Recently, I introduced you to a shrine to carbohydrate splendor, Boulange rie-Patisserie-Confiserie Taillens in Crans-Montana, Switzerland. It’s now time to talk chocolate and meet Nicolas Taillens, the creative genius now at the helm of the award-winning family business.
Ingredients for success
Swiss youngsters often venture abroad, learning new skills and honing those acquired in their homeland, particularly in oenology and culinary arts. These new skills and exposure to different cultures are key ingredients for success in a family business where ideas can become stale. Nicolas Taillens was one of those adventuresome young Swiss whose passion for his artistic craft took him to distant shores — and kitchens.
Although Nicolas holds an economics degree from Lausanne University, he followed his grandparents and parents into the world of pastry and bread. The world-famous Confiserie Spruengli in Zurich provided a stellar opportunity for an apprenticeship in pastry and confections. Next, Nicolas ventured to Schoenried, near Gstaad, for another apprenticeship — this time as a baker at Backerei Wehren. Pastry, confections and bread. Apprenticeships in the three pillars of Taillens’ product line were crucial parts of Nicolas’ training outside the family business.
Jobs in London and Singapore and one aboard Cunard’s ship, Vistafjord, rounded Nicolas’ experience away from Valais. After four years of apprenticeships and five years abroad, Nicolas headed home in 1998 to take his place in the family business.
Family of passionate artisans
Despite success and the passage of time, Taillens remains a strong family owned and operated business. Nicolas (CEO and head of production) and his sister Sylvie (sales director) comprise Taillens’ third generation. Their father Reto (board vice president) and uncle Guido (board president) expanded Berthe and Oscar Taillens’ boulangerie into a patisserie, confiserie and tea room, setting the stage for Nicolas and Sylvie to continue to grow the business.
Although officially retired, Nicolas’ mom, Marie Claire, still works during Christmas and high season. His father Reto continues to be a smiling, gregarious fixture in the Montana shop. Even Sylvie’s husband, Pasquale Palumbo, is a member of Taillens’ management team, responsible for crucial components of the successful business model — service and the two tea rooms where patrons can savor Taillens’ sweet creations in a congenial atmosphere.
So there’s the family. Let’s now look at Nicolas’ own stamp on the family business — chocolate.
How chocolate became Swiss
Nicolas is part of an industry with a rich heritage woven into the fabric of Swiss culture.
Before we explore Nicolas’ world of chocolate, let’s look at some snippets of Swiss chocolate history to put it all in context.
In 1697, upon returning from a trip to Brussels, Zurich Mayor Heinrich Escher, introduced chocolate to Switzerland. Although nothing close to today’s heavenly formulations, this rudimentary chocolate was considered an indulgence and believed to be an aphrodisiac.
Twenty-five years later, chocolate went underground after the Zurich city council banned the decadently delicious, pleasurable food of the gods. It’s amazing considering Zurich is now the chocolate world’s epicenter, where one can find every type of handmade or mass produced chocolate.
Centuries passed with Phillippe Suchard (1797-1884), Henri Nestle (1814-1890), Daniel Peter (1836-1919) and Rudolphe Lindt (1855-1909) and their chocolate pioneering peers developing processes to improve the taste and production of chocolate. Although chocolate’s roots are planted in places like Belgium and Italy, it was the genius of these Swiss men that enabled the dark, bitter and gritty concoction’s transformation into the velvety delight that today is an integral part of Switzerland’s identity.
Today, Swiss chocolate artisans toil at their labor of love in famous brands’ factories and in over 300 confectionery and pastry shops across the Alpine country. One of those shops where Swiss chocolate-making traditions are revered is Boulangerie-Patisserie-Confiserie Taillens.
Love at first bite
Nicolas’ love affair with the cocoa bean blossomed in early childhood with his first bite of chocolate. Today, Nicolas finds transforming over 4,400 pounds of chocolate into a myriad of chocolate delights each year a fascinating aspect of his already fascinating job. Nicolas uses the marriage of natural products to create addictive chocolates. It’s the endless possibilities of new products that Nicolas loves so much about his job. Certainly he is never bored.
Nicolas enjoys making and eating their “very Swiss” milk chocolate with caramelized hazelnuts. I’ve indulged in it, savoring each luscious morsel. But it’s making truffles — “the Rolls-Royce” of chocolate — he enjoys the most.
Taillens’ handmade truffles begin with ganache. The creamy mixture used for fillings, glazes and icing, is made from melting finely chopped chocolate in boiled heavy cream then rapidly stirring to emulsify the chocolate and cream. It may seem simple, but it’s a complex scientific process that yields the perfectly blended mixture found inside Taillens’ truffles.
Flavorings such as caramel, champagne, cognac, fruit liqueurs and Fleur de Sel de Guerande are added to the satiny smooth chocolate-cream. Regardless of the flavorings employed, each Taillens truffle explodes with flavor once it finds a home in an appreciative buyer’s mouth. Personally, I believe it’s a mortal sin to bite a truffle. Just pop it in your mouth and let it melt slowly while you savor the ever-changing flavors and textures.
Although ganache can be hand rolled, Nicolas prefers to use molds to achieve uniform confectionery balls. Regardless of whether hand rolled or placed in a mold, rolling or dipping them in dark, milk or white chocolate helps achieve the magic of a truffle — irresistible, delicious taste!
Truffle making appears so simple, yet chocolate truffle perfection requires mastery of technique and superior ingredients. In keeping with Taillens’ philosophy of utilizing local products to the extent possible, Nicolas uses only Swiss chocolates — Lindt or Felchlin — for their housemade confections. No doubt, the milk comes from nearby dairies. It’s a totally Swiss product.
Across the globe, people usually celebrate birthdays that end in zero with parties, special purchases or trips. Three years ago, with three friends, Nicolas celebrated his 40th birthday at the Academy of Chocolate near Paris. His goal? Create a dream chocolate from scratch.
While there, the Swiss chocolatiers tasted more than 50 cocoa beans from around the world, each with different taste, bitterness and texture. They threw caution to the wind and experimented with a variety of cocoa bean mixtures before arriving at the perfect blend of Venezuelan, Ecuadorian and Ghanaian beans.
The arduous process of repeatedly making chocolate, melting then working it before cooling then tasting finally was over. The resulting chocolate’s aromatic and fruity taste with a slight bitterness to prolong its finish was shockingly delicious. They appropriately named this chocolate, now sold in Taillens’ shops, “Etat de Choc” (state of shock).
You cannot find Taillens’ chocolates on a mail order website. Only through a few loyal clients do the chocolates leave the Haut Plateau. Perhaps global scarcity is good as it preserves the special nature of the brand. In a world where once-unique brands like Hermes and Tiffany’s are ubiquitous, enjoying handmade chocolates at the source is infinitely more delightful than opening a cardboard FedEx box thousands of miles away.
I hope you enjoyed our visit with the Taillens. Their oasis in a world of over-processed food and impersonal service is worth the trip to Valais. Don’t miss the opportunity to experience their “pleasure in making pleasure for you.”
Suzanne Hoffman is a freelance writer specializing in food, wine and travel. Her blogs are www.suziknowsbest.com and www.winefamilies.com. Email comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.