21 August 2009
The Chocolate Train in Montreux
When you think Swiss what is the first thing you think of? Could it be chocolate? Or maybe it’s cheese? Or maybe mountains and railroads? Bring them all together into an excursion on a first class Pullman car and you have the Chocolate Train.
Leaving from the station in Montreux from June through October this train will take you on a scenic tour to both Gruyères, a wonderful castle town famous for it’s distinctly flavorful cheese, and Broc, the home of the Cailler chocolate factory famous for it’s delicious Swiss Chocolate. As Lausanne is only a short train ride from Montreux I set aside a day of last summer's vacation for this Swiss adventure and reserved a seat on the Pullman car in advance. I don't know what took me so long to write about it but looking through photos on a gray summer morning I am still enchanted with the experience.
On a Wednesday morning I showed up in Montreux bright and early. The transfer was simple. The GoldenPass Scenic trains leave from platform 6 at the Montreaux station. The Chocolate Train was at the platform and loading when I arrived.
I boarded and settled into my comfortably upholstered seat. A train attendant came by, checked my ticket and asked my first language. Soon we were on our way and the train began to climb through the scenic vineyards above Lake Geneva.
After a relatively steep ascent offering lovely views of the lake and the mountains beyond, the train began to wind its way through the mountains toward the town of Gruyères.
On the way we were served a breakfast of coffee or hot chocolate, a chocolate filled Croissant and a sample of Cailler chocolate miniatures. It was a pleasant breakfast and a taste of what was to come.
In Gruyères the train stopped at La Maison du Gruyère beside a field of docile black and white cows gently clanging their Swiss cowbells in a musical way as they grazed.
We made our way past the cows, into the cheese factory and up the stairs where an exhibition was laid out. There an audio guide explained how cheese is made, from the cows peacefully grazing on mountainside meadows to the factory process we were able to view through plexiglass.
I found the tour surprisingly informative. I liked the way it engaged the senses of sight, smell and hearing in a simple presentation that was interesting and memorable. I especially enjoyed the tubes that allowed you to smell the aromas from the high pastures where the cows grazed. It encouraged experiencing the distinct organic notes that are transformed by cow and factory into the complex flavour of the finished cheese.
After the factory tour we were taken by bus up the mountain to the picturesque castle town of Gruyères. As our bus unloaded and we entered this beautiful town I was enchanted. While I will admit it seemed a bit touristy the town was also sparkling and beautiful. There, the one street within the town walls was lined with restaurants eager to accommodate those among us who wanted to taste the local products. Tables spilled out of the restaurants onto the cobbled walkways and the scent of cheese permeated the air.
As I walked by restaurant after restaurant and tourist shop on my way to the castle I did see the occasional local citizen ignoring the crowd and going about their business in these pleasant surroundings. In the midday light this town was a symphony of sunshine, cobblestones and beautiful doors.
I didn’t expect a lot from the castle in Gruyères. It wasn't all that highly recommended in my guidebooks. Still, I love castles and while I was in such close proximity to one I had no problem choosing to forgo lunch in favor of seeing the castle for myself. I thought the tour was likely to be short and I would get it out of the way early and find some time to loiter in the town before the bus came back to get us.
To my surprise the Château de Gruyères turned out to be fabulous! Reluctantly I skipped the recommended movie portraying the history of the castle and instead set out to wander the ramparts.
There were ramparts around the gardens with views of the mountains. There were paths to wander through the formal gardens and a courtyard that led to an exhibit of medieval music and instrument making as well as a self guided tour of the well-appointed castle. From the windows in the gorgeously decorated rooms were views of the beautiful lush countryside in all directions. There were also legends and history, deep window seats, a huge banquet table, significant paintings, tales of the life of the privileged and even a severed hand. Interesting and exciting stuff in my book.
I finished my tour just a short time before the bus was due and hurried down the hill to take a look at the church. Then I walked to the entrance to the town past café after café where tourists were finishing their lunch. The smell of Swiss cheese permeated the air from the traditional fare of Rösti, Fondue and Raclette which were prominent on the menus posted by the doorways. I grabbed a quick ice cream bar and a drink to take the edge off my sacrifice of lunch and found a place in the shade to enjoy it while waiting for the bus to arrive and take us back to the train.
Our next stop on the Chocolate Train was Broc. Broc is famous for its Cailler chocolate factory. It is now owned by Nestlé but maintains its original brand name to highlight the distinctive quality of its chocolate making process. Cailler, we were told on our tour, makes milk chocolate using milk from local sources that is condensed in a special way rather than using dried milk powder as most other manufacturers do.
During the tour our guide offered lots of interesting information rather quickly but we saw very little of the chocolate making process. We were taken through a dimly lit room housing large quantities of cacao beans where our guide explained that these beans are very bitter and invited us to try one.
Then she explained that Cacao is grown in South America and Africa. While South American beans tend to offer more subtlety of flavor, African beans are generally used in making milk chocolate because of the greater consistency in their taste. Since I had recently read about the production of artisanal chocolate in Stef’s fabulous interview with Art Pollard of Amano Chocolate, I had some background information on chocolate production and found this short talk very interesting.
Next we entered an interactive room where videos could be run to answer questions about chocolate making. I soon grew tired of the dark room and moved on to the highlight of the tour – the tasting room!
In the tasting room were samples of all of Cailler’s chocolate products carefully arranged on mirrored trays and placed on counters displaying packaged Cailler products. The tour included unlimited samples. The only rule was that all samples chosen had to be consumed in the room and could not be carried out.
I gravitated toward the dark chocolate samples, especially those of Cailler’s ambassadors noir. They were delicious but, I must confess, I only managed to eat three or four pieces before I had to move on. The smell of chocolate was intense enough to satisfy the senses with scarcely a bite taken.
Beyond the tasting room were displays of old chocolate making equipment, conchers, an antique evaporation tank and others. There was also a theater showing a movie that featured the factory process and a shop to purchase what were promised to be factory fresh Cailler products. I bought my share to bring home as souvenirs and walked back to the train station for our scenic ride home.