All Aboard the Chocolate Express
Think Switzerland and your shortlist should read watches, banks, Matterhorns, cheese and chocolate. Wrap all these in silver paper and put them in a fancy box and you have the Montreux-Bernese Oberland Railway, a privately-owned, beautifully restored Pullman Express.
It’s a crisp clear summer morning at Montreaux station and the three “Belle Epoque” carriages are waiting with the expectant chocophiles milling about chatting excitedly in anticipation of this classic Swiss big day out. Built around 1915, the original narrow-gauge carriages have undergone an extensive and expensive restoration to bring them to pristine condition.
“We had a lot of trouble getting the right wood, windows and fitting, because some of the original ones were broken,” says Niklaus, the tour guide with obvious pride. His perfectly tailored blue tunic and classic cap are in the same style and it’s clear he feels like the living part of the train.
The Chocolate Train, is a minor misnomer. Sure it terminates, at the famous Callier chocolate factory in Broc, but the entire 9am – 5pm journey is a dairy drenched gastronomic extravaganza.
With the modern electric locomotive at work up front, the journey is deceptively silent except for the muffled rush of metal-on-metal as the picture postcard Swiss scenery rolls past.
The train makes its first stop at the village of Gruyères, where the unsuspecting gastromes pile off for a demonstration of classic cheeesemaking at the Maison du Gruyères dairy. Even though this is a tourist factory, the master cheese-makers produce 48 round 355kg Gruyères cheeses every day. Try to resist the double cream meringues; you’ll need room for the chocolate!
Speaking of which, the piece d’resistance is the factory at Broc. Part of the Nestle empire, it’s still a great treat albeit a highly branded exercise. The new exhibition was opened in May 2006 and is the result of collaboration with French architect and designer Jean Nouvel and culminates, predicably enough, in a chocolate gorge-fest where every product is on display and there for the sampling. I told you to resist the meringues!
If the Broc experience is a little too “arm’s length” and multinational for you, there is the compact and intimate Alprose Chocolate Factory in Lugano-Caslano. Here you can follow the catwalk across the factory floor while diligent chocolatiers produce the famous blocks right before your eyes. Complete with tummy-rumbling aromas, you can observe the raw ingredients transformed into creamy packaged delights which you can later intercept in the factory store.
Closer to home, local Melbourne gourmet tour guide, Suzie Wharton, conducts two-hour chocoholic discoveries through the mysterious narrow lanes and back alleys of Melbourne. The walk will do you good as you explore the creamy underbelly of Melbourne’s secret chocolate society. Tastings included.
The Roots of Chocolate Spread to Switzerland
The word chocolate is probably derived from the ancient Mayan word "Xocolatl" which describes a potent brew the natives made from the beans which were then roasted, ground and mixed with water and spices to form a foamy liquid. The Aztecs, Incas and Toltecs also dabbled with cocoa recipes and, along with their gold and other resources, greatly interested the invading Spanish conquistadors.
Snatched back across the Atlantic, the new chocolate drink soon became a hit throughout the royal courts of Europe. But it wasn’t until the early 19th Century that the French began marketing the solid product in the familiar block form we see today.
Not to be outdone by their lowly neighbours, the Swiss knew they could improve on the rough mass produced stuff from the West. Names like Rudolph Lindt, François-Louis Cailler, Rudolf Sprüngli and Daniel Peter all developed special processes that refined and defined the Swiss product throughout the 19th Century into the world-renown delicacy it is today. Milk chocolate and melting chocolate were both invented by the Swiss.
At the very beginning of the 20th Century, such was the popularity that the Union of Swiss Chocolate Manufacturers (now Chocosuisse) was formed to represent and protect the Swiss product around the world.
Keep the conversation rolling at your next dinner party. Here are some impressive chocolate facts.
There are three distinct types of cocoa beans, Criollo, Forastero and Trinitario.
Criollo is the purest, most expensive type of bean native to Central America and the northern regions of South America.
Forastero is the robust, cultivated variety most commonly used in commercial plantations. Lacks some of the subtle flavours of the Crillo.
Trinitario, a natural hybrid of Criollo and Forastero, originating in Trinidad. Can exhibit a variety of flavours depending on region, hybrid mix and cultivation methods.
- Couverture: a special smooth, glossy, easily melted chocolate used by chefs for coating things like strawberries. High in cocoa butter.
- Conching: one finalisation process that determines the smoothness of the product. Metal beads in a “fountain” grind the cocoa and sugar into tiny, inseparable particles. The longer the better.
- Tempering: is heat manipulation that is the very last process and determines the final crystal size of the product. Properly tempered chocolate is smooth, firm and glossy and snaps when broken. It also stores and travels best.
Most cocoa comes from Ivory Coast in Africa.
The total Swiss chocolate industry turns over A$1.5 Billion annually.
The quick and dirty:
Cocoa pods are harvested, the beans removed and dried over three days. The beans are roasted and ground. Cocoa butter is separated from the chocolate mulch (or liquor) either by pressing or collecting drips. The residue is cocoa powder.
The liquor and butter is re-blended with other ingredients like sugar milk and vanilla to form the different varieties we see (Dark, milk and white).
70 g plain chocolate
500 ml milk
2 tbsp of honey
grated zest of 1/2 lemon
1/2 small glass of rum
1/4 small glass of arrack
As exotic as the king of the Aztecs! Dissolve the chocolate in the milk over a low heat and leave to cool in the fridge. In a mixer or shaker, mix the honey, lemon zest, rum, arrack and 1/4 tsp each of allspice and ginger into the cold liquid. Pour into a tall, iced glass and garnish with mint.
If You Go
Grand Tour of Switzerland
8 days from Zurich to Zurich (priced from $1,196 per person, twin share)
15 days from Zurich to Zurich including 7 nights in Interlaken (priced from $1,988 per person, twin share)
Departures from March to October 2007
Sightseeing: Visits to Appenzell, Liechtenstein, St. Moritz, Lugano, a chocolate factory at Caslano, Lake Maggiore, Täsch, Zermatt, Lausanne, Gruyère village, Berne, Interlaken, Lucerne; on tour 6025: Jungfraujoch excursion (value approximately $120)
Scenic highlights: Julier Pass, Engadine Valley, Swiss-Italian Lake District, Simplon Pass, Lake Geneva, the Bernese Oberland
Guides: Services of a professional Tour Director while touring
Transportation: Touring by private first-class air-conditioned motorcoach. The Bernina Express Train, Mountain Train Täsch-Zermatt
Details: Licensed travel agents or www.cosmostours.com.au
Can’t Get to Switzerland? Then try Suzie Wharton’s Chocoholic Tours in Melbourne. $30 for a two-hour walking tour that includes samples and tastings. See www.chocoholictours.com.au