I inspect the little chocolate mountain, its green peak flavoured with absinthe – the anise-tasting spirit that was once thought to drive people insane, and gingerly take a bite. The liquor turns out to be subtle and smooth, another delicious find at the sumptuous Salon du Chocolat in Zurich, which featured treats made with honey, cardamom, violets and even hay.
For an entrance fee of 15 Swiss francs ($16.50), visitors to the fair can sample and purchase truffles and pralines from some of the finest chocolatiers from Switzerland, Belgium and France. (When it comes to the quantity of the samples, think wine tasting rather than candy store.)
This paradise for chocoholics, founded 18 years ago in Paris, attracts more than one million visitors a year. The fair gives them a chance to indulge their sweet tooth, discover new chocolatiers and pick up some cooking tips from chefs at posh hotels and restaurants. For the chocolate makers, it's a perfect place to advertise and sell their delicacies.
The Salon du Chocolat tours around the world to more than a dozen cities, from well-established chocolate capitals like Paris to markets that are just discovering the wonders of luxury truffles, such as Shanghai. This year was the first time the fair was held in Switzerland, home to some of the world's best-known chocolate brands, such as Nestlé and Lindt. (There are no plans as of yet, unfortunately, to bring the fair to Canada.)
Its success is no secret, according to co-founder Sylvie Douce. "Around the world, everyone eats chocolate," she said. "It's a real societal phenomenon for lots of reasons because chocolate is good for the health, it's good for the mood, it's a cultural product, and an accessible luxury."
Ms. Douce and her husband started the Salon du Chocolat in 1994, sensing that chocolate was about to become more popular as stress levels increased with a more rapid pace of life. At that time, an artisan chocolate maker wasn't viewed as a viable profession. This outlook has since changed as people develop a deeper appreciation of chocolate.
"Chocolates have become citizens of the world," Ms. Douce said. For example, European chocolatiers have taken a cue from the Japanese when it comes to making their packaging more attractive. And chocolatiers around the world have been inspired to experiment with new flavours, spices and fruits, she explained.
The chocolates at the Zurich fair were far from your average milk-chocolate bar (which the Swiss invented). Take Switzerland's Nobile Cioccolato, which featured mouth-watering combinations such as acacia honey, rosemary and figs, and coffee with cardamom. My favourites were the simple, smooth hay praline and another with the intriguing, slightly spicy flavour of nutmeg flowers.
Nobile Cioccolato co-founder Willi Schmutz said the challenge in making chocolates is not just putting the spices and flavours in the chocolates but finding the right mix.
Fellow chocolate maker Pascal Beschle has a similar philosophy. Beschle – a Swiss family-owned confectioner that is more than 100 years old – started exporting its chocolate a few years ago, sensing that there was a growing market for luxury Swiss chocolate worldwide. Sales director Roger Greiner said the secret is to keep the combinations harmonious, as in the absinthe chocolate.
Its newest creation is called Lassi, inspired by the Indian beverage, made from white chocolate, yogurt, cardamom and lemon. I love the drink, so I had to try the chocolate. It's perfect for the summer: The chocolate is light and creamy with a lemon kick at the end that explodes in your mouth.
But it's not just about the taste. Decoration is no longer just for Easter eggs as chocolate makers embellish their creations with floral patterns and stripes. France's Fleur de Xocoatl has taken the art of chocolate making to lofty heights with exquisite paintings of white swans and ballerinas in pink tutus on its handmade chocolates.
"It has to make people dream," owner Fleur Jérusalémy said.
Chocolatiers are fortunate as chocolate appears to be one of the few small luxuries that people are loath to give up even in these difficult economic times. French chocolate maker Christophe Roussel's customers are still buying, just in smaller amounts. So the chocolate maker has introduced smaller packages of favourites, such as its lip-shaped chocolates flavoured with raspberry, yuzu juice and salted caramel (the latter flavour has gone from trendy to classic).
Much as with wine, luxury-chocolate fans are now interested in the ingredient's so-called terroir, differences in taste forged by the land or weather in a specific region, Ms. Douce said. Some chocolate makers even go to a cocoa plantation to pick the beans themselves. The trend began in France, and is spreading to Japan and Italy.
Some chocolate makers, such as Belgium's Just Chocolate, give elaborate descriptions of the origins of their chocolate. The one from Papua New Guinea, for example, has a "bouquet of tobacco" and "sheer touch of mushroom," according to Just Chocolate.
"It's very elitist, very trendy," Ms. Douce said.
Special to The Globe and Mail