Walking the streets of St. Petersburg, on Restaurant Day

Under the facade of its cold, gray skies and the uniformly stoic pre-Soviet era buildings, St. Petersburg (SPb) is at least not uptight. There is an air of conviviality as summer has melted away the grim cold winters. It is also after all brimming with enthusiastic people who prove their ability in cooking up gastronomically diverse cuisine by putting up stalls to sell home-cooked food.  I got to see this on display on the Restaurant Day on 16th August, quite the day I landed in SPb.

Crowd milling in front of a food truck
Crowd milling in front of a food truck
A couple sharing a moment during business
A couple sharing a moment during business
An Isreli chicken wrap - Sabich
An Isreli chicken wrap – Sabich

With not much excitement going on in Russian cuisine, the citizens have quickly looked elsewhere bringing in a host of dishes from outside the country, thus making the food scene more exciting. Sure, their beef stroganoff is a killer so is their sorrel soup, but there isn’t much of a diversity because vegetables or pulses are not available in Russia throughout the year owing to the harsh climate.

My buckwheat is better than any other
My buckwheat is better than any other
Georgian food, anyone
Georgian food, anyone

I found stalls, hidden in the alleyways, in front of its ornate, ancient Churches and in old industrial godowns converted into art projects selling Israeli, Mexican, Indian, American (read burgers) and Italian cuisine. Sure, nobody makes money out of this venture because it is a one-day affair. But it provides a platform for closet cooks and people who nurture the dream of opening a restaurant into affordable reality for a day.

Taste my homemade jam
Taste my homemade jam
Homebrewed beer
Homebrewed beer

Restaurant Day has a website and its About page reads thus: “Restaurant Day is a food carnival created by thousands of people organizing and visiting one-day restaurants worldwide. The idea of the day is to have fun, share new food experiences and enjoy our common living environments together. The event is facilitated by a team of volunteers who also maintain this website. All restaurateurs are personally responsible for all actions related to running their restaurants.”

Purple macaroons are 50 rubles each
Purple macaroons are 50 rubles each
Russian pancakes
Russian pancakes

There was home-brewed vodka in flavors of horseradish, orange and various spices. There was even home-made beer and buckwheat ice cream. And vegan is big here in Russia, as I hear. So is India. Each venue had at least one Indian themed stall that sold vegetarian food. One was even called Saregama, though the owner had not much of an idea what it meant other than that it is a name resonates with the idea of India.

Two girls channeling their Indian elements
Two girls channeling their Indian elements
Vegan brownie with banana, avacado et al
Vegan brownie with banana, avacado et al
More Indianness
More Indianness
Happy customers
Happy customers

And I met Big Lebowski. He is now grilling batches of spring onions wrapped in bacon strips at a food stall with his partner. Quite a domestic life, you might think. But the man’s drama of grilling with flair elicited a lot of responses from the patrons and he posed happily between his job for pictures, his black bathrobe whipped by the cold breeze.

Big Lebowski
Big Lebowski

Do you know of a famous Russian dish that I should try? Leave a comment and let me know.

I am going somewhere exciting (hint: it involves long train rides, dinosaur fossils and zen gardens).

At this moment, I am terribly excited, slightly apprehensive and extremely unprepared.  I am going on a six-week long trip across Russia (taking the Trans-Siberian train line), Mongolia (continuing my journey in the train in the Trans-Mongolian line now) and entering China (at this point the entire trip would be called Trans-Manchurian though of course if you are taking the Trans-Manchurian route from Moscow, the train would take a totally different route). After that I fly to Japan.

The Trans-Siberian train route near Baikal
The Trans-Siberian train route near Baikal. Image: Valery Chernodedov, Flickr

Thanks to my Indian passport, my trips have to be planned within the confines of the very short duration of the visa (for instance, the Japanese visa is valid for three months but allows you to stay only for 15 days at a stretch).  There is no opportunity to linger anywhere even if serendipity strikes. While Russia allows you to stay in the country so long as your trip duration based on the visa application, Mongolia and China graciously offer a 30-day visa (more on visas later and an amazing guy who helped me secure these visas without a glitch, in a different post). 

Summertime in Moscow
Summertime in Moscow. Image: Nikita Bukin.
A summer scene in St. Petersburg
A summer scene in St. Petersburg. Image: Alexandr Kim, http://www.sputnik8.com

So I am packing my bags and heading on a train journey that exposes me to three different cultures in the span of a month. The beautiful cathedrals and UNESCO sights of interior Russia, Ural mountains, Baikal lake, the Gobi desert, Dinosaur Fossils of Flaming Cliffs and the sights of the megalopolis of Beijing are included in the itinerary.

A pastoral scene in Mongolia
A pastoral scene in Mongolia. Image: Stefan Schinning, Flickr

I am also excited about Japan. Plans are still sketchy but I am dreaming of the country’s umami flavors, the iconic Fuji san and zen gardens. Osaka and Kyoto might figure in the list but with the available ten days I am not sure how much ground I am going to cover. And, as you might have surmised, covering ground is never in the scheme of things for me anyway.

A tri-shaw in China
A tri-shaw in China. Image: Bilwander, Flickr
A zen garden in Japan.
A zen garden in Japan. Image: Hakon Skogsrud

I am checking things off my packing list, sealing my shower gel and sunscreen bottles with sellotape so they don’t explode during transit and leak into my bag. Before, I leave, I will also go eat masala dosa at the neighborhood restaurant. Not that I will miss it during my travels, but if there is one recent food memory I want to travel with, it would be the memory of biting into a masala dosa.

So do follow me on Facebook and Instagram for constant updates during the trip. Leave a comment and let me know if you have been on the Trans-Siberian train or to any of the countries I am going to. It would be lovely to get some tips from you.

Festival of flowers – hiking Sandakphu in Rhododendron season!

I don’t know (or believe) heaven exists but if it does, I’d like the road leading to its gate be littered with flowers. And I’d like those flowers be rhododendrons. They might not stand a chance against the daffodils and lotuses of the world but I have come to like rhododendrons because they remind me of the hills. The rugged, frosty and hard to tame Himalayan peaks. In crimson red, fearless pink and pearly white they seem to challenge the mundane green of the hills when they are in bloom.

It is a fantastic sight to see hundreds of these trees in bloom.
It is a fantastic sight to see hundreds of these trees in bloom.

Before I left on the Sandakphu trek, I stayed in a Nepali border village called Jowarbhari near Sukhiapokri that overlooks pretty mountains and witnesses spectacular sunrises.

The village of Jowarbhari on the Nepal border
The village of Jowarbhari on the Nepal border
A vegetable garden and the skeletal support for climbers and twiners.
A vegetable garden and the skeletal support for climbers and twiners.

Each year, starting late January until mid June more than a hundred species of rhododendrons bloom in the eastern Himalayan region that straddles between India and Nepal. The rhododendron blooms render a feisty tone to the otherwise green forest canopy. Also found in the bloom season in this region are the stately white magnolias and the poisonous cobra lilies that strikingly resemble a cobra’s hood. Called Gurash in the local language, rhododendrons are also distilled into a local brew called rhododendron wine – a strong tasting liquor with an aftertaste of the flower.

Cobra lilly
Cobra Lilly
The white rhododendron blossoms
The white rhododendron blossoms
The crimson Rhododendrons
The crimson Rhododendrons
The pathway littered with Rhododendron flowers
The pathway littered with Rhododendron flowers
Rhododendron Dalhousie
Rhododendron Dalhousie

I went on a trek to Sandakphu in April 2015 and saw rhododendrons in bloom all along the trail. Rhododendron is also the national flower of Nepal, a country whose borders are often crossed during the course of the trail. The 50km trek, done in 3 – 4 days, culminates in a view point from where the Kanchenjunga and even the Everest would be visible on a clear day – a feat I was fortunately able to achieve. The trek also traverses through tiny mountain villages – some of them comprise of only two families (like Tonglu) and provide accommodation and food for the trekkers in this route.

Views enroute Sandakphu
Views en route Sandakphu
A house at Tonglu village
A house at Tonglu village
A bhutia puppy
A bhutia puppy

Staying in mountain villages you get to experience the fluidity of international borders (India and Nepal in this instance). The silver pine trees and the alpine meadows notwithstanding I was also tantalised by the very possibility of spotting a red panda. Only that I didn’t. We hiked through the Singalila National Park where the promise of spotting a red panda in the thick bamboo forests loomed large.

Nepali men selling piglets.
Nepali men selling piglets.

After three days of trekking in the pissing rains and dense fog, I’ve almost lost hope of seeing anything as I reached Sandakphu. But unpredictably, as is customary in the mountains, the weather cleared up on the last day of the trek despite the dismal fog and wheezing rains the previous night. And I woke up to a glorious sunrise lighting up the entire range of Kangchenjunga, Kumbakarn, Simbhu, Pandim, Norsing and Sinni Alsu. Not to mention, I also got a peek of the Everest.

A misty trail en route Sandakphu
A misty trail en route Sandakphu where the promise of spotting a red panda looms large
Sun rises above Sandakphu
Sun rises above Sandakphu
View from Sandakphu at dawn. Kanchenjunga can be seen
View from Sandakphu at dawn. Kanchenjunga can be seen.

Have you been on the Sandakphu trek? Don’t be shy. Leave a comment and start a conversation with me. We could bond over travel, you know. Follow me on Instagram and like my Facebook page for more updates and to keep in touch more often. PS: I took this trip with http://www.tripwizard.co.in. Phone: + 91 9749630978.

Seven somewhat offbeat things to do in and around Interlaken, Switzerland

If there is a Bollywood pilgrimage an Indian wishes to do, Interlaken would figure prominently on the list. And many Indian tourists seem to be doing just that. With snow capped mountains, jade green rivers and lush greenery, Interlaken and the region around have been  fertile playground for Indian movies – Bollywood started the trend and the regional movies have caught on soon enough.

With fountains sporting sculptures of marmuts, charming store fronts, church spires and petunias in different colors on its streets, Interlaken couldn’t get any prettier if it wished. In the odd scenario of you being overwhelmed by this cuteness, here are 7 other things you could do in Interlaken.

PS: I’d say, visit Jungfrau, but it’s probably already on your list anyway. :)

1) Visit Lauterbrunnen

The Trummelbach falls in Lauterbrunnen valley alone is responsible for draining the mighty glacier defiles of three mountains – Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau. As a result, in summer, the glacier water melts and comes down with huge force in 10 cascades inside the mountain. It is rendered accessible by a tunnel lift and also illuminated for the sake of viewing the mighty force in which water drops down. Also the rolling meadows of the Lauterbrunnen valley is a sight to withhold.

lauter brunnen2
The Glacier river at Lauterbrunnen
Ariel view of the Lauterbrunnen valley
Aerial view of the Lauterbrunnen valley

Note: Lauterbrunnen is 20 minutes from Interlaken on the SwissRail system.

2) Take a river cruise on Thun / Brienze

The lake and castle cruise on the panoramic Thun River in west-central Switzerland spans the distance from Interlaken to the town of Thun in about four hours, providing glimpses of Swiss riverside life and its beautiful castles. Situated west of Interlaken, Lake Thun is picture postcard material. Crested with mountain peaks capped with eternal snows of Brenese Alps, its turquoise blue waters are fed by the glaciers and hence always cold. A cruise on Lake Thun takes one past picturesque fishing villages and castles steeped in history.

thunc ruise
Cruise on river Thun
thun cruise
Castles like this pass by as you cruise Thun

Note: You can use the Swiss rail pass on scheduled cruises. The day pass for the Lakes of Thun and Brienz cruises is available for a special price on Mondays for CHF 39 (INR 2500) for 2nd class tickets.

3) Explore the old town of Thun

If you take the sunset cruise on a summer day, the cruise boat arrives in Thun as the sun dips down leaving you with options to explore the town of Thun when there is still light. River Aare splits Thun into two and there are surfers in its unruly waters tethered to the wooden bridge across the river, practicing surfing in the waves. Set about walking the tiny alleyways of the city that has 45000 inhabitants and its old town, said to be formed in 12th century when Berchtold V of Zähringen built the Thun Castle.

the thun castle
Thun Castle
IMG_0922
Drehorgel, shown here, is an ancient musical instrument
A river surfer - thun
A river surfer – thun

4) Hike to the BachalpSee

Bachalpsee is at an elevation of 2,265 m can be reached from the First gondola station. Legend has it that Yash Chopra (who made around ten movies in the country, spurring an onset of Indian tourist arrivals in Switzerland) planned a Katrina – SRK number for his last movie Jab Tak Hai Jaan at the Bachalpsee. He passed away before the completion of the movie and the Bachalpsee shoot never did happen.

Views while hiking Bachalpsee
Views while hiking Bachalpsee
Views of Bachalpsee
Views of Bachalpsee
That's yours truly hiking Bachalpsee
That’s yours truly hiking Bachalpsee

Note: The hike can be done on your own. From Grindelwald station, take the gondola to First station and hike up to the lake.

5) Take an e-bike tour

If walking around Interlaken tires you out, do sign up for an e-bike tour. It covers a lot of ground and you can cycle on the gorgeous tree canopied streets and by the beautiful waterways of the town. You could stop at the town center, taste water from its fountain, take pictures wherever you feel like. It is of course, beneficial if you have a guide, who will explain you things and take you around.

Cycling in Interlaken
Cycling in Interlaken
That's me cycling in Interlaken
That’s me cycling in Interlaken

Note: Try the Flying Wheels (www.flyingwheels.ch) service in Interlaken town that also houses a quaint little shop that sells local produce (cheese, herbs and even organic cosmetics).

6) Try tandem paragliding

Two decades ago, Interlaken used to be known as the backpacking destination. Americans that love outdoors used to come in hordes. And then, quite suddenly, it became popular with Japanese. Japanese that love soft outdoor activities started discovering Interlaken and the opportunities for adventure sports. Now, it is more a family tourism destination for Indians and shopping destination for Chinese. There is still a large number of tourists that try their hand at tandem paragliding, jet boat, base jumping, mountain biking and so on in Interlaken.

Tandem paragliding
Tandem paragliding

7) Visit a dairy farm

If you are an urban product, who has never seen a cow in its elements, this will interest you. Even if you are not one, you will have to see how the Swiss treat their cows. The barns are really well kept and neat. The cows are treated well so much so that they are even provided with huge plastic brushes in the barn to rub themselves against if they so wish. The cows are also let loose in the meadows for three months during summer for grazing.

Cows in a farm
Cows in a farm
Left over bread recycled, for the cows
Left over bread recycled, for the cows

Have you been to Interlaken? What is your opinion? Why not leave a comment and let me know?

PS: I was kindly hosted by the Jungfrau Railways on this trip. I would love to say ‘opinions expressed in this article are mine’ but there aren’t too many of them in this, are they? Rest assured, I am not obliged to say anything I didn’t want to. :)

Lessons in travel – After being (an almost) nomad for a year!

I hate to say it but this is going to sound familiar. I quit my job a year ago to travel. (There I said it.) Partly to satisfy my wanderlust and partly to gain travel experiences so I can write about it. I wanted to develop a mutually agreeable relationship with my travelling and writing. Looking back, I mostly have achieved what I set out to do. I have been travelling considerably well in the past year and have been published as often as I’d like to be. However, what I did not think about this whole plan is whether it is a sustainable model for my livelihood. Now I know it as clear as coconut water that it most certainly is not. I am still mostly burning through my finances hoping to figure out a viable plan for life sooner (hopefully not later) than I go broke. I pacify myself by saying that we were not born with a plan! And I am not exactly a nomad. I do live in a house, albeit spend much less time in it than I ever used to. Fortified by the travels in the past year, I feel I have suddenly become eligible to dish out some travel gyan. Go on, read and let me know if you agree or disagree with any of these.

You don’t need A LOT of money to travel

Who am I kidding? You do need money to travel. The stress here is on ‘A LOT.’ No, you do not need a lot of it. The secrets to save money are of course to couchsurf, stay in hostels, use public transportation and eat street food. Additionally, I also sift through my network to see if I can find anyone related to the place that I am visiting. Perhaps a friend or a friend’s friend could be of help. They have been of help for me. I have stayed with them and they have provided me with insider tips on where to go and what to do.

A bunch of teenagers in Inle Lake, Myanmar
A bunch of teenagers enjoying a boat ride in Inle Lake, Myanmar

The best experiences are had when you have fluid plans

I am increasingly ditching the guidebook wielding, well-planned route to travel. Partly because I am lazy but also because I discovered that such unplanned trips have the potential to surprise you. Recently I went on the Sandakphu trek only because I had the time in hand and decided to play it by the ear. Trekking in the wheezing rain amid a burst of bright rhododendron flowers, straddling between Nepal and India, that trek turned out to be among the memorable experiences I had this year.

En route Sandakphu trek
En route Sandakphu trek

Working while travelling is easier than you think (WiFi is also easy to come by)

I have turned in articles, written blog posts and met deadlines without a glitch while travelling. I have found WiFi at the oddest of places. For instance, in Loikaw, East Myanmar, the internet was so fast I could even catch up on my latest episodes of Better Call Saul and Broad City.

A Sri Lankan tea plucker
A Sri Lankan tea plucker

You’re never going to have enough money. Like ever.

I didn’t have to tell you this but hey we all need a push, don’t we? It is a fine thought to want to have enough money in your account before taking a break to travel. Our salaries are never going to make us millionaires.  Ever. The ideal way to do it is to decide upon a realistic bank balance. To achieve that, you might have to give up on a few movie night outs / dinners / shopping and so on and so forth. You get the drift.

Monsoons in Coorg
Monsoons in Coorg

You make friends even if you are an introvert

Here is a confession. I am an introvert. You might know me as a jolly good fella but I bet I needed some ice breaker before I became your friend. During my travels, I have found conversations happening with amazing fluidity with strangers. When you travel everyone is a stranger and everyone is willing to strike a conversation with you. People are nice and more importantly, they don’t bite.

A shy child in Kalap, Uttrakhand
A shy child in Kalap, Uttrakhand
Two introvert Chitals in Kanha, MP
Two introvert Chitals in Kanha, MP. How do I know they are introverts? I guessed :D

Sometimes side trips can be great

Recently, after a two-week long trip to Arunachal, I along with my friend decided a little detour on our way back to visit the gibbon sanctuary in Jorhat, Assam. Watching those gentle creatures swing from branch to branch gracefully in the wild is the most adorable thing I have ever seen. Also, it helped that they had silver eyebrows.

Hoolock gibbon in Jorhat, Assam
Hoolock gibbon in Jorhat, Assam

Even the unlikely place has interesting parts

Recently, I was in Bihar tracing the Buddha trail and visiting the buddhist monuments peppered across what is the most underdeveloped state in India. If you manage to get beyond the notorious traffic, the blaring horns and the killer instinct of the drivers on its road, Bihar has some interesting archaeological sites to offer.

Choti Dargah, Maner Sharif, Bihar
Choti Dargah, Maner Sharif, Bihar

Every experience, good or bad, teaches you something

In Bagan, Myanmar, children are enterprising. They are poor and they need to make a quick buck to survive. “Where you come from,” a little boy asked me at a pagoda. He showed me his currency collection, from different parts of the world, and asked me if I had the Indian currency. He had a ten rupee note but he wanted one of a higher denomination. I obliged and gave him a hundred that I had. He whisked away happily. A little later, at a different pagoda, another little boy came up to me with the same request. I realized I was conned. But what other options do these children have? They are so crushingly poor that they have to employ devious ways to make money. Talk about starting young.

A child at Hunnas Giriya, Sri Lanka
A child at Hunnas Giriya, Sri Lanka

Every sunrise is worth waking up to

As dawn breaks, the day stirs to life. Forget the fact that the soft golden light of the day break gives you incredible pictures, it is also a unique part of the day to people watch. There is a certain mellow energy that thrums up to life as the day starts and it is worth experiencing.

A sadhu in Varanasi at sunrise
A sadhu in Varanasi at sunrise

Trust me, you will hate coming home

Of late, I have started to dread the thought of coming home. The stillness of my house doesn’t excite me anymore. The familiar smells and visions of my house is supposed to comfort me but it is increasingly not. I don’t know if it is a sign that I am going to pack my bags and hit the road permanently, but trust me constant travelling will make you not want to come home. Because, you know, home is only a feeling. As long as you feel home wherever you are!

Going home, Myanmar
Going home, Myanmar

Have you been travelling for a long time now? Have you experienced any of this? Leave a comment and let me know.

Notes from Sri Lanka

I don’t usually take travel decisions on an impulse. My travels are thought out and planned for months in advance. But when I was procrastinating at home for more than a month with major travel plans only happening in late July, I knew I had to go somewhere. As if Bangalore’s summer wasn’t bad enough, it was also excruciatingly bad elsewhere in India. And hence I looked South and there it was, begging to be explored – Sri Lanka, the tear drop island that I have only read so much about but never visited despite its proximity.

I booked my tickets, spoke with dear dear Gokul (whose photography you should check here) who is from Sri Lanka but lives in India and scribbled a rough plan for around three weeks. No other bookings were made, Gokul kindly helped me stay in his and his relatives’ house and I played it by the ear as I travelled.

I have heard people compare Sri Lanka with Kerala, India and as far as generalizations go, it is a good one. The landscape is so much like Kerala and the food much more so. You don’t eat anything that is not made with coconut, coconut oil and coconut milk. But hey, who’s complaining, right.

Here are a few things I did in Sri Lanka.

I watched the sunset at Galle Face, Colombo’s ocean front promenade.

Sunset at Galle Face, Colombo
Sunset at Galle Face, Colombo

I saw a gentle form of devotion at the Kandy Sacred Tooth temple. So much so that even the pushing and shoving didn’t feel annoying.

The sacred temple of Kandy
The sacred temple of Kandy
Devotees inside the Sacred Temple, Kandy
Devotees inside the Sacred Temple, Kandy

I saw hundreds of Buddhas in various postures – sitting, reclining and standing – carved centuries ago with their facial expressions so life like that it became impossible to peel myself away from these places.

The reclining buddha at Polonnaruwa
The reclining buddha at Polonnaruwa
Buddha at Polonnaruwa
Buddha at Polonnaruwa
Inside the Dambulla rock caves
Inside the Dambulla rock caves
The rock structure at Sigiriya, Sri Lanka
The rock structure at Sigiriya, Sri Lanka

I ate plates after plates of rice, roti, wada, curries, dhal curry, various vegetables in delicious forms, stir fried greens, sambal and often washed it down with Lion beer.

A Sri Lankan breakfast
A Sri Lankan breakfast
A Sri Lankan Rice and Curry meal
A Sri Lankan Rice and Curry meal

I went on short hikes with summits that offered magnificent views in the tea country of Sri Lanka’s central region.

View from Unnas Giriya, Sri Lanka
View from Unnas Giriya, Sri Lanka
A tea picker, Sri Lanka
A tea picker, Sri Lanka
View from Little Adams Peak, Ella, Sri Lanka
View from Little Adams Peak, Ella, Sri Lanka

I took a slow train across the tea country that offered sweeping views of tea plantations and passed through quaint little train stations with their impeccably dressed station masters.

On a slow train to Ella
On a slow train to Ella
The train ride to Ella
The train ride to Ella

I met interesting people, bought an anthology on Sri Lankan literature and wrote postcards at restaurant tables while waiting for my meals to arrive.

Notes from Sri Lanka
Notes from Sri Lanka

That’s not all: I got mistaken for Sinhalese all the time; I met Shyam Selvadurai’s dear friend; I ate a delicious fusion pizza with baby jackfruit for topping; I generally ambled around locations where conversations happened with amazing fluidity and friendships were made. Sri Lanka is lovely and it is only first of the many times I am going to be visiting the country.

Have you been to Sri Lanka? What did you think of it? Leave a comment and let me know.

 

 

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 of them since she works with them all day? It is like asking a teller if he ever gets bored of currency. “Of course not.” 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.