A guide to the best chocolate experiences around the world.
As you twist the tinfoil off some tasty treats this Easter, we thought it fitting to offer up a global tour of everyone's one true love. Oh, chocolate. Thou art a sweet and delectable reason to live. Where hast thou bean all my life?
From Bean to Bar - the Chocolate Story
Around 5,000 years ago the Mayan civilisation of Central America invented a delicious drink from cacao beans that was consumed during rituals or as a medicine.
The recipe was so good that as the Mayans declined and the Aztec civilisation grew around its ruins, they took up the Mayans' curious concoction and called it "xocolatl", a term that loosely translates as "bitter drink".
Cacao was so sought after by these ancient peoples, the beans were accepted as legal tender for goods and even taxes - their money literally grew on cacao trees. Anyway, the xocolatl recipe found its way to Europe via Spanish colonisation sometime after the 1500s, where it was eventually given an industrial-era makeover, turned into a solid confection, and traded throughout the world.
Although its history exemplifies a dubious global saga of colonial appropriation, industrialisation and commercialisation, chocolate has bridged religious and political divides to become one of the most desired edible products in the world. From Europe to Asia, the Americas, Africa and beyond, cacao harvesters, chocolate makers, chocolatiers and chocolate lovers span the globe.
Chocolate Experiences Around the World
Here then are some of the most interesting places in the world where you can witness the creation and creative wonder of chocolate around the world.
1. Valor Chocolate Museum, Spain
Europe's first chocolatiers were Spanish Cistercian monks who stuck closely to the Aztec xocolatl drink recipe and served it to the Spanish nobility. Spanish artisans would later add sugar or honey to counter the mix's bitterness and it began to resemble what we know today as hot chocolate.
Spain's tradition as the first makers of chocolate as we know it is embodied in its world-renowned Valor chocolate brand, which has a proud history as a business run by five generations of chocolatiers. Valor's Chocolate Museum on the site of its original business, in the small Mediterranean coastal town of Villajoyosa, has an amazing collection of chocolate making machinery through the ages including Valor’s original grinding stones.
2. Lindt Home of Chocolate, Switzerland
When Spanish aristocrats introduced xocolatl to the royal courts of Europe, the recipe was embraced by the upper classes. They claimed to drink it for its purported health benefits, but more than likely consumed it to show off how au fait they were with this rare and novel commodity.
It wasn't until entrepreneurs in the United Kingdom, France, Belgium and Switzerland built factories and developed methods to manufacture chocolate in solid bars that our favourite sweet treat really hit its straps and became available to the masses. Chocolate production soon branched out to suit varying tastes to give us milk chocolate, dark chocolate and chocolate bars stuffed with fruit and nuts which were sold in specialty chocolate shops.
Which country has the best chocolate in the world? Maybe it's the high-quality milk thanks to Alpine grazing, or simply national pride in attention to detail: whatever it is, to this day Swiss chocolate is a world renowned dreamy-creamy bliss-fest of exceptional quality. Is Swiss chocolate the best chocolate the world? Sure! (But Belgian chocolate runs a close second.)
Nowhere else do the Swiss show off their chocolate making prowess better than at the Lindt "Home of Chocolate" museum in Kilchberg on the western shore of Lake Zürich.
First, take a chocolate tour to learn about how cacao is harvested, and how chocolate-making techniques have developed throughout history. Then mix, pour, set, cool, decorate, and wrap your own brick-sized chocolate bar.
Finish up by watching Lindt's master chocolatiers make the best chocolate before sampling and stocking up on their wares at the HUGE Lindt shop on your way out — you'll never see more delicious chocolate in one place.
One of the best ways to experience Switzerland is on board its panoramic trains. You can see the beautiful, changing scenery, and sample local delicacies and wines from different regions. It's one of the best trips I've taken in my life, from seeing the famous Matterhorn mountain in Zermatt to travelling into Italy on the Bernina Express.
3. Hershey's Chocolate World, USA
When it comes to mass production in the chocolate industry, the USA wins hands down as the biggest chocolate producers. Three of the five top global chocolate producers are US companies. Mars Wrigley Confectionery (think M&Ms, Snickers, Twix, and of course the Mars Bar) takes top spot with around US$18 billion in sales each year.
Although Hershey (with its Kisses, Cadbury chocolate products and Kit Kats) comes in at number five with a modest US$8 billion, it has a wonderfully Wonkeresque factory/museum in the Pennsylvanian "town" of Hershey.
Here you can send the kids off to create their own (personally branded) bars of gobbable goodness, while you and your sweetheart sneak off to a session of pairing popular wines with chocolate cake and chocolate desserts.
Then you can all meet up to watch a mad-cap theatrical demonstration of chocolate-making science followed by a free factory tour ride with samples at the end. They don't seem to have a chocolate river though.
As Quakers, the Cadbury Brothers John and Benjamin launched their chocolate drinks business in Birmingham in the United Kingdom as a way of offering non-alcoholic beverages to the populace.
Their business soon branched into chocolate bars and other delicious chocolate products and by 1854 they received a royal warrant to manufacture chocolate and cocoa products for Queen Victoria. Through the twentieth century Cadbury launched our familiar favourites such as Dairy Milk, Flake, Creme Eggs, Roses Chocolates, Freddos and so much more.
Although the Cadbury Brothers' brand was bought out by Hershey in 1988, it's still a popular chocolate producer and loved the world over.
The Cadbury World attraction is located in Bourneville Village on the outskirts of Birmingham on the very grounds the Cadbury family moved the business to in 1878 to provide a healthier place for their staff to live and work. Perfect for kids of all ages, the attraction includes hands-on chocolatier lessons in chocolate making techniques of tempering, moulding and shelling. Then everyone can jump on a number of rides or explore interactive displays all themed around Cadbury's rich history. On your way out there's of course an invitation to visit a Cadbury chocolate shop. Here you can buy specialty products such as a chocolate teapot and chocolate shoes.
5. Land of Cocoa Tour, Ivory Coast
Although the cacao tree is native to Central and South America, cacao beans are harvested throughout the tropical regions of Africa and Asia. Cacao farms and plantations in Ivory Coast and Ghana alone produce about half the world's cacao and they produce the best cocoa beans.
This might be a good time for a quick note here about the word "cocoa": it's an anglicised variant of the word "cacao" and is commonly used to describe the version roasted and ground to a fine powder found in supermarkets. Cocoa, cocoa beans and cacao beans are all the same thing.
Ivory Coast's Land of Cocoa Tour offers tourists the chance to explore the cacao growing region, visit plantations and talk with local farmers as you witness local harvesting and the production process in action that produce such high-quality cocoa. The experience will give you a deeper appreciation of chocolate’s journey from a humble tree to your teeth.
6. Kaokao Chocolate Factory Tour, Mexico
… And the circle of chocolate is complete. How appropriate that we finish where we started in Mexico, home of the cacao bean. On the island of Cozumel, just off Mexico’s Caribbean coast, a small family-run company specialising in artisanal chocolates invites you to “make your own Mayan Chocolate from scratch”.
Topping the best chocolate experience anywhere, you’ll be given a hands-on experience of grinding cacao beans to produce your own drinking chocolate mix as you learn about cacao’s sacred place in Mayan culture and how modern chocolate is made from “bean to bar”.
You’ll get to try the different flavours of cacao at its various stages of processing while taking in its fine aroma. You'll then learn how it combines with local cuisine before being served an xocolatl chocolate drink made from the traditional recipe.
Also, don't leave Mexico without trying a dish served with "mole poblano": a sauce poured on meat or veggies and made of ... you guessed it .... chocolate.
This is chocolate at its most authentic. Sweet dreams.
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