When it comes to chocolate, few countries are as well known as Switzerland and Belgium. Chocolates with the countries’ names attached are generally associated with quality, despite the obvious fact that neither country grows its own cocoa. The reason why all comes down to manufacturing history (and the marketing budgets of powerful companies).
The Swiss chocolate and Belgian chocolate names aren’t as protected in international markets as other famous European foods. You can’t call a sparkling wine Champagne unless it’s produced in Champagne, France, or a cheese Parmigiano-Reggiano unless it’s made in a specific region in Italy. Swiss and Belgian chocolates lack similar European Union legal backing. That doesn’t mean either lacks distinct stylistic qualities, though, as businesses have banded together to set standards. So what exactly is the difference between Swiss chocolate and Belgian chocolate?
Signature style: Smooth milk chocolate bars with little bitterness made using Swiss milk.
How it came to be: The origin of modern Swiss chocolate dates back to 1819 when François-Louis Cailler opened a production facility in Corsier. Today, it’s the oldest Swiss chocolate brand. In terms of overall style attributed to Swiss chocolate, however, credit goes to two people: Daniel Peter and Rodolphe Lindt.
Peter started a factory in Vevey in 1867. He was the first to make a solid milk chocolate bar in 1875 using condensed milk from a nearby Vevey factory run by Henri Nestlé (yes, that Nestlé). Lindt opened his chocolate factory in Berne in 1879 and is responsible for inventing a process called “conching.” A conche is used in the production process to warm the beans as they’re ground and evenly distribute the cocoa butter. You can thank conching for the melt-in-your-mouth quality of chocolate. These two inventions define Swiss chocolate to this day.
Chocosuisse, founded in 1901, is the organization that protects the interest of Swiss chocolate manufacturers from companies abroad that try to use the label “Swiss chocolate.” Swiss law allows food to be branded as Swiss if at least 80 percent of the food by weight is from Switzerland, and the main manufacturing is done in the country, according to the international legal publication Lexology. Ingredients that can’t grow in Switzerland like cacao aren’t included in that weight calculation. According to Chocosuisse, a product can only be described as Swiss chocolate if it’s “ready-conched chocolate or chocolate mass entirely manufactured in Switzerland using cocoa beans or cocoa mass, cocoa butter, sugar and milk as the case may be.”
Signature style: High-cocoa dark chocolate, particularly chocolate truffles and pralines.
How it came to be: Belgian chocolate producers pull from influences around the world, and there are many types of Belgian chocolate. Unlike Switzerland, Belgium held colonies abroad, and its chocolate history starts in the 19th century with its colonization of Congo.
The country reached international chocolate acclaim in 1912 with the praline, a hard chocolate shell with soft chocolate inside. It was invented by Jean Neuhaus, a Swiss chocolatier living in Brussels at the time. The country’s chocolate reputation grew from there as companies like Neuhaus, Godiva, and Leonidas innovated new ways to make a variety of high-quality pralines, bonbons, truffles, and other styles.
Choprabisco, the country’s association of chocolate manufacturers, created the Belgian Chocolate Code to protect the Belgian chocolate name in 2007. While it doesn’t have any legal power, it sets criteria for how chocolate bars and other products can be made, according to the European literature publication Econstor. The association states that all mixing, refining, and conching be done in Belgium.
It wasn’t the most popular decision, even among companies considered quintessentially Belgian. Godiva, now owned by a Turkish company, said in 2013 that the Belgian Chocolate Code is restrictive. A statement published by Reuters from the company said that Godiva chocolates made in countries like the US “are still essentially Belgian, in the same way that one might think of a BMW made in South Carolina as still essentially a German car.”