Bonus at Ballenberg (hint: it’s chocolate)
We recently celebrated Switzerland’s 719th birthday with the ultimate of Swiss adventures… biking in the Alps, a picnic with plenty of cheese and local fruit (cherries, nectarines, berries), a traditional breakfast table with Birchermüesli, fresh breads like Zopf and Gipfeli (Swiss croissants), dried meats and more cheese. Throw in an Alphorn, some yodeling, a day tracing Switzerland’s architectural history at Ballenberg and more. Yet even with all of that, I knew you would sense that there was something missing. And many of you put your finger on it right away. Chocolate.
Time to rewind a bit to an absolute story book village, as charming as they come, right on the Rhine River. (And coincidentally, that’s back to another anniversary weekend last year.) Even the gray blanket of clouds that day didn’t take away from the beauty of Stein am Rhein, a medieval town less than an hour north of Zürich and but a hop, skip and jump from the German border. We strolled through the few streets, admiring the frescoes and signs, the latter which reminded me of Appenzell‘s streets.
I found myself in the town’s chocolate store (shocking, I know), a tiny shop crammed not only with assorted Swiss chocolate brands, but also with tourists piling bars into their arms. I popped my head in to see what was on the shelves. When you enter, front and center are big plastic bins like you’d see in a self-serve candy store, of individual Toblerone triangles. First time I had ever seen that. Brilliant! I realized this shop needed closer attention. Passing commercial brands as well as elbows in every direction, I came upon a small section with packaging I didn’t recognize. But the name, Ballenberg, I knew; that was Switzerland’s open-air museum I had wanted to visit since moving to Zürich. They do chocolate? So I looked closer. At which point I needed to tell my patient husband waiting outside that this was not going to be a “quick peek inside.” No surprise there either.
Fleur de sel. Pistache salée. Caramel. Nougat Croquant. Before I knew it, I had 8 bars in my hands. I normally just buy one bar of a new brand to test it out. But instinct told me, very simply, “take more.” The whole premise of Ballenberg, its artisanal nature, getting to the core of origin and quality, led me to believe it couldn’t be all that bad. So I went for it. To only later regret buying only 4 bars. The chocolate was fantastic. Not in a long time had I reacted so enthusiastically to a bar, perhaps since my first taste of Felchlin years ago. And while many chocolate bars here in Switzerland are simply made with Felchlin or Lindt, I could taste that this was not the case.
Back home in Zürich, I called Marius Bürgisser, the chocolate maker at Ballenberg. I had to find out where I could get my hands on more of his chocolate within walking distance. Ballenberg, was his reply. He works alone there, blending, mixing, melting and molding, not at all interested in huge quantities and selling all throughout Switzerland, let alone in other countries. (The shop in Stein am Rhein happens to be the only other source, simply because of a long-standing relationship he has with the owner.) This only made me appreciate the chocolate more. Fast forward past many email exchanges with his daughter Christine, to a wonderful conversation I recently had with Marius himself, and his friendly wife Marianne, in their shop at the East entrance to Ballenberg. Then zoom in on their impressive collection of chocolate molds, the oldest dating to the 1600’s. On the other side is Marius, who you can watch closely working with the chocolate, as he does almost 7 days a week. You quickly understand why his bars aren’t on the shelves at the local supermarket.
Marius doesn’t work from the cacao beans themselves, rather he receives shipments of the beans already ground from various locations including Venezuela, Madagascar, Ghana, Trinidad and his current favorite, Ecuador. He makes his own blend from the cacao powder, and you can see the chocolate in the conching machine in his shop. From this he makes his impressive range of bars, and even more that I had not seen in Stein am Rhein. They piled up quickly in my arms again. I obviously had to get another Fleur de Sel, and a few Nougat Croquant, not to mention a bar made with Marius’ homemade nougat (below, top right). And is that Cappuccino I see ? I hesitated as it was only made in milk chocolate, not dark, my preference. But I only wish I had gotten several of this bar. Despite its dark appearance from the coffee, it is an incredibly smooth, deep milk chocolate with a full coffee flavor, not bitter or overpowering, and extremely unctuous.
But the Juhumba bar remains my favorite. Salted pistachios in 65% dark chocolate, it is simply a perfect balance of flavors. After grabbing a few of those, I asked about his other specialty, the Ballenbergerli (below, top left and bottom right), the name being a creative spin on Sprüngli’s signature Luxemburgerli macarons. It is a Japanese meringue base (made with nuts) and a layer of delicate praline cream, then dipped in dark chocolate and topped with white chocolate. With a choice of four images on top, I loved that the one I chose happened to be Zürich! The confection is remarkably light.
A picture-perfect historical village, a passionate and devoted artisan and mouth-watering chocolate. I think our Swiss story is complete.
La Chocolaterie du Ballenberg
Marius and Marianne Bürgisser