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As Indian kids growing up in the 90s, we all have this memory of waiting with excitement for our foreign dwelling relatives to make that yearly trip back home. For apart from tales from these lands of advancement and convenience, they also came bearing gifts. Often a collection of gadgets, clothes, Souvenirs and edibles. One thing, however, that always remained a constant in this assemblage was chocolates – Imported Chocolates! Those coveted treats, covered in unusual wrappers, with names we could sometimes barely pronounce. Certainly not found in our local grocery store, which we ran to with some jingling change in our pockets, for a quick fix of chocolate. They also tasted different – creamy, rich, stirring up an image of healthy cows grazing in rolling green pastures.

Things changed over a period of time. Foreign travels ceased to be rare and infrequent for Indians and we started to experience so much more of the world. International commerce increased and the same imported chocolates that we used to wait for, made their way to the aisles of the new, swanky supermarkets that opened in every neighbourhood as we ditched our next-door grocery stores for them. With time, some of these chocolates became so common that, now we can spare that visit to the supermarket and easily find them in those same neighbourhood grocery stores.

When we talk of imported chocolates and their allure, we cannot miss thinking about Belgian and Swiss chocolates. Now, it is common knowledge that neither Belgium nor Switzerland grows cacao. Then how did they become synonymous with chocolate? The answers lie in the history.

The Journey of Cacao from Mesoamerica to Europe

It is believed that the Olmecs who inhabited the regions of modern-day Mexican states of Veracruz and Tabasco in the period between 1500 BCE and 400 BCE, were the first people to domesticate the cacao tree.  Thereafter the Mayans and the Aztecs continued to use cacao for both – consumption and as currency. The widespread agriculture, trade and use of cacao that we see today, makes it almost hard to imagine that for centuries, these ancient people consumed cacao for its health, medicinal and spiritual benefits, while the rest of the world was ignorant of its existence. But with the advent of the Spanish conquistadors, the fate of cacao and Mexico were set to be changed forever. These conquistadors were the soldiers of the Spanish and Portuguese armies that had set out on exploring regions in Asia, Africa and Americas (including Mexico) with the intention of colonizing them, setting up trade and benefitting from their resources, albeit at the cost of life and culture of the indigenous people. In the times of globalization, it rarely seems out of ordinary to be able to access food, services or just about anything from across the world. But if we dig deeper, many times, there lies a history of destructive colonization or war behind some of the most ordinary things.  Colonization by its very nature meant that the indigenous people were robbed of their life, land, dignity, culture, language and above all their identity.

When we trace the journey of cacao from Mesoamerica to the rest of the world, mention of Hernan Cortes is inevitable.  Cortes led the conquest of Mexico and established Spanish dominion over the Aztecs in the year 1521. It is believed that Cortes’ first encounter with Cacao was in the court of King Montezuma where he was offered cacao in the form of a drink. Cortes noted that cacao was being consumed by the upper echelons of the Aztec society and was also being used as a currency. This was enough to tell the Spanish that this was no ordinary bean. Although it is widely believed that it was Cortes that transported Cacao from Veracruz to Spain in 1519, there is not enough evidence to support this account. Writers Michael D. Coe and Sophie Coe of “True History of Chocolate” make a case that no one knows the exact point in time when Cacao reached Spain. However, they believe that more likely it was the Maya that first transported Cacao to Europe when a delegation of Maya nobles, led by a Spanish nobleman, visited Prince Philip in Spain in 1544 and offered him cacao. There are various other accounts of Spanish Conquistadors discovering cacao and its heady qualities.

The colonization of Mexico, however, did not lead to an immediate introduction of cacao into Spain. In fact, it was not until the 17th Century that a steady supply of cacao was established from Mexico to Spain. But, once it was introduced to Spain, cacao rapidly became a coveted item. The Spanish added sugar to the drink and made it more palatable as opposed to the intense, bitter drink that the Mesoamericans consumed. This sweet cacao drink soon became a status symbol and everyone wanted to get their hands on it.

From Spain to Belgium

But how did cacao reach Belgium? The answer once again lies in dominion of one country over the other.  The Spanish at the time (1556 – 1714) were also ruling Belgium and that led to cacao being introduced to Belgium. However, it was by no means an instant hit in Belgium. It took a couple of more centuries and another brutal colonization for cacao to reach and gain popularity in Belgium.  In the late 19th Century, Belgian King Leopold II seized what we now know as the Democratic Republic of Congo. This seizure was marked with atrocities, destruction and exploitation of unprecedented nature, for Congo was not even treated as a Belgian colony (which would have still given it some semblance of structure and regulation), but it was treated as the private property of the King for a long time. During his control over the region, King Leopold II commissioned plantation of cacao trees along the river Congo. Owing to its favourable weather conditions, Congo presented itself as a suitable place to grow cacao for Belgium and once the plantations were mature to bear fruit, the Belgium had a steady supply of cacao from Congo.

Belgian Chocolate – There is marketing and then there is truth

Belgian pralines are what we also know as bonbons. They revolutionized how the world consumed chocolate.

Slowly, the Belgians started developing a taste for bitter chocolate and it became a part of their diet. But this is not what makes the Belgian chocolate famous. The greatest feat achieved by the Belgians was the creation of pralines. In 1912, Jean Neuhaus II was the first person to create the now famous Belgian pralines or what we also know as bonbons by filling hard chocolate shells with softer fillings like nougat, nut pastes, cream, caramel, ganache etc. Earlier, center filled chocolate treats were made by dipping the center into the chocolate. But Jean Neuhaus II created a moulding technique because of which a hard chocolate shell could be filled with the desired filling. This moulding technique also ensured that the chocolate shells were bigger and sturdier, taking the pralines to a next level. Now, there could be way more variety and innovation with fillings, flavours, texture etc. and these Belgian pralines became world famous.

But the question that persists is, what is in fact “Belgian Chocolate”? Pralines or bonbons are only a type of chocolate treats and can certainly not be synonymous to Belgian chocolate as they are now common recipes that chocolatiers world over learn and create. The answer to what is Belgian Chocolate lies in the Belgian Chocolate Code. This code is widely accepted and followed regulation when it comes to labelling chocolate as “Belgian”. As per this code, for a chocolate to qualify as “Belgian chocolate”, it must be mixed, refined, conched and moulded in Belgium. This means that all the other processes involved like production of cocoa powder, milk solids, cocoa butter, cocoa mass, chocolate liquor etc. may happen outside of the country. The only requirement is that final mixing of these various elements and the subsequent grinding, conching and moulding to happen in Belgium.

Now, if we look at this code, it ensures nothing more than the requirement of certain processes of chocolate making, starting from the step of mixing of ingredients to happen in Belgium. It does not guarantee any specific quality of chocolate or the ingredients. In addition, this code itself has no legal backing and is more recommendatory than mandatory in nature. So, in the end what we get is a mere term, i.e., Belgian Chocolate that cannot stand as an assurance of quality, finesse, purity or any specific standard. What Belgium does have, is a longstanding tradition of chocolate making and master chocolate makers. That, however, is not enough to make blanket statements about Belgian Chocolate being premium quality, neither is a chocolate good by default only because it is made in Belgium. At the end of the day, merely a specific country of origin cannot promise quality and taste and it eventually boils down to individual chocolate makers or chocolatiers, their understanding of craft, innovation, attention to flavours, choice of ingredients, attention to details etc. So next time you read the words “Belgian Chocolate”, do not blindly take it as a mark of quality and do take that little extra effort of reading the ingredients. In fact, we cannot emphasize enough, how important it is to read the labels and fine prints, irrespective of the manufacturer or the country of origin.

Swiss Chocolate

Now, from countries with a history of colonisation, lets shift our attention to the land that has become synonymous with neutrality – Switzerland. No mention of imported or foreign chocolate is enough without a mention of Switzerland. So, what is Swiss chocolate? The answer may not come as a surprise. Swiss Chocolate is in fact, the beloved milk chocolate.

Swiss chocolate originated in the year 1819, when chocolatier François-Louis Cailler opened Switzerland’s first mechanised chocolate making unit. However, two people – Daniel Peter and Rodolphe Lindt deserve a large part of the credit for making Swiss chocolate what it is today.

Swiss chocolates 
When one thinks of Swiss chocolate, it is hard to not think of Lindt.

In 1867, Daniel Peter started a chocolate factory in Vevey and in the year 1875, he became the first person to create a bar of milk chocolate my mixing condensed milk from a nearby farm run by Henri Nestlé (the Nestlé we all know). Then there was Rodolphe Lindt – yes, also the same Lindt we all know. Lindt opened his chocolate factory in 1879 and created the process of conching, which today is an essential part of any chocolate making process and chocolate makers world over use it to grind the cacao nibs to evenly distribute cocoa butter with the help of some heat that is generated in the process. Conching is one of the processes which gives that smooth, rich quality to chocolate. So, Switzerland gave the world two very unique gifts – the milk chocolate and the process of conching. It naturally helped that Switzerland always had a thriving dairy industry with good quality milk easily available, because of which, the Swiss chocolate has a rich, smooth mouthfeel. But both milk chocolate and the process of conching have now become fairly common with chocolate makers across the world. 

So, what makes a Swiss chocolate? Like in the case of Belgian Chocolate, there are certain regulations that determine when a chocolate qualifies to be labelled “Swiss chocolate”. An organization called Chocosuisse regulates the chocolate industry in Switzerland and provides the labelling guidelines. According to Chocosuisse, a product can only be described as Swiss chocolate if it’s “ready-conched chocolate or chocolate mass entirely manufactured in Switzerland using cocoa beans or cocoa mass, cocoa butter, sugar and milk as the case may be”. This means that the actual production of chocolate must happen in Switzerland. However, cocoa beans, cocoa butter, sugar, milk etc. could be sourced from elsewhere. This may not seem very different from Belgian chocolate code. There is only a slight difference. As per Swiss law, a product can be termed Swiss, if 80% of the product weight of the raw materials and essential processing is done in Switzerland. This, however does not include ingredients that do not grow in Switzerland. So, in case of Swiss chocolate, the primary ingredient, i.e., cacao, since it does not grow in Switzerland, will not be considered to determine if the chocolate is Swiss made. Typically, milk / milk solids and sugar will be considered to determine whether a chocolate is indeed Swiss made as Switzerland does produce these ingredients.

So, are Belgian and Swiss chocolates truly a mark of quality?

Well, the answer is – No. A mere label of Belgian chocolate or Swiss chocolate can no longer be accepted as an assurance of quality and taste. There is no doubt that these countries do have a rich tradition and history of chocolate making. They also have given the world some delicious recipes and effective chocolate making processes. However, today, these recipes and processes are common knowledge and do not remain exclusive to Belgium or Switzerland. Neither do these countries legally provide for any specific standards or tests of quality or taste. So today, merely because a chocolate is originating from a particular country can no longer be a mark of quality even if the said country holds a legacy.

One must approach these chocolates like any other food item and check the labels and fine print, instead of believing the country of origin as a sign of quality. Within the said countries also chocolate makers and chocolatiers could differ in their quality, ingredients, additives, taste, flavour, techniques etc. Not to mention that many chocolate brands from these countries are mass producers of chocolate and add preservatives and additives to chocolates to increase shelf life, stabilize the chocolates and make them taste uniform. This However, takes away from the actual flavour of cacao. Reading the label can also be helpful in understanding how transparent and ethical the manufacturer is. Many Belgian and Swiss chocolatiers and chocolate makers source their cacao from African nations, where there are major concerns of human right violations in cacao plantations. These factors should in fact make us approach foreign made chocolate with more caution. Instead, our focus should be to find out manufacturers that ensure great taste while being transparent.

Imported or foreign made chocolates are often expensive and we have learnt to equate expensive with good quality. However, that is not always the case. Many times, these imported chocolates are expensive because of the taxes and duties that are required to be paid for their import and their cost may not be an accurate indicator of quality.

So, foreign does not always mean good. The next time when you make your way to the chocolate section of the super market, don’t pick up a chocolate based only on labels like Belgian or Swiss chocolate or for that matter based on any other country of origin. Instead read the label, pay attention to the ingredients, purchase mindfully and choose ethically.

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