For the love of chocolate – inside a Swiss chocolate factory

The last time I was taken to a chocolate factory, I ate myself sick and drew little more than disapproving glances from my mother. But I was also ten at that time and didn’t know Lotte from Lindt. The availability of unlimited chocolates was all that mattered and my ten year old tummy was taut from eating so much that I had to forget anymore chocolates for at least six months after that.

Packed chocolates being stacked
Packed chocolates being stacked

More than two decades later, as I stood before Mrs. Devitore – whose coffee brown eyes and broad smile strangely reminded me of my mother – in southern Switzerland’s Giubiasco, I knew this was going to be a different experience. I was at the production facility of Chocolat Stella for a guided tour. Stella has been innovating on chocolates since its inception in 1928 and is attributed to developing Switzerland’s first sugar free chocolate in 1960 and bringing out fair-trade, organic chocolates in 1991.

Julia churning cocoa utter
Julia churning cocoa butter

There is perhaps something oxymoronic about the fact that Switzerland produces the world’s best chocolates without even being blessed with the basic ingredients – cocoa beans and sugar.  Though, pardoning the cliché, if you consider happiness among the ingredients, the Swiss have plenty of it. In fact, just recently the 2015 World Happiness Report by the UN ranked Switzerland as the happiest country in the world.

A visitor makes her own chocolate
A visitor makes her own chocolate

“We might not have all the ingredients but Swiss chocolate is known all over the world because we have learnt the secrets of making chocolate from our neighbours,” says Devitore. When she says neighbours, she means Spain, France, Austria and Italy where chocolate was introduced and gained prominence in the 16th century. Eventually, chocolate making arrived in Switzerland in 1819 when François-Louis Cailler started his Cailler chocolate company also considered the oldest Swiss chocolate brand still in existence (owned by Nestle now). Chocolate has evolved since then. The ancient chocolate was a drink – far unexciting from its varied forms known today.

By now, I am inside the chocolate making facility, dressed in diaphanous lab suit covering head to toe complete with a cap to adhere to the quality standards. My shoes, wrapped in shoe covers, scraping the green concrete floor, I trail Devitore as she walks me along the hulking machines in stainless steel. A sense of foreboding takes me over as I feel diminutive alongside these giant metallic monsters churning to produce the world’s favourite food product.

Chocolate bars ready for packaging
Chocolate bars ready for packaging

We witness the churning of cocoa butter, sugar and milk powder to make white chocolate. The giant churner, fed with the mixture, clamps shut with the 350 kg mix and revolves with a grunt. We take a peek, the yellow mass turns into soft butter consistency. Julia Berna, the baby faced intern, wears her blue gloves, ready to check the churned butter. Temperature is checked, 35­oC, and the mass is sent for further processing to smoothen the mixture.

A handful of chocolate
A handful of chocolate

I ask Julia if she likes chocolates. Does she ever get bored with having to working with it all day? It is like asking a teller if he ever gets bored of currency. “Of course,” she says with an expression that probably meant “are you nuts?” The Swiss like Julia are what make the country the biggest consumers of chocolates in the world with average per capital consumption of 9kg a year.

A display of chocolate bars
A display of chocolate bars

I am now asked to make my own chocolate. A vessel of liquid chocolate sits next to a tray onto which I pour the chocolate, its ladle dripping the dark brown liquid onto its sides. I further embellish my bar with quinoa and almonds. After the decoration is done, the chocolate goes into the freezer.

Among the other parts of the world including Central America, South America, Africa and Indonesia, Stella also works with cocoa producers in Kerala, India sourcing cocoa beans. Beans are harvested, dried in plantain leaves and pressed to extract butter before they are sent to the production facility in Switzerland.

Chocolate being made by visitors
Chocolate being made by visitors

We arrive at the packaging plant where I see men and women in lab coats and blue caps busy stacking freshly packed chocolate bars jumping out of the machine into cartons. Occasionally they pop a square or two into their mouths. Stacking chocolate bars in cartons can’t be exciting, surely. It must be the prospect of working with chocolate and often consume as and when desired that keeps them going, I imagine.

Stella’s specialty is custom made chocolates. “If you need any specific flavour combinations, we will be able to deliver that,” Devitore had said earlier. As I walked towards the exit, on a table, a spread of chocolate varieties greet me – custom made chocolates for clients with agave nectar, camel milk, blue potato chips, baobab.

A display of chocolates at Stella
A display of chocolate bars at Stella

I taste each one of them, not without recollection of my earlier chocolate factory visit. After all, who can get enough of chocolates? But as the trip ended, I leave a little tummy space for the chocolate I made and would take home with me – a large bar with a star (Stella) in the middle, sprinkled with quinoa and roasted almonds.

A version of this appeared in The New Indian Express and can be viewed here.

Mohinga and more – Myanmar’s streetfood

On the first day of my month-long trip across Myanmar, I walked across the insanely crowded road in front of my airbnb accommodation to a tiny restaurant that had all of three tables. The slender, fine-boned woman that owned / managed the restaurant did not speak any English. Nor did the rest of her family. Their laminated one-page menu had the names of the dishes in Burmese, transliterated into English. Trying to figure out what was what I quickly realized it was a lost cause altogether.

If I were to eat anything at all, I would have to go with the ‘chef’s choice.’ And I did. What arrived was Shan khauk swè – a simple hand-tossed noodle salad served with a side of pickled vegetables and a bowl of clear soup. The rice noodles were spiced with pickled sour mustard leaves (some of which I brought home from a local Burmese market) and mixed with peanuts, garlic, chilli and garnished with shredded chicken. I wash it down with a tall glass of avacado milk shake.

A noodle salad at Mt. Popa, Myanmar
A noodle salad at Mt. Popa, Myanmar

In Yangon’s streets, women squat in tiny stools in blue and red with their wares spread out in front of them – various types of noodles cooked and piled under a mosquito net to ward off the flies along with a range of spices and condiments in plastic containers. Not phenomenally different from Indian, Burmese cuisine offers simple yet delicious flavors, infused with local ingredients.

A woman selling food on the streets of Yangon
A woman selling food on the streets of Yangon

Mohinga is Myanmar’s favorite dish. Eating Mohinga for the first time can be intimidating at first, even uninspiring. The entire broth is muddy in color and the crackers smashed into it form the garnish that this dish could do without. The broth itself is very fishy. But Mohinga grows on you, like the theories about street food go elsewhere it is inexpensive and affordable. And Myanmar slurps it by bowls after bowls every morning paying little regard to the prevailing warm weather (Yangon’s humidity levels can sometimes put Chennai to shame). The sellers run out of Mohinga in a couple of hours into the morning hours of their business.

Mo Lembya, deep fried balls of fermented rice
Mo Lembya, deep fried balls made with fermented rice batter

Soon enough, I ate the famous Burmese green tea salad – Lahpet. Pickled green tea leaves are tossed with crunchy nuts, tomato, garlic and seasoned with dried shrimp in this dish. I fell hook, line and sinker for it. Before I left Myanmar, I bought a bottle and packed it with my luggage. Sure it leaked and ruined my tee-shirt but the bottle survived the flight, I am happy to announce.

Lahpet - the green tea salad
Lahpet – the green tea salad

The Burmese set meal is a delight to order, much more than it is to eat. The extent of English usage doesn’t extend beyond ‘okay’ even in cities like Yangon. So you are left with your devices to order food and hope that what landed on your table is what you ordered in the first place. On a sunny noon, I step into the popular Feel Myanmar restaurant to order my first Burmese set meal. As soon as I sat, a plate of Burmese salad – half-cooked whole vegetables including two types of egg plant, wing beans and spinach is plunked on my table. And then this!

The Burmese set meal is a delight to order
The Burmese set meal is a delight to order

Indian influence in Myanmar cuisine is difficult to ignore. Walk along the streets of Yangon and you can pick at least a few of these similarities – a hybrid puttu-idli snack, a samosa like snack, the usage of coconut and jaggery in sweets, and a kuzhipaniyaram (made with fermented rice batter) like snack called Mo Lembya. The Myanmar Muslim restaurants serve up delicious briyanis and the dosa sold by the street side vendors in Yangon is a delightfully crispy version, albeit a bit too oily, that has a filling of cooked vegetables, peas and egg.

The Green Tomato salad
The Green Tomato salad

If I had to define the flavor of Myanmar food, Shan khauk swè  would be it. Though this dish stands proof to the Thai influences in Myanmar cuisine. The kindly woman on the roadside would take a handful of rice noodle and mix it with crushed chilles and various spices. She would use tamarind sauce a souring agent to spike up the flavor. On request, pan fried chickpea tofu squares and hard boiled eggs, cut into bite-sized pieces, are tossed into the salad.

Eating out - streets of Yangon
Eating out – streets of Yangon

What was your favorite dish when you travelled in Myanmar? Leave a comment and let me know.

Thanjavur aka, Tanjore Brihadeeswara Temple, on a sunny evening

The Brihadeeswara Temple in Thanjavur stands as the quintessential example of Chola temple architecture. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the temple features the tallest temple tower in the world. It is also regarded as one of the great living chola temples along with the temples of Gangaikondacholisvaram and the Airavatesvara temple at Darasuram.

They say you should visit the Brihadeeswarar temple twice if you want to get good pictures – once in the morning and in the evening! And I went in the evening. And Thanjavur is blessed with sunny evenings most days of the year.

Up close...
Up close…

Up close with a dash of blue sky, the Gopuram is spectacular with its detailed sculpting…

Framed against the blue background...
Framed against the blue background…

Sometimes from some angles the gopurams look like they are juxtaposed…

One against the other
One against the other

The main gopuram stands tall and according to legends, its shadow never falls on the ground…

Standing tall...
Standing tall…

It is of course the ‘bird-flying-in-the-frame’ shot but these pigeons that reside in these gopurams are a staple sight in the temple premises…

Pigeons flutter around the gopuram
Pigeons flutter around the gopuram
A UNESCO world heritage site
A UNESCO world heritage site

Some of these Nandis on the wall have been chipped away but the remaining little Nandis promise to keep a watch…

The Nandis on the wall...
The Nandis on the wall…

Have you been to Thanjavur? Leave a comment and let me know.

Eating out in Ubud, Bali

With a wrinkle-creased face that expands and contracts whenever her bespectacled face lights up with laughter, she reminds me so much of my grandmother. Her eyes are light and almost diaphanous. She has a natural charm to cast at the visitor who saunters by gingerly to peer into the menu that is left outside on a pedestal of her modest restaurant. Naturally, it takes me exactly two minutes to fall for her disposition and in the days to come, I would frequent her Oka’s Warung almost every day. Most days for a meal and if for some reason I could not make it to a meal at her restaurant, I ensured I had one of her tiny array of desserts – especially her thin rice pancakes rolled with a filling of roasted coconut in palm jaggery. They never fail to prove that there is no better way to end a meal.

Balinese fare
Balinese fare

Oka appears to be a self-made woman much like many women in such establishments – eateries, massage centers, garment shops and shops selling trinkets and gifts – in the perpetually languid Ubud. She tells me that she quit her job at a restaurant 25 years ago to start off on her own and has been running the restaurant ever since.  Her English is rustic and my partner and I know only a smattering of Balinese and Bahasa – Indonesia. Mostly each conversation is an exercise at understanding what each other is trying to convey and not letting up until either one of us is convinced that the clear meaning is passed on.

An evening in Ubud
An evening in Ubud

Oka’s introverted husband handles the kitchen unaccompanied and he never once peeps out of his domicile even out of curiosity to see the faces of the foreigners who are chatting away with his wife despite the pressing language barrier. The restaurant has a seating capacity of 10 and I assumed Mr.Oka can manage it all by himself even if it’s a busy day.

A gorgeous sunset in Seminyak
A gorgeous sunset in Seminyak

Of all the 25 years she has been in business, Oka never thought of expansion plans for her restaurant. May be she wanted to keep it small and maintain exclusivity? When I ask her, she says she did not want anything big.

A Rama sculpture in Ubud
A Rama sculpture in Ubud
The sacred monkey forest in Ubud, Bali.
The sacred monkey forest in Ubud, Bali.

I wanted to ask her one more question, did she ever think about retiring? But I sort of knew the answer. The cobble stoned streets of Ubud never see unmanageable footfall nor does Oka have huge ambitious plans in life. With all its allure, Oka’s present life feels very much like retirement to me. I could trade it right now for my dusty, soulless urban existence. But my grandmother, on the other hand, would not have approved.

A yakshini inside the Ubud palace
                                                A yakshini inside the Ubud palace

Have you been to Ubud? Leave a comment and let me know.

Watching Water Birds and Water People in Maguri Beel, Assam

Whilst on a recent trip to Arunachal, watching us go bananas over the birds, our driver boasted about a water body near his town in Tinsukia, Assam that has “all sorts of birds.” “Uske saamne yeh to kuch bhi nahin hai,” he continued. This is nothing compared to what you see there. We took his words seriously and spent the last evening of our trip exploring the Maguri Beel, watching its water people and birds, enjoying a sunset on a boat with a guide.

Turns out, it is not an unexplored remote corner as I expected it to be. Maguri Beel is quite popular among birders not only in this part of the country but from all over. Jeevan Dutta, who is the resident guide at the Kohua Eco-camp resort that borders the beel told us that he is getting two groups of Bangaloreans just the next day. Maguri Beel is located just south of the Dibru Saikhowa National Park and attracts migratory birds in thousands every year other than quite a number of residents.

Pigeon Tailed Jacana, Ruddy Shelduck, Yellow Wagtails, Purple Swamphens, Asian Open Bills, Northern Pintails, Northern Lapwing, Eurasian Coot, Stonechats are the commonly found birds in the beel. We hired a boat and went on a sort of a sunset cruise watching fishermen getting back home with their daily catch. Fishing nets across the beel fluttered in the sunset and Ruddy Shelducks took flight watching our approaching boat framed by the sunset. Swamphens, Wagtails and Egrets were a constant presence too. It was quite an experience and a perfect way to end our trip to the North-East India.

Some pictures from the trip.

Fishermen rowing back after a day's work
Fishermen rowing back after a day’s work
A yellow wagtail
A yellow wagtail
Fishing nets in Maguri Beel
Fishing nets in Maguri Beel
Spreading the net
Spreading the net
Could this be a White-tailed Stonechat?
A Common Stonechat

How to reach: Nearest town, Tinsukia, is just 9km away. Dibrugarh is 50km away and taxis are easily available for a day trip. It would probably be better to stay in the Kohua resort that overlooks the Beel (call Jeevan for rates at +919954135613) to enjoy the ecosystem of the Beel.

A Purple Swamphen
A Purple Swamphen
An Asian Openbill in flight
An Asian Openbill in flight
A Ruddy Shelduck
A Ruddy Shelduck
A flight of birds against the sunset at Maguri Beel
A flight of birds against the sunset at Maguri Beel
The blue house, Magari Beel
The blue house, Magari Beel
An egret in flight
An egret in flight
Boats at Maguri Beel
Boats at Maguri Beel
Could this also be a White-tailed Stonechat?
A Common Stonechat
Row boats are also a way to navigate these waters
Row boats are also a way to navigate these waters
A fisherman in Maguri Beel
A fisherman in Maguri Beel

Have you been to Maguri Beel? Have you blogged about it? Leave a comment and let me know. I would love to read it.

Bellinzona – Switzerland with an Italian accent

I usually do not make travel wishlists but if I did Italy would top it. So I was pleasantly surprised when this Switzerland trip came along and as I jumped at it, I noticed the plan covered Ticino, Southern Switzerland – a part very close to Italy. So very close that Europe travel expert Rick Steves called the region ‘Switzerland with an Italian accent.’ Bellinzona’s cuisine, architecture, its sunny disposition and even the language spoken is influenced by Italy in a big way.

I spent a couple of days in Bellinzona, explored its Castle Grande, walked its alleyways peeping into its delis, the display cases of which are filled with local cheese and other produce. During my stay I discovered that white Merlot exists (pictured here too) and that it is possible to get drunk on food. I polished plate after plate brought to my table that it was assumed that I must have been very hungry from all the walking. That was only partly true. I simply enjoyed all that cheese and wine and meat and vegetables.

Some pictures from the trip.

The main street that leads to the town square, Bellinzona, Switzerland
The main street that leads to the town square, Bellinzona, Switzerland
A sort of ariel view of the town, Bellinzona
A sort of ariel view of the town, Bellinzona
Bellinzona town square
Bellinzona town square
The town square - Bellinzona
The town square – Bellinzona
View of Bellinzona from the Castle Grande
View of Bellinzona from the Castle Grande
The walkway to Castle Grande, Bellinzona
The walkway to Castle Grande, Bellinzona
The vineyards of Castle Grande
The vineyards of Castle Grande
A wall, Castle Grande, Bellinzona
A wall, Castle Grande, Bellinzona
Bread, the crackling bread
Bread, the crackling bread
Chicken roast, Bellinzona
Chicken roast, Bellinzona
An art installation in town square, Bellinzona, Switzerland
An art installation in town square, Bellinzona, Switzerland
The white merlot, Bellinzona
The white merlot, Bellinzona
A pastry with a squishy, egg-noggy, center.
A pastry with a squishy, egg-noggy, center.
Castle Grande, Bellinzona
Castle Grande, Bellinzona

Have you been to Switzerland? Or Italy? Or Bellinzona itself? Leave a comment and let me know.

Holi hai – celebrating holi in the hills!

Last year, I spent two wonderful weeks in Kalap, a charming village in Garhwali Himalayas. Lucky that I was, my stay coincided with holi and I was able to witness the festival as it was celebrated in the hills.

I became the official photographer for Kalap’s holi celebrations and by the end of it, although I survived without being doused in color powder, my camera bore the brunt. Later in the evening, I helped make Gujjia – the holi special, a sweet calzone. Its deep fried packets of dough are filled with a roasted mixture of semolina, desiccated coconut, jaggery (a traditional sugar) and raisins. By the end of its making, my host Guddu’s wife, Pathuli – meaning butterfly in the local language – has thawed towards me after witnessing my able handedness at rolling and sealing the Gujjias.

That is probably the best holi I ever celebrated. More than just holi, Kalap and its beautiful people remain etched in my memory. I hope to visit Guddu, Pathuli and the entire village again sometime soon. Check Kalap’s website here to know more details to plan your trip, in case you are interested too.

Someone's very cautious!
Someone’s very cautious!
The gulal brothers
The gulal brothers
Are you photographing me?
Are you photographing me?
Red cheeks
Red cheeks
Gulal in my cheeks
Gulal in my cheeks
Holi in the hills
Holi in the hills
The gulal brothers
The gulal brothers
Holi in technicolor
Holi in technicolor
The gulal brothers
The gulal brothers
The holi revelry
The holi revelry
Too shy to smile - holi in Kalap
Too shy to smile – holi in Kalap
The holi revelry
The holi revelry
And then, me
And then, me

Are you celebrating holi wherever you are? Leave a comment and let me know.