It takes more than a year to make Zurich’s finest truffle, yet less than a second to eat one. I’m thinking this as I eye another – one filled with a cognac-steeped grape and encased in a ruffled nest of dark chocolate in the wonderfully unmodernised Confiserie Honold in the city’s Old Town.
It’s a classic old-time atelier, the air a delicious mix of raisin, toffee and vanilla. The marble counter is topped with bell-shaped cloches under which sit all sorts of chocolates: truffles with tamarind and muscovado sugar, margarita and caipirinha-instilled candies, bite-size layers of tonka bean and gold leaf. I take my time. There is no rush, I think. The diet and exercise routine are on hold and deciding not to worry about my waistline while I’m here is the ultimate in foodie bliss.
Never much of a one for Lent, I’ve come to Zurich, hallowed ground of Swiss chocolate. The city may have its cultural hotspots (it’s outstanding art gallery, the Kunsthaus, is one of them), but this isn’t where you’ll find the long queues. Instead, lines of fans form outside the chocolate shops. It would be no exaggeration to say it’s the most exciting craft chocolate destination on the planet. Handily, it’s the perfect appetiser on the way to the Alps’ snowfields for a calorie-burning ski trip, too.
I begin where most dinners end, with petit fours, accompanied on my hunt for Zurich’s best by fanatical chocolate guide Stephanie Greiner. “You’ll never touch a Lindor again,” she says matter-of-factly, and even goes as far as trashing Toblerone. “We’ve a lot to sample today, so you’ll learn fast.”
Every chocolatier has a story to tell here, but some are better than others. Confiserie Honold, our first stop, created the world’s first cherry kirsch baton nearly a century ago. Läderach, on the main street Bahnhofstrasse, specialises in kilo-size slabs, while Teuscher, all Dom Pérignon truffles and gingerbread house design, is harder to find, tucked beneath Lindenhof square, though well worth seeking out.
There are dozens of these shops squirrelled away. Others include Max Chocolatier, beneath St Peter’s Church and the largest clock face in Europe. Go marvel at the extravagance of its menu. Hello, pistachio marzipan, port wine and caramel. These days, matcha tea and chili are traditional, but almost any flavour works: foie gras had its five minutes two years ago.
Sprüngli is the most accessible, and probably the most expensive, charging around £15 for a tiny box. Some chocolates come fez-topped with a hat of pistachios and sea salt. Come Easter, the shop swells with marble-smooth chocolate bunnies, speckled eggs and baskets, and their pièce de résistance, the oozy Truffe du Jour, a morsel so fresh it’s sold for just 24 hours (£2 each, or £21 for 200g). The most expensive per gram? Prestigious bean-to-bar blocks, made with milk from exclusively hay-fed cows, and boxes of deluxe bonbonnières (effectively hand-picked Thorntons-sized trays of pralines) costing £135.
Only when I’m leaving do I notice the pyramid stack of rainbow-coloured Luxemburgerli, all hot pink, lemon yellow and glinting caramel. Named in the 1950s after a chef from Luxembourg, the pillowy-soft, hamburger-like macaroons are a rite of passage. Outside, I create jealousy among Bahnhofstrasse’s asset managers and bankers with a prime specimen made of black Tahitian vanilla.
Zurich has been the epicentre of Swiss sweet production since Sprüngli and Bernese manufacturer Lindt merged in 1892, and the major brands have long had a foothold in the city. But the boom of the past decade continues to explode across the city. The newest brand – La Flor, above a 100-year-old bakery near Wiedikon station – launched only this month. Its single-farm chocolate from Brazil is spectacular, at £6 a bar.
If you need any indication of how much the scene is changing, then pop into Dieter Meier’s new boutique, Oro de Cacao, opened on the Limmat River in December. Meier, musician and frontman of electro-pop band Yello, has had a new and ambitious idea. “Every manufacturer roasts beans at high temperatures, making the cocoa more bitter,” he tells me, explaining that instead he reverse-engineers the process, using a cold extraction technique to retain 100% of the aromas. “This means we use less sugar – and the cocoa bean isn’t cheated.” The result is something very different to the supermarket chocolate we’re used to: healthier, low on sugar, ideal for the calorie-counting locals who dip into the city’s freshwater lidos at lunchtime.
The heart of the Old Town is the Niederdorf – or Dörfli – a maze of pastel houses with fairytale spires and black-and-white humbug-striped shutters. We walk to H Schwarzenbach, a goods store opened in 1864 where time seems to stand still. Here, you can buy the riches of empire – imported teas, coffees and Grand Cru couverture, as well as chocolate-making ingredients, such as beans from Madagascar, Bolivian cocoa and Mexican butter.
Cabaret Voltaire, opposite, is worth a visit, even if it’s not chocolate-themed. The birthplace of the century-old Dadaist art movement, where artists got together to question the idea of art and celebrate the absurd, there is still a spirit of defiance and quirkiness here; even the walls are papered in expletive-filled, X-rated graphics. It’s a major contrast with the sophistication next door, where customers are dressed to the nines for exquisite afternoon teas at our final tasting destination, Conditorei Péclard im Schober. It’s yet another snug café, this time bathed in the dusted cocoa scent of patisserie art. There are glistening éclairs, delicate chocolatey swirls, cream-piped scones, apple strudels and almond sugar pearls. We order a Schoggi Mélange, a cream-crowned syrupy hot chocolate that has drawn crowds since 1874. We breathe it all in deeply.
The only creeping anxiety? Chocolate may never taste this good again. These shops are temples in their own right, and while some simply make very good truffles, others are seeking out something far more profound, offering us the ultimate in foodie salvation. In times like this, we need their chocolate more than ever.
Way to go
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