Our next stop on the summer 2017 trip was a stop of almost pure gluttony of two of my favourite things (and my two favourite ‘ch’ words): cheese and chocolate. Gruyères (or Gruyeres I guess in English but I like the accent) in Switzerland (as is much of the area around Lake Geneva) plays host to cheese and chocolate production facilities, specifically producers of Gruyère cheese and all types of chocolate from Maison Cailler.
From Mont Blanc, we drove directly to the town of Gruyères where we camped at the base of the hill (and across the road) on which the castle is located. We arrived early in the afternoon, so we headed over to the Maison Cailler chocolate factory in Broc. Unfortunately, I do not have any pictures of the chocolate factory itself; photos inside are not allowed. Apart from the logo on the outside, the building itself did not look like anything special or different from any other factory. It is still used today to produce chocolate. The consequence of no pictures is that I will have to describe each step in great detail! Strap in, boys and girls.
The tickets for the tour are timed, so you wait until your time comes around and then you begin. The tour is divided into three parts. Rather than having a tour guide, visitors are guided by a series of doors in the first section. The first section is on the history of chocolate. You start with cultivation by the Mayans as a red, bitter, spiritual/religious drink. Then you follow its eventual journey to Europe, the addition of sugar and other ingredients, ending with chocolate that we know today. This section was really quite amazing as it was in 4D. This means it included fragrances (usually chocolate or something similar), which were pumped into the rooms.
The second section about the history of Maison Cailler was in a similar vein but did not include smell. The original founder was already producing chocolate in 1818, making Maison Cailler the oldest Swiss chocolate brand still in existence. After a series of mergers in the early 1900s, Maison Cailler merged with the Nestlé group. They stressed that Nestlé provided the transportation, marketing and logistics that Maison Cailler lacked/lacks; Nestlé did not have input into the creation of the chocolate from Maison Cailler (fortunately for us!). Cailler still falls under the Nestlé group but sells under its own brand with no input to this day.
The third section was the most interactive and the one where I must have gained kilos of weight. This was naturally the physical production side of making chocolate, including unlimited tasting of all ingredients (primarily hazelnuts, cocoa beans, and sugar cane) followed by unlimited (and completely unsupervised) tasting of every type of chocolate that they had on offer. The tour naturally ends in the gift shop, which in addition to expensive prices, was in Swiss Franc (so naturally, extremely expensive), so we didn’t buy anything. However, I think we definitely recuperated the cost of admission.
That evening to work off some of the calories that we had consumed, we had a nice waddle around the Lac de Montsalvens. We started with the stream that runs through a gorge and worked our way to the lake. It was a nice sight to behold in an area surrounded by mountains.
The following day was devoted to the castle and the (Gruyères) cheese factory. We started with the cheese due to times at which different stages of production occurs throughout the day. After the chocolate factory, the cheese experience was a bit of a let down (although very cheap, especially for Swiss standards, so there is always that). The visitors part of the building is very small and contains two rows of informational plaques to look at. The audio guide (from the perspective of a cow describing the conditions under which the milk is produced) rehashes the signs but in a more long-winded and fantastical way. At the beginning, you are also given three small pieces of cheese. These are aged 3 months, 4 months, and 6 months to eat as you are reading (I was surprised as the 3-month cheese tasted very young while the 6 month cheese tasted quite mature. I had always assumed that the ageing process produced flavour in a more linear fashion). Then you continue round to a production room which looks like an aquarium. You stand on one side and production happens on the other side. Apart from the giant mixing vats (which are open to the air), you can’t actually see what is going on. To further complicate the process, the interior of the production side is extremely warm, meaning that condensation forms on the glass and makes it nearly impossible to see anything during several parts of the production (although really you would just be watching mixtures sitting in a vat spinning around or waiting to be pumped into smaller containers for storage and ageing). While you can stay in there for as long as you want, the process becomes very monotonous to watch and we decided to leave after an hour and a half…
…which left more time for the castle! The castle was really more of a fortified home than a castle in the true sense, although it had been upgraded over the centuries to become more of a fortification than the original architect had intended. The castle was quite nice, if small, but had a nice garden and some wonderful views of the surrounding flat areas and the mountains. Unfortunately, there were some modern art exhibits on at the time, which were a bit offputting, and while the rooms of the castle had been done up to resemble how they would have looked during its heyday, modern art pieces were also found in every room and clashed with the decor and design of the building. In other words, all of the nice indoor shots that I had planned were usually ruined by a modern art piece that stuck out like a sore thumb!