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Architect And Economist Find Sweet Spot In Swiss Chocolate Market

Idilio chocolate bars
Idilio chocolate bars
Véronique Zbinden

BASEL — Niklaus Blumer is an architect by training, and his partner Pascal Wirth is an economist. These two men from the Swiss city of Basel are the unlikely creators of Idilio Origins, a brand that specializes in pure, designated-origin Grand Cru chocolate. They tell of prospecting in Latin America in search of a cacao evocative of pre-Colombian sacred tradition.

They arrived in a village in the state of Aragua on the Venezuelan Atlantic Coast, gringo-style: hands in pockets, tanned complexions, self-assured. The pair wanted to know if the farmers had any beans for sale. “We introduced ourselves as Swiss chocolate makers, but in fact it didn’t take them long to figure us out, as we’d never seen a cacao tree in our lives,” Blumer says, dissolving into laughter. That was 10 or so years ago, and in view of how far the young brand Idilio has come, they are completely justified in laughing about those early days.

Since 2011, Idilio’s single-origin certified chocolate has earned the highest accolades from the International Academy of Chocolate, and garnered praise from the bible of chocolate connoisseurs, Der Schokoladentester.

Quest for the sacred cacao

It would be easy to take these two entrepreneurs, whom we met in their bright Basel offices, for ineffectual dreamers. Niklaus Blumer is a plump talkative jokester, and Pascal Wirth is tall, dark and sporty, a man of few words. Both come from a world of numbers, where coefficients, curves and concrete volumes are calculated. But they now tell tales worthy of Tintin and the Picaros: cargo loads of cacao beans vanishing into thin air, smuggling and bribery, and FARC guerrillas.

They used to be involved with construction and engineering projects, some of them pretty major, such as the Red Bull Arena in Leipzig, but they were destined to pursue their shared passion for life’s finer things. “Ten years ago, you couldn’t find good Swiss dark chocolate,” Blumer says. “There was nothing for it but to make it ourselves.”

That meant learning all there was to know about chocolate. They started from scratch, reading, trying things, failing, trying again, and finally taking courses intended for plantation owners that was organized by a Venezuelan cooperative. Spending time exploring, they patiently established a network. “We said we were going to produce the best chocolate in the world, exclusively from Grand Cru single-origin beans, and for that we had to find the rarest cacaos.”

One speaks of the origin and vintage of beans in the same way one speaks of the vineyards and grape varieties of wine. The well-known criollo, the finest variety of cacao bean, is a legacy of pre-Colombian civilizations and is a sacred foodstuff that has all but disappeared. When it is found, it is often blended with a more robust bean variety, trinitario. In recent decades, a great deal of effort has been aimed, above all, at increasing profitability through the selection of resistant hybrids that are productive, but often not terribly flavorful.

The forastero variety, for example, is robust but lacks finesse. Even so, it now dominates most of the plantations, especially in Africa, while fine cacao beans represent less than 5% of global production. Venezuela has managed largely to escape this trend, though, because it has not adopted the hybrid model. There, varieties (or crus) that have remained genetically close to their Mayan origins — though are five times less productive — can still be found. GuasarAndin, the “queen of cacao,” and the criolloporcellana, previously thought to be extinct, are among the 10 gems unearthed by the two Swiss men in Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador.

Idilio Origins is now available in 10 or so kinds of bars: dense and concentrated, numbered and named according to their origin, to be savored a little piece at a time.

“It all began with our theory about hills,” Blumer explains. “The terroir and cacao variety are vital, but so are the farming methods.” Hillside plantations must be open, with sufficient warmth and wind, and they need daily rainfall that drains easily along with guaranteed shade. “We are now working with 50 or so producers, eight or 10 for each cacao variety, each of whom we know personally,” Blumer says. “All are paid well above market rates.”

Blumer spends at least two months in the field every year, visiting all the producers and attending to issues of storage and transport, which can be a headache to navigate. As was prospecting the mountain area in Colombia held by FARC guerillas. “We produce exactly what we want, and we follow the progress of each stage,” he says. They have to know the best time to harvest, the ideal length of time for fermenting and drying the cacao beans, and how long and what temperature are ideal for roasting. Chocolate making has these types of considerations in common with wine production, which is an equally complex process.

Luxurious little square

In terms of recipes, the purer the chocolate, the fewer ingredients that are necessary. There is no lecithin or vanilla in Idilio bars, for example. There is only cacao — at 65% to 75% — and cane sugar. Of course, you get what you pay for. A single bar costs between 6.5 and 12 Swiss francs ($7-$13), the price of a little square of luxury.

In 2011, the Academy of Chocolate in London got it right in awarding a gold medal to the AmiariMeridena bar, a silver to FincaTorres and the bronze to two other bars. The Idilio brand is exported, in particular, to Scandinavia, the Netherlands and France, and can be found — with some difficulty — in French-speaking Switzerland, for example in Carouge at the tea shop Betjeman & Barton.

The boys from Basel never rest, it seems, as they hint that they will soon be offering chocolate to drink. And even — wait for it — milk chocolate. In the land of Daniel Peter and the Milka cow, finally a return to origins.

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