Bonjour from study abroad! I’m in the country famous for chocolate, cheese, and wine—no, not France, but its close neighbor, Switzerland. Though it is the perennially neutral country, that neutrality disappears when it comes to national pride; I have quickly learned that the Swiss take their claim to chocolate fame seriously.
Since our first day here, we have been surrounded by chocolate, cheese, and wine. Everyone we met for orientation gave us chocolate, everything from Toblerone to chocolate hearts (we arrived to Geneva on Valentine’s Day), as well as samples from local places. I’ve also tried Swiss dairy products, another one of their famed exports. I surprisingly enjoyed fondue and crave “une baguette jambon et fromage” every day for lunch—even the cheese from Migros (the Swiss version of Walmart) is better than the most expensive Tomme de Savoy from the U.S.
Don’t even get me started on the wine. A glass of the cheap house wine from a bar is as good as many of the wines I enjoy with my family back home, and although my host dad did serve a vintage wine that I usually purchase on the cheap from Metro (he said it was a gift and that he would never drink it otherwise), my experience with Swiss wine has been nothing but exemplary.
I’m enrolled in a program on Global Health and Development Policy here in Switzerland, along with 21 other Americans. In the afternoon, to help us with our language skills (and make our home-stays marginally less awkward), we have French class. Last Tuesday, we took a break from the monotony of “subjectif” and visited a local chocolatier. I’ve been here for about three weeks now, and so far this day stands out as being particularly Swiss.
After a brisk walk to “Le Fabriquer Rapp” (the Rapp chocolate factory), 22 students and four professors squeezed into a tiny room to listen to Monsieur Rapp tell us all about chocolate. For no other food product would we so willingly sit squished like sardines in uncomfortable chairs.
Monsieur Rapp bounced in and, with the help of our French teacher’s translation, he taught us all about the chocolate-making process, from bean to bar. As is the case with wine, each country that grows cocoa has a different “terroir” that affects the flavor—Monsieur Rapp’s favorite is from Trinidad.
However, chocolatiers like Rapp rely not on the taste of cocoa beans, but on the smell. Cocoa beans must be dried, roasted, and then pressed to produce cocoa butter and paste. Depending on the proportion of the two, the type of chocolate changes. We learned that the difference between milk and dark chocolate isn’t the level of milk or sugar, but the proportion of cocoa paste to cocoa butter: there is more paste in dark chocolate.
The most important thing we learned was why Swiss chocolate is the best in the world. Monsieur Rapp explained to us how the farmland in Switzerland is quite uniform, due to its small size and location (nestled within the Alps). Because of this, cows here all eat the same kind of grass; therefore, dairy from throughout the entire country is very similar. This lends an unparalleled consistency and quality to the milk and explains why even their supermarket cheese is so fantastic. This also means that when making chocolate from Swiss dairy, you get a better product. After a mere three weeks here, I can attest to the veracity of this claim.
Although the information session was enjoyable (largely due to Monsieur Rapp’s amicable demeanor), the tour of the factory surpassed it by far. Actually, “factory” isn’t an accurate term—it’s just a local chocolatier shop, with only a few rooms and a dozen workers. The high point is the room meant specifically for tour groups.
The room has two chocolate fountains: one for milk and one for dark. The constant stream of molten perfection is kept at a constant temperature; so that the chocolate components do not separate. We didn’t believe our ears when we were told to grab spoons and help ourselves.
To say the least, I could hardly control myself. I kept eating spoonful upon spoonful of delicious, warm, sweet, yet bitter chocolate. It was hard to resist, yet eventually I felt myself slow down; although delicious, the chocolate was exceedingly thick and rich.
Even so, when the samples made by our tour guide had cooled, I simply had to try them. A chocolate bunny, strips of chocolate with a diagonal pattern on top, and a pistachio-chocolate bar; I sampled them all. I never thought I’d admit this, but after a while, I was chocolated out.
Although I consumed more spoonfuls of chocolate than I wish to admit, some of my peers went even further and filled their plastic glasses (meant for water) to the brim. They were living by the study abroad code, I suppose: you’re only in Switzerland once.