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Staying home this Christmas means thinking of holidays gone by. This was my chocolate-themed Christmas in Zurich.
A Festive Christmas in Switzerland
When your guide’s name is Sandra Claus (I’m not making that up!), sparkling lights are illuminating the streets and you’re heading to Confiserie Sprüngli, a café established by one of Switzerland’s first chocolatiers more than 150 years ago, how can it not feel festive?
With its snowy scenes, history and traditions, Switzerland is a terrific place to spend Christmas and I was determined to make it as sweet a vacation as I could.
And what goes together better than Christmas and chocolate?
As Sandra and I sipped hot chocolate in the sleek ground floor of Confiserie Sprüngli, as opposed to the more traditional decor upstairs, I couldn’t help notice her belly was big enough to rival Santa’s.
It wasn’t from too much sugar, however. She was expecting a boy on December 28th and why did I just know he’d arrive three days early?
“Are you going to name him Noel?” I asked.
“I suggested it to my husband,” she replied. “But he looked at me and said ‘no’. We decided on Noah.”
Does Switzerland Make the Best Chocolate?
Whatever his name, he’s bound to like chocolate. The debate might rage over who makes the best chocolate, Belgium or Switzerland (or Italy or France …) but the Swiss are the biggest consumers – wolfing down 12.4 kg per capita a year.
The Lindt & Sprüngli Factory on Lake Zurich
It was a great introduction to the holiday season in Switzerland and soon I was on to my next stop, the tiny town of Kilchberg on Lake Zurich, where the writer Thomas Mann lived after WWII.
It’s also home base for the Lindt & Sprüngli Factory, which, since 1892, has been a separate company from Sprüngli, and I was here to talk with renowned chocolate master, Daniel Taennier.
As Switzerland is the country that created milk chocolate in 1875, it seemed fitting that Taennier holds an award for making the best milk chocolate in the world.
His attention has since turned to dark chocolate. “It’s like wine. Your tastes change,” he said.
Chocolate, an Eternal Favourite
Some tastes don’t. Chocolate has been lusted after for 3,000 years, when cacao pods – the fruits of the cacao tree – were pummelled, mixed with chili and used as a bitter ceremonial drink by the Mayans and later the Aztecs.
When Cortes brought beans back to Spain, they were still used as a beverage. Then, in 1847, England produced the first solid chocolate bar, making it something to be eaten rather than shaken and stirred.
Skip to 1879, when a Swiss eccentric chocolate lover, Rodolfe Lindt, created the conching process, a slow agitating process that makes chocolate the aromatic melt-in-your-mouth delicacy it is today, so sinful and indulgent some say chocolate is better than sex.
How to Eat Chocolate
Just as you can spice up your love life, you can spice up your chocolate, with flavours like chili and peppercorn being all the rage.
I’m all for adding kick to my cacao so I popped a piece of chilli-flavoured chocolate in my mouth. As Taennier instructed, I let it melt on my tongue and run over my taste buds.
Slowly I breathed in through my mouth and exhaled from my nose. This caused an explosion in the back of my throat and a brand new addiction in my brain.
“We tried more than 300 different chilies before finding the right one,” Taennier said.
Gourmet Chocolate Flavours
Salt crystals in chocolate are also popular.
“Salt intensifies the taste of what you eat,” Taennier explained. “Some of the 600 flavours in cocoa are hidden but salt will bring them out.”
Six hundred flavours in a bean?
With so many notes such as apricot, vanilla and tobacco naturally present in chocolate, depending on the bean, you wouldn’t think chocolatiers would need to add add anything, but experimental combinations and ingredients are as edgy as molecular gastronomy.
Chocolate Around the World
It’s not only Switzerland getting inventive. You can eat wasabi-flavoured chocolate at Vero Chocolate Lounge in Hong Kong, Roquefort/walnut chocolate at Jean-Paul Hévin in Paris, anchovy and hazelnut at Cacao Sampaka in Barcelona or Green Tangerine at Soma in Toronto.
These are just a drop in the cacao bucket. There are more flavours available than presents in a festive season.
“There isn’t one ingredient that doesn’t go with chocolate,” Taennier said. “It’s how you combine them.”
It’s how you eat chocolate, too. Smell it, touch it, devour it slowly. Like wine, it’s complex. Like fashion, it’s chic. But like good old Santa himself, it’s still a classic tradition – just watch the size of your belly.
Happy holidays, everyone.
Love the sweet stuff? Read 10 unusual facts about chocolate.
Travel tips for chocolate chic in Zurich, Switzerland
Note: At the Lindt factory in Kilchberg only the gift shop is open to visitors. The Lindt Factory is located at Seestrasse 204, 8802 Kilchberg, Switzerland.
Zurich: The Confiserie Sprüngli is located at Bahnhofstrasse 21, Paradeplatz.
Read more: about Top Destinations in Europe