Switzerland without chocolate would be like America without apple pie - inconceivable.
So on this year's bicentennial of Francois-Louis Cailler's birth - the founder of one of the nation's largest chocolate factories - it seemed fitting to indulge in a small investigation of this country's staple confection.
In an admittedly unscientific blind taste test, an informal group of international panelists (consisting of family and friends) compared 10 brands of chocolate from four countries - Switzerland, France, the Netherlands, and the United States.
Swiss chocolate won hands down.
This, perhaps, is in no small part to the long-past efforts of Mr. Cailler, born 100 years ago in Vevey, a small town on Lake Geneva in Switzerland.
Cailler founded his first chocolate company in 1825. He bought a second factory in Vevey, but was forced to sell it because of financial troubles. The buyers were two brothers named Julien and Daniel Peter. Together with Henri Nestl, they went on to invent that most sublime concoction - milk chocolate.
Today, a luscious, finger-licking, 2 million tons of Swiss chocolate is eagerly devoured throughout the world each year, according to Chocosuisse, Switzerland's chocolate manufacturing association.
Switzerland now exports 47 percent, or 60,756 tons of chocolate to 116 countries while the Swiss themselves consume 67,514 tons.
Chocolate bars are the No.1 seller, followed by truffles and candies. Cailler-Nestl holds second place in the Swiss market, and about 13 percent of the world's share.
"We are the No.1 chocolate producer in the world," says Hans-Jorg Renk, Nestl's spokesman. "And Switzerland is the world master in chocolate consumption."
In 1995 the Swiss ate an average of 23.5 pounds of chocolate per person compared with 10.7 pounds for Americans and 3.7 pounds for Japanese.
Chocolate didn't arrive in Europe until the 16th century. Spanish nobles used to drink it with sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla. And the Dutch were the first to extract cocoa butter from cocoa beans in 1828. According to our taste tests, however, they didn't quite figure out how to please the palate.
The Dutch brand Droste ranked second to last in our investigation. The chocolate had a strong aroma, tasted rather bitter, and had a waxy texture.
The chocolate that ranked last came from La Maison du Chocolat in Paris. "Uughhh ... disgusting," said one Swiss-born taster before spitting out the flaky tablet.
On to the Swiss chocolate. Lindt Extra au Lait had a good chocolate smell and excellent taste, but the aftertaste was a bit too sugary.
Suchard's Double Cream milk chocolate bar lived up to its name. Smooth and sweet, nothing more.
Then came the milk chocolate from Milka. Faint traces of chocolate whispered through the cascade of cream that coated the mouth. Fine for someone who wants an overload of calcium.
Finally, just when the tasters were on the verge of striking came the winner. Unbeknown to the tasters, it was Cailler, the inspiration for this investigation. Wrapped in lavender paper, this is the chocolate to coat your dreams. Its seductive tones hit the perfect chord of cocoa, milk, and sugar.
As one American taster swooned, "Eating it, I picture big vats of chocolate constantly being stirred." Slightly tart, but with a pleasant aftertaste, this is what you want when you must have chocolate.
So what makes Swiss chocolate so special?
Partly it's that melt-in-your-mouth quality. Cocoa butter, like butter and mayonnaise, stays solid at room temperature. It has a melting point just below body temperature. But if that's the case, why doesn't anyone bother sending mayonnaise to his sweetheart on Valentine's Day?
More likely, it has a lot to do with the length of time beans are roasted, ground, and conched - the process of grinding cocoa beans between rollers, says Andreas Pfluger, marketing director for Kilchberg-based Lindt-Sprungli. Swiss chocolate is conched for up to 96 hours. American chocolate may be conched for as little as four to five.
Perhaps that explains why a Hershey bar has an almost cardboard appearance, a gritty texture, and a somewhat unpleasant aftertaste.
But Peter Leathwood, a researcher for Nestl, thinks other forces are at work. When chocolate, milk, and sugar are blended in just the right way, it triggers a sensation similar to being in love.
White and Dark Chocolate Truffles
8 ounces semisweet chocolate broken into pieces
3 tablespoons heavy cream
For the milk and white chocolate coating:
8 ounces milk chocolate broken into pieces
8 ounces white chocolate broken into pieces
Melt semisweet chocolate in a bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water. Stir in cream until evenly blended, stirring constantly so chocolate doesn't become grainy. Allow to cool to room temperature and set.
Line a tray with wax paper.
Spoon the semifirm chocolate mixture into thumb-sized pieces and place on tray. Cool in refrigerator. When firm, roll into 18 balls and return them to the refrigerator.
Melt the milk chocolate as above. Take a few of the chilled chocolate balls from the refrigerator. (Keep others cool so they won't soften.)
Using a fork, dip one ball at a time into melted chocolate to coat, and leave to set on sheet of waxed paper. Place in miniature cupcake papers and keep in a cool, dry place.
To make 18 white-chocolate coated truffles, follow instructions above. However, repeated coatings in white chocolate are necessary to keep the dark centers from showing through.
Turn any leftover chocolate into a wax- paper-lined bowl and chill to be used again.
Or, if you just can't wait, dip nuts, strawberries, kiwi, pretzels, or orange slices, or apricots into melted chocolate, place on waxed paper, and chill to harden in the refrigerator.