The art of chocolate.
Kati and the chocolate factory
Who among us doesn't love a nice piece of chocolate? Be it bitter, white or sweet, in a cup, cake pan or combined with any number of other flavours. Confessed chocoholics, my colleague Matthew Beattie and I contribute a considerable share to the approximately 94 tonnes of chocolate that are consumed in Switzerland each year. We are thus suitably excited at the prospect of playing Willy Wonka for a day in Canton Fribourg.
Maison Cailler is home to the renowned chocolate brand's factory, museum and chocolate ateliers (workshops). The Maison is immediately recognisable as the iconic building featured on all Cailler packaging. Located near Gruyeres in the twee village of Broc, it is set amidst vivid green pastures, rising and falling in perfect waves as far as the eye can see.
Piles of neatly stacked chocolate eggs, bars and boxes are glinting in the morning light that streams in through the floor-to-ceiling windows, as we step across the threshold into Cailler's confectionery wonderland. A long glass wall reveals the modern, lower-level workspace, where we will be allowing our imaginations and taste buds to run wild today.
History in rewind
Chocolate has been treasured and sought after by numerous civilisations throughout the ages. The Mayans used it to produce an alcoholic beverage; for Montezuma and his Aztec empire, it was a daily staple consumed by the cupful; European explorers brought it back from Central America and sold it to the wealthiest members of the aristocracy, including Marie-Antoinette, who reportedly requested a cup of hot chocolate for her final meal.
Closer to home, Mayor Heinrich Escher introduced chocolate to Zurich's ruling guilds in 1697, after discovering it in Brussels. However, the City Council decided to ban it in 1722, calling the reputed aphrodisiac 'unfit for virtuous citizens'. In the 1750s, the product saw a revival with the establishment of the first manufacture in Switzerland.
Francois-Louis Cailler opened his Swiss chocolate factory in 1819 and pioneered a smooth chocolate that could be moulded into bars. Unsurprisingly, his innovation made a universal splash. However, it wasn't until 1875--when Cailler's son-in-law, Daniel Peter, mixed chocolate with condensed milk produced by his neighbour, Henri Nestle--that the world had its first taste of milk chocolate. This winning recipe continues to be employed by Cailler today.
Nestle took over Cailler in 1929 and today is one of the largest of Switzerland's 18 chocolate producers. Cailler itself remains comparatively unknown beyond Swiss borders. "I call it one of the best-kept secrets," says Maison Cailler Manager Fleur Helmig. However, this may be exactly what constitutes a unique selling point of the brand. "Since Cailler is a Swiss brand, a lot of tourists buy it [too]. Many other [Swiss] products you can already find abroad, so it's less interesting to bring them home."
Another differentiator is Cailler's focus on locally sourced, high-quality ingredients. "One raw material we work with, which is different from our competitors, is milk from the region," Helmig notes with pride. "We say we know each of our 1,776 cows [whose] milk is then condensed." The difference is palpable, she claims--and we are about to find out.
Mastering the art of making pralines
When the time comes for our 2.5-hour workshop to begin, excitement fills the kitchen, as the 14 participants--mostly families and couples--move to various stovetop workspaces. While we don aprons and appraise the array of available ganache fillings (a mixture made from chocolate, cream and the ingredients of your choice), our trilingual chocolatier Olivier Jungo offers some tips for picking a harmonious medley of flavours. Some of our options include coffee, cinnamon, black pepper, chilli flakes, whiskey, kirsch and rum.
I choose an old-time favourite--a classic blend of milk chocolate, coffee and amaretto. Meanwhile, Matthew opts for a sensuous white chocolate, cinnamon and Grand Marnier combination. As we roll up our sleeves and get to work, it is amazing to learn just how precise the process is. Chocolate is a very delicate substance and burns easily, so the temperatures during each step must be closely monitored to within 1-2 degrees Celsius. Although Matthew and I share regular laughs at just how uncoordinated two people can possibly be, the meticulousness required means we can't take our eyes off the prize for long.
The casing for our pralines must be allowed to melt slowly, then tempered to ensure it gives off the requisite shine. The chocolate must be cooled and mixed quickly on a granite slab, then spread flat with a palette knife, and bunched back up into a mound. This is repeated until the mixture is gooey, and the end temperature is only a few decimal places off 30[degrees]C.
Finally, it is time to fill our casings. The decoratively-shaped, plastic ice trays must be coated with a thin layer of chocolate, scraped clean and briefly cooled in the fridge. Next, with piping bags of heady ganache in hand, we fill the moulds leaving a 2mm gap to close off our pralines with the remaining casing chocolate. Then, into the fridge they go.
Thirty minutes later, we have tidied our workspaces, shovelled as much of the leftover ganache into our mouths as we could without seeming uncouth, and taken the opportunity to quiz Jungo on his job. When asked what he enjoys most, he doesn't miss a beat: "Eating chocolate," he says laughing. Although not any type of chocolate, he is quick to add. In his courses, he has come across some bizarre creations. "One time, someone mixed in too much black pepper and a local herbal alcohol, and well ... it was not so fantastic," he remembers with a grimace.
With that, the moment of truth is upon us: We crack the (almost) professional-standard chocolaty morsels out of our trays and lick our lips in anticipation... Heaven! Rich, creamy, spicy, boozy heaven--and not available in your neighbourhood confiserie either. I'm pretty sure Willy Wonka himself would have approved.
Calling all chocolatiers
Most adult courses cost CHF 58; children's courses are shorter and cost CHF 22. All courses include a visit to Cailler's interactive chocolate museum and more free samples than your sweet tooth could possibly handle.
For more information La Maison Cailler rue Jules Bellet 7 1636 Broc 026 921 59 60 www.cailler.ch
Good to know
Travel to Maison Cailler via the Chocolate Train from Montreux in the summer www.goldenpass.ch