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A dark chocolate truffled "pavé" named for their cobblestone shape. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler

How To Eat Chocolate

There are no rules for eating chocolate. But like most things, there is a better way.

Standing inside the tasting room at La Maison Cailler chocolate factory in the village of Broc, I watch hundreds of fellow tourists tasting varieties of sweet Swiss chocolate. This is the all-you-can-eat tour and the adults in the room are like kids in a candy shop—rather, like kids in a candy factory (although the younger kids know when to quit).

Quite smartly, Cailler has posted a lifeguard in the room—a “welcoming staff” who oversees the samples and prevents anyone from drowning in chocolate, if you will. Her name is Nadège Piller and whilst nibbling on squares of Cailler chocolate, I asked her what it’s like to watch people eating chocolate all day.

“It’s fun!” she said with a smile. “I like meeting all the people who come here. They all react differently to the chocolate.”

What does she wish people knew about eating chocolate?

“The biggest mistake is that they don’t look at it or smell it—they just pop it in their mouth.”

Nadège is right. Seeing and smelling the chocolate are essential to truly tasting it—she doesn’t know this because she works in a chocolate factory. She knows it from experience.

The Swiss did not invent chocolate (the Maya did—in Mexico!), but they helped perfect the solid bar-form that we all know and love today. In 1819, François-Louis Cailler opened the very first chocolate factory in Switzerland, and much of what makes Swiss chocolate so famous can be traced back to methods developed by Nestlé and Lindt.

Good chocolate is powerful stuff—it was considered a spiritual medicine for the Maya and forbidden for children. Today, chocolate abounds the world round, but in Switzerland, I find it still manifests that ancient power and is, in a way, still worshipped.

According to most everyone on the Internet, the Swiss consume more chocolate than anyone else on the planet, claiming they ingest some 22 to 26 pounds per year (the New York Times quotes 24 pounds/11 kg).

But Swiss chocolate sage Michel Baud (who works for Philippe Pascoët) says the numbers are rubbish.

“The Swiss do eat a lot of chocolate, yes, but it’s not as much as the numbers say. Most of these statistics are per capita figures, based on Swiss chocolate production divided by our population. That’s a false figure—the fact is that we export a huge amount of our chocolate.”

In fact, the Swiss consume about half the chocolate they produce, which is still a lot of chocolate. The food holds a special place in the Swiss palate and I am very curious to know how much chocolate they actually eat.

And so, during my first week in Switzerland, I’ve conducted my own casual survey—asking every Swiss person I meet how much chocolate he or she eats in one day. According to my random sample of about 70 people (so far), the average Swiss person consumes 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of chocolate per day. That’s about one medium-sized bar.

Though some eat far more or much less, what strikes me is the one common response I hear from everyone: “I eat chocolate every day.”

Chocolate is a daily delight for the Swiss, and for me too while I’m in Switzerland. The research has proven intense, but I am keeping my own chocolate diary while I’m here (so stay tuned).

In the half hour I spent sniffing through his shop in Carouge, Michel taught me a lot about chocolate and quickly shattered some common myths about Swiss chocolate.

“I hate this image of the little Swiss miss bouncing up the mountain with her braids and bucket of milk. That is not what Swiss chocolate is about. Not all of us like weak milk chocolate.”

He also warns of chocolate being too dark.

“I know there are chocolate makers turning out varieties of chocolate with 90 to 95 percent cocoa, but honestly, it makes no sense—C’est la sciure—it’s sawdust!”

Michel believes the best dark chocolate ranges from 70-72 percent cocoa, and he shared some valuable tips with me on how best to enjoy chocolate:

  • Begin by snapping the chocolate in half. Inhale and ponder the aromas you can sense: cocoa, vanilla, smoke, malt, etc.
  • Let the first bite be small to “warm up” the tongue, which can taste only sweet, sour, salty, bitter. Some chocolates can hit all four tastes.
  • The second bite is the one that counts. Suck on the chocolate and feel how it melts, sense the texture (grainy or smooth?). Is it sweet or dry?
  • Don’t rush on to the next bit. Enjoy the aftertaste—good chocolate will offer new and subtle flavors after a few seconds.
  • Whether eating truffles or bars, always start with softer flavors and move slowly up to stronger varieties.
  • Don’t ever eat more than four or five different kinds of chocolate at a time. You will overwhelm your sense of taste and ruin the experience.
  • For very rich chocolates or truffles, don’t taste more than two in one sitting.
  • Cleanse your palate with water before and in between each new variety that you taste (not in between bites).
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When tasting truffles, begin with lighter flavors and move up to stronger tastes and darker blends. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler).