The bitter-to-sweet story of Swiss chocolate

How two pioneers turned a Mesoamerican aphrodisiac into the world’s best-loved treat. 

Switzerland has an international reputation for producing the highest quality chocolate in the world, making 200,000 tonnes and consuming over 70 million kilos, every year. Like most of the world, the Swiss love their chocolate. But it didn’t always taste so sweet.

The origins of chocolate consumption date back thousands of years, with the oldest known use of cocoa coming from Mesoamerica in 1900 BC, where it was ground up with chillies and consumed as a libido-boosting drink – one sure way to spice up a relationship! In the 16th century chocolate made its way to Europe, where it was consumed primarily for medicinal purposes, or reserved for the privileged few as an aphrodisiac. However, the taste remained bitter and unpleasant. Chocolate was something to be endured, rather than enjoyed.

This all changed in the late 1800s when a Swiss chocolatier named Daniel Peter became friends with his neighbour, Henry Nestlé, who was in the process of creating a milk and flour-based baby food. The ambitious Peter had been wondering for a while how he could have a greater impact on the industry. He wanted to make chocolate more profitable. More desirable. But how? Could Nestlé’s new baby food be just the inspiration he’d been looking for? It was this inspiration and ambition that led him to mix cocoa powder with milk to create the world’s first milk chocolate. In doing this, Daniel Peter had single-handedly turned a bitter love potion into a sweet delicacy.

But the Swiss were not yet done with their chocolate revolution. A few years later, Rudolph Lindt would change the world of chocolate manufacturing once more, with his discovery that when mixed for many hours, cocoa powder would eventually melt. This mixing process turned the product into a much smoother version than had ever been seen before. In developing this new technique, he came up with the ‘conching’ process, which remains an essential component of chocolate making today. Between Lindt’s revolutionary way of blending the ingredients, and Daniel Peter’s new recipe, the milk chocolate we know and love today, was born.

Since its beginnings, and long before the Swiss pioneers made it taste so good, chocolate has been celebrated for its health benefits. It’s high in copper, manganese, and iron and can help lower the blood pressure and boost endorphins. And chocolate may even improve cognitive performance:  according to a 2012 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine, there is a correlation between per capita chocolate consumption and the number of Nobel Prizes awarded to citizens of that country. Could it be that Switzerland’s world-leading consumption of chocolate per capita has something to do with the fact that it also has one of the highest Nobel Prize-per capita ratios in the world?

Now there’s something to think about. So next time you’ve got a big exam, a presentation – or even a romantic date – maybe you should keep some chocolate on hand. And thank the Swiss for making it so sweet.