Love chocolate? Discover how to feel full of beans on this non-stop choc-focused tour of the planet.
Belgians love chocolate almost as much as they love beer – which is to say, a lot. And it’s not just any old chocolate: the Belgians are proud of quality and innovation, and Flanders in particular boasts some of the planet’s finest and most imaginative chocolatiers. Look out for Hans Burie’s flamboyant creations in Antwerp and Laurent Gerbaud’s Orient-inspired offerings in Brussels. Both Bruges and Brussels boast museums where you can learn more about the history and production of chocolate.
Next time you munch a bar of Dairy Milk, think of Tetteh Quarshie. Who? The man who planted the first cacao seeds in Ghana, germinating the agricultural industry that made Ghana the primary cocoa exporter for most of the 20th century. You can visit Ghana’s first cocoa plant at Quarshie’s farm, and learn about chocolate production at the Tafo Cocoa Research Institute near Koforidua.
In the beginning there was the pod, and the pod was good... Way before Columbus got lost on his way to the East Indies, the Maya and Aztecs of Central America were tucking into xocolatl and kukuh – bitter, spiced drinks concocted from cacao beans. Today, the cacao growers of Belize’s southern Toledo district have received a new lease of life thanks to Green & Black’s chocolate, whose Maya Gold bars are based on the ancient kukuh recipe. Arrange to visit a plantation to see the plants, taste fresh-picked beans and experience chocolate as 'pod' intended – through the Toledo Cacao Growers Association (if you're able to plan it, get there for the cacao festival, on from 20-22 May 2011).
Purists know that the rarest and finest of the three varieties of cocoa bean is the criollo - chocolate snobs lovingly describe its lingering aftertaste as featuring vanilla, caramel and nuts. Venezuela, and specifically the Paria Peninsula – known as the 'Chocolate Coast' – is the origin of the most sought-after criollos, chuao and porcelana. The best are grown on small family-run farms, such as Hacienda Bukare, which you can visit (and where, more importantly, you can get samples!).
Bournville, Birmingham, England
It’s not quite Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory (where are the Oompa-Loompas?), but Birmingham’s Cadbury World feeds the need in us all to drool over big vats of brown liquid loveliness and watch naked bars whizz through wrapping machines. Take the tour, taste the goods and go wild in the World’s Biggest Cadbury Shop. Yum.
Ever since Duke Filiberto introduced the sweet Aztec drink he’d discovered on his conquistadoring in the late 16th century, the city’s been mad for all things cocoa. Chocolate shops are numerous (and top-notch) along the grand boulevards and piazzas. Pop into Guido Gobino’s emporium (Via Cagliari, 15b) for a true taste of Turin – the man is a master of the gianduja, a sensational hazelnut-chocolate combo that’s been the culinary symbol of the city since its invention in 1867. Turin’s three-week chocolate festival, CioccolaTò, is held every March.
This compact nation has the highest per-capita chocolate consumption in the world, and has spawned some of the most famous makers: Lindt, Nestlé, Suchard and Toblerone all call Switzerland home. For factory fun visit the Nestlé-Calliers site near Gruyères (free samples included!), or for handmade pralines and top truffles try one of the Sprüngli outlets – the company has been crafting cocoa since 1836.
Hershey, Pennsylvania, USA
Welcome to the self-declared Sweetest Place on Earth! This chocolate-scented town, HQ of the Hershey’s empire, is a US institution and has spawned a whole resort of chocothemed entertainment. Sip choc martinis in a Hershey-themed restaurant and slap your picture on a chocolate bar at Hershey’s Chocolate World before being smeared with therapeutic cocoa at the Hershey’s Chocolate Spa. Sweet.
Drive from Grenada’s capital St George’s through the misty, monkey-swung highland forests of Grand Etang National Park and you’ll eventually reach remote Hermitage St Patrick’s – home to arguably the best chocolate in the world. The minuscule Grenada Chocolate Company produces award-winning bars and cocoa in the most ethical fashion: beans are grown, picked, processed and packed in the onsite factory-cum-family-abode; the electricity is solar-powered and the business a local cooperative, directly benefiting those on the doorstep.
Chocoholics, you’ve found your heaven. First, check out the top-end goods – a visit to one of Robert Linxe’s Maison du Chocolat stores will start you drooling. Then stop for refreshment at a chocolate cafe before booking in at the Lenôtre Culinary School for a cocoa cooking-class. And, if you've timed your trip at the right time, sample the chocolate demonstrations, fashion shows and sculptures of the Salon du Chocolat festival.
This article was updated in Jan 2012.