornered the market on the art of chocolate making. The main ingredient is after all in their backyard.
The Mayas used cocoa beans as both a currency and to make xocolatl, a drink restricted to high-born males. Aztec conqueror Hernando Cortes, was the first European to regard chocolate as having any value. He established a plantation to grow the beans as currency. But he went further introducing xocolatl to Spanish royalty in 1528. At first it was too bitter, spicy, and not resembling today’s chocolate. Ingredients like black pepper, milk, wine or beer were common and chocolate remained a drink until the 19th century.
It wasn’t until 1828 that some major technical developments made good tasting solid chocolate possible. Coenraad Johannes van Houten patented a new hydraulic press which produced cocoa solids which could be ground into powder. Although various breakthroughs in chocolate processing continued all across Europe and the United States, Swiss ingenuity was responsible for the following:
- Invention of the mixer allowing the combination of sugar and cocoa powder
- Tempering (preventing crystal formation on the chocolate’s surface)
- Creating Hazelnut, Milk, and Filled chocolates
Swiss chocolate making standards remain the highest in the world leaving the craft open to imposters. Chocosuisse, an organization sponsored by the Swiss chocolate industry is ever pursuing competitors claiming they are Swiss made when they in fact aren’t.
photo courtesy of Steve Mirsky