Everyone knows that Germans love their beer. But they have anther sweet obsession that flies under the radar: chocolate. In fact, Germans produce and eat more chocolate than any other country in Europe, gobbling up more than three-quarters of a million tonnes a year. And since it’s such a cultural icon, they even have a chocolate museum to honour it.
The Imhoff-Schokoladenmuseum is located in Cologne, and during my Viking cruise of the Rhine this year, I took a few minutes to pay a visit. It wasn’t quite Willy Wonka’s trip to chocolate heaven, but it was as close to Nirvana as most chocolate lovers will get.
The museum is dedicated to Hans Imhoff, the “king of chocolate”, who ran a chocolate company called Stollwerck in Cologne until 2002. It commands a prominent spot on the Rhine waterfront, with a great view of the river and the city beyond. Today, Lindt chocolate is the museum’s partner, and visitors get well acquainted with its product before the tour is over.
First, though, there’s a pretty full exploration of the world of chocolate: what it’s made of, where it comes from, how it’s used, and how crazy some people get about it. Here’s a few fun chocolate facts.
- Chocolate is made from the beans of the cacao tree, which comes from South America but is now grown in places like Africa and Indonesia; that’s a small cacao tree at right.
- People have been making chocolate for at least 4,500 years. The earliest evidence of chocolate making was found in Ecuador, dating from 3300 to 3500 B.C.
- Chocolate contains polyphenols, which are thought to benefit the heart and circulatory system. As well, its unique combination of fats and sugar has particular benefits for women’s health.
- Carl von Linné (a.k.a. Linnaeus), who invented the modern system of naming plant and animal species, recommended chocolate for everything from consumption to depression. He named it Theobroma cacao, or food of the gods.
- Chocolate became such a hit in Europe that 18th-century rulers imposed taxes on it. King Frederick I of Prussia even forced his subjects to buy a state permit in order to get their chocolate fix.
There was a funny story or two, as well. In the Spanish colony of San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico, the aristocratic ladies refused to sit through a long Mass without having hot chocolate brought to them by their maids. The outraged bishop forbade the practice, so the whole congregation defected, leaving the cathedral almost empty on Sunday morning. Ironically, the bishop himself died after eating chocolate.
There’s more information in the chocolate museum than even the biggest chocoholic could want. But the museum isn’t all about learning: it has a real Lindt chocolate factory inside, where you can watch the raw material being turned into the stuff we love to eat. We watched silky brown chocolate running down metal tubes as it went through the refining and tempering process.
And later, we looked on as Lindt chocolates were packaged. A popular attraction was the spot where a mechanical hand sucks up each batch of chocolates and drops them on a square table to go through the wrapping machine.
And there was a little humour as we watched a woman catching the chocolates in foil bags as they came out the other end. At one point, she turned away long enough for the bag to start overflowing, making her scramble back to stuff the chocolates into other bags. I had visions of the production line scene from the old I Love Lucy show, where the chocolates whiz by Lucille Ball as she frantically tries to keep up.
There was also a spot where you could push a button and have a chocolate dropped down a chute, for a little pick-me-up. And if you missed that, there was a girl in a white coat dipping wafers in a chocolate fountain so everyone could have a taste.
If all that whetted your appetite, you could retire to the cafeteria where, in front of a lovely view of the Rhine. you could indulge yourself in all manner of chocolate treats (photo at top). All in all, a fun afternoon at the chocolate museum — and enough time left for the short walk to the mustard museum …