After spending several days in Switzerland, eating the best food and chocolate the country had to offer, my only remaining desire is to desire chocolate once again. I am so full I think it will be awhile until my chocolate cravings return to normal, but for now I am as content as a chocoholic could ever be.
The purpose of my trip was to tour the Lindt & Sprungli chocolate factory, a privilege bestowed on few since the process involved in producing high quality chocolate is a well-guarded secret. Several years ago Lindt conducted factory tours, but critical components of the production process were leaked to competitors and tours were stopped. This past week Lindt offered a tour to members of the press, and I was able to attend through my work with Chocolatier magazine. A total of 12 press members flew in from the US, and we spent five days together getting to know each other and some of the finest chocolate in Switzerland.
When I first entered Switzerland the passport control officer asked me if the purpose of my visit was personal or business. I was unsure how to answer since chocolate always brings me personal pleasure, but the truth was I was there on business. After I told him my purpose was to visit the Lindt chocolate factory his eyes lit up and he proclaimed that Lindt was the best chocolate in the world. Everyone in Switzerland seems to love Lindt chocolate, and it could be found everywhere from the airport lounge to the hotel lobby.
Before entering the factory area, we stopped in a conference room to hear speeches from Lindt staff members. As expected, the executives told us about Lindt’s commitment to excellence, quality ingredients and innovative products, but an unexpected treat came from the last speech by Master Chocolatier Geller. Mr. Geller has been with Lindt for over 45 years and is just like you would imagine a chocolatier from a small Swiss town to be; grey hair covered by a large, floppy toque and glasses at the tip of his nose.
Mr. Geller has a thick German accent but had no trouble communicating his passion for chocolate to the English speaking audience. He would often come around the podium and put his fingertips against his lips and say with a slow, lowered voice, “You must savor zee chocolate in your mooth.” Once the audience realized “mooth” meant “mouth” we had to stop ourselves from laughing, but it confirmed that Mr. Geller is a real Swiss chocolatier. He then led us in a chocolate tasting session, where we tried the Orange Intense Excellence bar and 70%, 85% and the new 99% dark chocolate bars. Between each of the tastings Mr. Geller would say “Please, to neutralize” and we would cleanse our palettes with tea or water.
The Orange Intense Excellence bar was outstanding, and I find myself still eating the sample bar I took home with me. The biggest surprise was that many of the press members preferred the new 99% dark chocolate (almost pure cacoa) to the more common 85%.
When it came time for the factory tour we had to put on white lab coats and hairnets and scrub down like we were getting ready for surgery. The factory is very sterile and exactly the opposite of Willy Wonka’s, with big machines doing most of the work, not little green men. I did hear an occasional loud horn, but didn’t see any small children fall down a chute. The production of the chocolate is done on the ground floor, which is very warm and sparsely populated. Most of this process is mechanized, with time and temperature closely regulated by large machines. The critical step in producing the chocolate is the conching process, invented by Mr. Lindt in 1879. The conch turns grainy chocolate into the smooth form we have today by continuously pressing and aerating the chocolate to melt the molecules and remove stale odors. Originally, over 80 conching machines were used to press the chocolate, but today 4 large conching machines do all the work.
Once the chocolate is made it travels up long ramps to the floor above where it is pressed into molds or filled to become truffles. The most amazing part of the tour was watching the machine that wraps the individual Lindor truffles at work. It wraps 12 truffles per second, over 700 a minute, and moves so fast you can’t see the actual wrapping taking place. There are at least twice as many people in the packaging area as in the chocolate production area, since many of the products (like the pistachio truffles) are too delicate to make with a machine.
Switzerland consumes the most chocolate of any country in the world at 11 kg per capita/per year, with the US consuming less than half that at 5.4 kg per capita/per year. (Interestingly enough Switzerland also has the highest life expectancy of any country at 77.8 years for men and 88 years for women. Coincidence? I think not.) Lindt is the dominant chocolate maker in Switzerland, and I believe is in the best position to become the preferred source for chocolate in America. Unlike American chocolate companies, Lindt has been dedicated to high-quality dark chocolate for over 150 years, and has the development and distribution process in place to make dark chocolate available to the masses without having to acquire smaller specialty companies or redefine their recipes. (A lesser known fact is that they also own San Francisco based Ghirardelli Chocolate.)
Lindt is already available in most U.S. grocery stores, and they hope to expand their retail presence in America over the next few years. As America’s appreciation for high quality dark chocolate grows I believe we’ll soon find Lindt up front in the display cases, not just hidden in the back aisles with baking ingredients.
Lindt & Sprungli
p.s. I hope to have pictures of the factory up soon, so please check back.
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