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.

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.