Monday, July 20, 2009

Cailler chocolate: the almond sample

This was the best shot from my trip to the Cailler factory: I figured I'd give it a separate post.

On the Chocolate Train, part one

Because such a thing exists, and we woke up at six for it.

I was so excited that the night before, I dreamed of Willy Wonka's Wonderful World: swirled rainbow machines, a river of chocolate, a fantastic elevator opening to the skies and me... okay, not so much. The always-creepy Johnny Depp-Tim Burton collaboration is one I prefer to avoid in my waking hours, and probably explains why I only got four hours of sleep.

I didn't think Swiss food tourism could get any better than Alimentation's comprehensive treatment of food history, but in any case, I joined fellow interns M and A the following weekend on the Chocolate Train, which consisted of tours of chocolate and cheese factories - and a castle.

(Tourist tip: if you're new to Switzerland, take the official Chocolate Train, which costs ~$105 from Montreux. Since everybody is headed toward the same location, you won't need to worry about transfers or how late the local buses run, though the tour lacks organization as well as an official guide. You just have safety in numbers.

On the other hand, if you speak French or are pretty familiar with train-riding, buy a second-class ticket for Broc - $72 RT from Geneva. And go on a Sunday, since most things in regular towns are closed then...but touristy places aren't and often have free admission.)

After two hours of trains, four transfers and thirty blurry shots of mountain/castle combinations from the window, we got off on the train's last stop: the rural town of Broc. Just down the road was an immaculate white building: the Cailler chocolate factory. (It reminded me of the mansion in Bad Boys 2, to be honest.)

We entered, and I squealed loudly. A PVC canvas of larger-than-life chocolate squares draped one wall, while shelves and shelves of chocolate lined the other three.

We spent twenty minutes translating "noixette" and "eclat" (hazelnut and [cacao] nibs, respectively) and comparing the relative merits of each sub-brand within the Cailler family, but without samples, how would we know?

Accordingly, we entered the museum, starting with the machines used to process the cacao, and some branding history of the Caillers -- who eventually got bought up by Nestle.
A giant slab of cocoa butter, a key ingredient in chocolate bars.

The machines!

Smooth that chocolate river...
Early foils and wrappers that indicate the content of the chocolate bar.

What's really inside.

And the completed bars!

Gotta love adverts.
In the meantime, we learned why Swiss chocolate is baller:

1) Francois-Louis Cailler invented a smooth chocolate mix that could easily be poured into bars and molds.
2) Adding milk was key (and not the sour Hershey kind that followed it, either).
Some of the elaborate molds used, post-Cailler's invention.

Larger-than-life Swiss chocolate patriarchs...eventually all bought out by Nestle.

After a brief discussion on the ingredients and scents of chocolate, the highly-anticipated moment arrived: sample time! While the chocolate tour can be easily managed in an hour (forty five minutes if you skip the gift shop entirely), we easily spent the majority of our time at the sample station. Of course, the three of us spent significantly more time than any other group at the sample counter - a fairly obvious conclusion if you compare three stipended college interns with four seniors tour groups on a tight schedule.
Pictured here: only a third of the booty.

The samples started with Caillat's basic milk chocolate bar, followed by their milk chocolate + almond bar. Both were good, though I preferred the gritty smokiness of the almonds. Next, the Frigot sub-brand: large chocolate squares filled with a hazelnut and almond paste (or simply hazelnut); I preferred the mixed nut paste, largely because the hazelnut tended to be rather overpowering. All of us agreed that it was delicious, though (what did you expect?) Branches came next: soft chocolate ganache sticks wrapped in more milk chocolate, laced in crunchies. A brilliant plan, but so sweet that seconds weren't necessary.

The Frigot table.
And then we realized that there was more chocolate on the second counter: four more trays with at least twenty different kinds of chocolate. There was no way each of us could down that much, especially when we were already at half-capacity. "Shoulda woulda coulda paced better," we grumbled to each other. My first choice was a lesson in not eating things that are unidentifiable: rum-laced coconut, surrounded by a dark chocolate cloak, tasted like a sour sandpaper attempt marzipan. Needless to say, I used my feeble French phrasing to ask the staff what the next chocolate was and promptly avoided it; it's a good thing I asked what kirsch meant.

With three more trays left, I lucked out: all of the chocolate pieces were shaped identically, but could be distinguished by their color: milk, dark and super dark. I broke my self-proclaimed rule of eating the specialty (as mentioned, Swiss chocolate is known for being milk - superrich with a creamy texture) and settled for the super dark, hoping the bitterness would act as an antidote to the sugary aftertaste that had been in my mouth for the past twenty minutes.

I lasted two more pieces and then promptly surrendered.

Thankfully, we were forced to walk around plexiglassed portions of the gallery, waddling like little Gloop and seeing the chocolate churn much like our stomachs did. That gave us enough energy and relief to watch twenty minutes of vintage Nestle commercials...and to buy chocolate. I settled on a dark Frigot bar, the winner of our (too) extensive taste testing.

(Tourist tip #2: the Cailler gift shop is consistently cheaper than grocery stores in the Geneva area. Buy while you can - you won't be stuffed in a week.)

We bypassed the vending machines - full of chocolate Nesquik - on our way out.
Next post: Gruyeres

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Arrested Development: On developing salads

Michael: What do you think of when you hear the name, "Sudden Valley"?
George Michael: Salad dressing. But I don't want to eat it.
Michael: What about, "Paradise Gardens"?
George Michael: Yeah... that's better. I can see myself marinating a chicken in that.

Longer posts to come -- promise!

Monday, July 6, 2009


Things I'd like from the States:

  • Cambridge Common's breakfast BLT. I may very well attempt it this week, because I never realized how delectable bacon-eggs-avocado were. Basically, I am in need of brunch satisfaction.
  • A balsamic salmon salad or Greek salad that doesn't cost $20.
  • Pita chips, accompanied with red pepper hummus (never, ever, ever sundried tomato).
  • Good Asian food that isn't from a Chinese/Thai/pan-Asian restaurant. Specifically, I am thinking of Spice's spicy basil fried rice and Shabu-Zen and Yi-Soon sponge cake. Or, more obviously, any type of home cooking.
  • Arby's sauce (this remains a common craving when I am in Boston).
  • My usual order at Chipotle: chicken tacos, cheese and lettuce, green and corn salsas.
Things that are making up for it:
  • Swiss chocolate -- unfortunately, I just ran out of my fridge stash yesterday.
  • GelatoMania -- just had their mustard flavor yesterday. It was grainy but neither sinus-clearing nor super-savory. A close runner up to my favorite, pineapple basil.
Things that I'm getting sick of:
  • Crusty bread. The new trick: spreading pesto on pretzel rolls for lunch.
  • McDonald's -- I went twice this week with my housemates. Once unwillingly, obviously. Weirdly enough, a medium sized fries here is equivalent to the large sized order in the States. And costs $3.50.
  • The tomato-mozzarella-basil combination.
  • Pain au chocolat -- is this blasphemous?

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Happy Fourth, all!

This is the potluck, every year:

Beer and cheddar splattered bratwurst, take two. Drown 'em in those spicy noodles (yes, that's sesame oil you're tasting). Here are the burgers: slap one between the six-pack of buns, get more romaine in there, you haven't been eating your veggies lately. Fill the nooks and crannies of your plate with potato salad from the plastic grocery bucket, honest to goodness it has more dill than you think. Now choose between the French and the Italian, quick someone's behind you, it's pretty easy to tell you're a French kinda girl. Moving on! Here is the cake but you'll get it in an hour, it's red white and blue, do you see the Cool Whip on top (I love Cool Whip) and the inverted blueberry stars and the strawberry stripes? That's my America, see? We're cool.

Then the fireworks will start, big metallic splatters that'll gently crash into you while you're sitting on the minivan roof. And yet, that's not entirely true, is it? Your worst enemy is the mosquito, but don't worry, that's what the spray's for.

Don't push each other off, alright?

(photo via jojochao)

Thursday, July 2, 2009

A 3-on-3 Geneva Macaron Duel

As mentioned previously, I am rather fond of macarons, much more so than gooey coconut macaroons. Laduree, the Paris-based, original creator of the double-decker macaron, has an outpost in Geneva, which meant I had an obligation to indulge myself. I bought three macarons at CHF 2.20 each: bergamot orange (their limited-edition, seasonal flavor), violet-cassis, and fleur de sel (salted caramel), plus a mint-green tote bag adorned with a giant macaron photo (because where else are you going to get a macaron bag?)

Rather ceremonially, I removed my bag of macarons from the tote (for the record: if you buy six macarons, you get them in a cotton box), carefully removed the sticker, and slid the macarons out. Of course, this epic display of propriety was shattered when I opted for my passion fruit juice as accompaniment since I had neither coffee nor milk on hand.
Top to bottom: fleur de sel, violet-cassis, bergamot-orange.

So now, the single-bite rotation, beginning with the violet-cassis. In short, simply beautiful: the grown-up, glorified equivalent of the patty cake. The compote had melded seamlessly into the macaron double-decker, making a cakey-jammy interior; accordingly, the macaron didn't break on the first bite. The cassis flavor was powerful but not overwhelming, while the violet played the backseat rather delicately.

Of course, excellent first bites make for rather impossible expectations; the bergamot orange, while a sound concept - citrus and bergamot go hand in hand, and bergamot is the scent behind Earl Grey, my favorite kind of tea - lacked the kick of the violet-cassis. Rather, I was left with a concentrated bergamot scent, which gave the macaron a bitter aftertaste and which the orange could not redeem.

Finally, the fleur de sel. Equally as good as the violet-cassis, but in a different way (I silently agonized for five minutes in deciding on a favorite). Neither jaw-breakingly chewy nor Hershey-thin, the caramel bound itself to its macaron hosts in a tight symbiosis of styrofoamy, rich sugar rush. At the same time, the caramel had enough salt to stop me from gagging and to enjoy each tiny bite I took. (I managed five bites from the fleur de sel's two-inch diameter).

After my first Genevan exposure to the macaron, I needed more. And so I found myself drawn to the Pougnier storefront, six blocks from Laduree, for "research purposes." Again, I bought three macarons (CHF 2.10, each): rose, Earl Grey and apricot-hazelnut. (The two stores only overlap on classic flavors - chocolate, strawberry, pistachio - though Earl Grey and bergamot-orange should theoretically have been similar.)

Another photoshoot was in order, and then tasting. (I should probably note that the macarons I happened to pick at Pougnier happened to match color better, although the packaging was comparatively lackluster on their part.)

I started out with the apricot-hazelnut. Overall, I was pleased with the flavor: notably, there was a piece of apricot in my filling and the hazelnut flavor was subtly pleasant. However, the fundamental problem was the texture of the macaron - as soon as I bit into the apricot-hazelnut, I felt how hollow the macaron was. And then I saw the hollowness, once the macaron immediately separated from the apricot filling. Once that happened, it was like eating a deep dish pizza layer by layer: good, but not great. And the macaron, apart from the filling, wasn't that impressive - it actually tasted a little stale.
You can visibly see the separation of the double-decker in this photo. Top to bottom: rose, apricot-hazelnut, and Earl Grey on the bottom (it actually was flaked with gold leaf, why it was red I don't know).

This review got a small boost from the rose macaron; because creme filling was used, the macaron structure held fairly tightly. However, I wasn't too impressed with the filling - though the rose flavor was distinctly and deliciously rose, the cream was curdlike, but not like jam-curd like, it just happened to be lumpy. I would have liked to see a rose jelly instead.

Finally, the Earl Grey. I actually liked the taste of the macaron more than that of Laduree's bergamot-orange. It was clear that the macaron was Earl Grey-flavored, which I gave a prompt thumbs-up to. At the same time, Fougnier infused a bit of chocolate flavor in the filling - which not only made it sweeter but also moister - enhancing the cookie's texture. Still, the outsides of the macaron sandwich were brittle.

As a consistent problem, texture was the deciding factor from which Pougnier couldn't recover. So for me, Laduree wins; it's still worth their CHF .10 premium.

But while these are the two major macaron producers in Geneva, there's more "research": Because Geneva is on the French-speaking side of the Confederation, it sticks mostly to French-style macarons, but luxembourgli, a Swiss variant on the French macaron, were invented in Zurich.

And if I manage to go to Paris later this summer, there will be lots of competition with Laduree's three-story flagship store, including La Maison du Chocolat (they specialize in combining chocolate filling with basic-flavored macarons), and Gerard Mulot. Hopefully, a macaron tour will be in store, and if so, I'm most excited about Pierre Herme, known as much for his savory macarons (including foie gras and ketchup) as his "high king" status in the macaron world. But for now, I'll be sticking with an occasional violet-cassis...though I'd love to see the new seasonal flavors.

These small wonders

I will never, ever put a Rob Thomas reference in a post title again.

Of course, this would have been highly appropriate for the jewel-colored, miniature macarons I just wrote about, but the nature of this post is write about other tasty, less-than-CHF 5 additions of mine. Think of it as Citysearch's Three-buck Bites, but adjusted for Switzerland's minimum wage (which is rumored to be CHF 18 -- about US $17). So...count macarons (here, CHF 2.20) as one of those delights. Meanwhile:

  • Coffee, preferably subsidized by the office at CHF 2. It's foamy and requires two little cream cups and a packet of sugar to come close to the less-bitter, American Starbucks side. But it is the best accompaniment for eight hours of work, especially with its hint of cocoa.
  • Flavored Nestea has come in handy on day trips. I'm a sucker for limited edition flavors, so I coughed up CHF 3 for a bottle of pineapple-mango Nestea. It would have been much better if Nestea had decided on one straight flavor...
  • French fries: the real reason for the CHF 5 limit, as it's the exact price for a plate of starchy satisfaction. You don't need to go to McD's for McD-tasting fries; just hit up one of the kabob places on the sidewalk. (Note that kabob doesn't mean "on a stick" here; sorry State Fairers!) The resemblance is uncanny, but the major difference is that mayonnaise, along with ketchup, is served on the side.
  • The best part about being in Switzerland is being able to complain about paying over CHF 2.25 for a pain au chocolat. (I get mine for CHF 1.70 here - and I'm already anticipating the shock once I return to Minneapolis and pay for my new addiction at French Meadow). Also, complaining about chocolate - but that is for another post. Specifically, the one that details my trip to the rural Nestle-Cailler chocolate factory (wait for it!)
  • Yogurt: Dannon "fruit on the bottom" doesn't get advertised here, because the fruit's there by default. When Tomo and I went grocery shopping together, we wondered what our groceries said about us; we concluded that his one baguette and chocolate covered cookies screamed "bachelor without kitchen." Meanwhile, my eight cups of yogurt...all we could come up with was, "Heidi likes yogurt." I really appreciate the passion fruit and mocha flavors here, neither of which are widely available at the local Safeway; the premium yogurt here is packaged in a black-and-gold luxury wrapper and contains fleur de sel - salted caramel - and kiwi seeds. For CHF 1. Score.
  • Finally, who could forget bread and cheese? Yes, that is my "homecooked" dinner below: cucumbers, salami, an olive mini-baguette, and some Gruyere (the Swiss cheese).
  • And speaking of homecooked dinners, I'm off to make croque-madames! (Think a grilled ham and cheese sandwich, topped with a fried egg.)