From the title, one might think Frey is the hot new spa in town, but in fact it is a chocolate company, and that in and of itself is, of course, fabulous. Like a spa, there was a dress code, but rather than undressing it was covering up, donning hairnets, shoe covers and coats. Not the most fabulous or flattering look but for the chance to see inside the factory, well worth it. It must be noted, however, that our guide, Petra, who was ever so wonderful, somehow did manage to look fabulous in her hairnet. Most definitely unfair, but we were there for the chocolate, not the fashion.
The Frey factory is located in Buchs, Switzerland, about an hour from Basel. The company was founded in 1887 by the Frey brothers Robert and Max, and purchased by Swiss supermarket giant Migros in 1950. This is why all the chocolate you buy in Migros comes from Frey but make no mistake, this is no ordinary supermarket chocolate. It’s wonderful and it is my chocolate of choice these days.
We were greeted with a waft of deep chocolate aroma as we approached the building, and could catch additional bits of it as we wound our way through the labrythn of corridors that gave us a bird’s eye view of the factory floor. At times, the air was almost sickenly sweet, but then we would enter another patch of pure chocolate, and delight in its purity.
We learned all kinds of things, such as that Swiss people eat between 11 and 12 kilograms of chocolate per year; that Easter is the busiest time; and that if you buy posh “Swiss Chocolate” outside Switzerland, say at your local Marks and Spencer, it was likely made at the Frey factory.
The industrial process was fascinating. As in any factory, there are a number of specialized machines. We saw one that wrapped chocolates in gold mouse foil wrappers, inserted a gold thread tail, and passed them into a box. A new machine filled six slots in a praline tray, which then went to the next station to have a few more slots filled. The final stages, however, were done by hand, since machines cannot handle cocoa-dusted truffles. There was also a visual check that all the slots were filled correctly and any errors corrected. This station was the closest we saw to the setup in the classic I Love Lucy chocolate factory episode.
While many competing chocolate companies would have you think that the reason Switzerland is so famous for chocolate is because of the milk that goes into “dairy milk” chocolate, Petra told us it is actually because of Switzerland’s expertise with machinery. To give chocolate its ultimate rich, smooth texutre, the cocoa power mixture undergoes a 24 hour “conching” process (developed by Rodolphe Lindt), which converts the cocoa powder to smooth chocolate. Machines are therefore the magic behind the chocolate. As we like to say, “Swiss engineering at its finest”!
Due to the demand for their products, the Christmas season production was completed in August. The day we were there, mid-November, the chocolate Easter bunny lines were in full swing. It was fascinating to learn how they are made. I had always thought the two halves were poured separately and pressed together, but no. Chocolate is poured into one side of the mold and as the mold halves move two by two through the machine, the tops are put in place and the complete molds are flipped so that centrifical force creates the full, hollow bunny. Each one is inspected by hand as they are automatically unmolded and moved along a the conveyer belt to be packaged.
During our tour, there were several sample tables. The first one displayed a selection of Suprême bars and our group selected three to try: Macadamia Nut, Hot Chile, and a nice 69% plain dark. Subsequent tables offered bowls of treats and trays of pralines and we were welcome to taste as much as we wanted. I must say, it was the first time in my life I’d ever felt I’d eaten just too much chocolate.
On our way out, we of course stopped at the chocolate shop. I loaded up on chocolates for the holidays – and when I got home I stashed them safely away. We’ll see how many are left when it comes time to wrap them up.
If you go:
Frey is changing the format of its tours. Tours like the one we went on are being phased out, and being replaced with a new “visitor experience” and visitor center on site. The new center is due to open in spring 2014.