Swiss or Belgian chocolate? A centuries old relationship from a different perspective

Switzerland and Belgium have more in common than a word in French for the number 70 – they both have a federalist system, share two of the same national languages, and have remarkably similar territory and population sizes. In the run-up to President Cassis' visit to Belgium, let's take a look at some of the more curious facts that unite these two countries, which share rich and close ties in a number of fields.

La statue intitulée «La Belgique reconnaissante» photographiée face au lac Léman.

"La Belgique reconnaissante" (Belgium is grateful): facing Lake Geneva, a statue offered by Belgium as a sign of gratitude for the welcome given to its refugees by Switzerland during the First World War. © FDFA

Swiss physicist starring in Belgian comics

Well known for his extreme scientific exploits, the discoveries of Swiss physicist Auguste Piccard are the reason why exploration of the seas and skies is possible today.

In 1948, the first tests of Piccard's bathyscape – a pressurised diving vessel that paved the way for a series of journeys to the bottom of the sea – were carried out, followed in 1953 by his third prototype, the Trieste, which broke the deep-sea diving record by descending to 3,150m off the coast of Italy.

Portrait of Auguste Piccard.
Auguste Piccard was the inspiration for Hergé to create Professor Calculus, recurring character in the Tintin universe. © Federal Archives

But this wasn't even his first experiment. In 1922, during his tenure as the newly appointed physics professor at the Free University of Brussels, Piccard carried out the first-ever journey into the stratosphere – by hydrogen balloon. After several successful runs, he was able to continue his efforts thanks to a grant from the Belgian National Fund for Scientific Research which had just been set up by King Albert. On 18 August 1932, Piccard, accompanied by Belgian physicist Max Cosyns, finally reached a record-breaking altitude of over 16,000m.

In addition to being awarded the Legion of Honour and Order of Leopold by King Albert and Queen Elisabeth for his groundbreaking research, Piccard received a second honour from Belgium – as the inspiration for comic book writer Hergé's Professor Cuthbert Calculus in the celebrated adventures of Tintin. Talking about his adaptation of the non-conformist scientist, Hergé explained: "I made my professor into a mini Piccard so that he would finally fit in!" 

Can you imagine a better embodiment of the close cooperation in education, research and innovation that Switzerland and Belgium continue to enjoy to this day?

Good to know: Bertrand Piccard and Solar Impulse, supported by the FDFA

Auguste Piccard's grandson, Bertrand, heads the Solar Impulse aircraft project, which in 2016 saw the completion of the first solar-powered round-the-world flight. Backed by the FDFA, the project is a perfect symbol of Swiss innovation in the field of sustainable development and environmental protection. 

From comics to protecting linguistic diversity

When it comes to comics, the Swiss-Belgian connection isn't down to Professor Calculus alone. Known in France as the ninth art because of its popularity since Hergé's Tintin in the late 1920s, it is Belgium that is now recognised as the world's French-speaking capital of the bande dessinée, or BD. But did you know that one of the founding fathers of the modern-day comic strip was actually a writer from the French-speaking part of Switzerland?

Indeed, it was as early as the 1820s that Rodolphe Töpffer began drawing his 'graphic stories', satirising contemporary society's foibles. By no means the first to use images to bolster a text, Töpffer is nonetheless credited with paving the way for how comic strips are still designed to this day – by combining images and breaking down actions into sequences that follow one another. To explain his approach, Töpffer said "Without the text, the meaning of the drawings would be obscure; and without the drawings, the text would have no meaning either."

Since then, Switzerland and Belgium have continued to maintain close ties in this particular field as well, such as the 2014 Swiss comics exhibition at the Belgian Comic Strip Center, one of the major venues in the comic world. The event was also supported by the Swiss embassy in Belgium, further reflecting the close cultural ties between the two countries. 

Good to know: Switzerland, Belgium and multilingualism

Both countries are multilingual with French and German numbering among their official languages. Both countries are also committed to protecting the cultural heritage of multilingualism. In 2013 and 2014, for example, a series of conferences focusing on the status and role of linguistic diversity was held – dealing with Romansh in Switzerland and German in Belgium. 

So which do you prefer – Swiss or Belgian chocolate?

This definitely comes down to personal preference.

But one thing is certain – both countries are among the world's leading producers and exporters of chocolate. The Swiss are also the world's leading consumers of chocolate, with an average of 11.3kg per capita in 2021. Figures for that year also show that 7.1% of the chocolate consumed in Switzerland had been imported from Belgium, with 3.4% of all Swiss chocolate exports going to Belgium.

An advertisement from the end of the 19th century, showing a lady and a child opening a box of Swiss chocolates.
As early as the end of the 19th century, posters advertising local chocolate products were displayed on Swiss streets. © CHOCOSUISSE, Association of Swiss Chocolate Manufacturers

This global reputation as master chocolatiers is backed up by the figures as well as the tradition on which it is partly based. Indeed, the story goes that chocolate actually arrived in Switzerland via... Belgium. At the end of the 17th century, only royal and aristocratic Europeans could afford cocoa, which they consumed in the form of a drink. It was in 1697, when Zurich's mayor Henri Escher paid a visit to Brussels and tasted, for the first time, the luxurious hot chocolate drink on the capital's terraces, that he decided to bring back his discovery to Switzerland. And it didn't take long for that initial recipe to turn into Switzerland's first chocolate factory – opened by a certain François-Louis Cailler in Corsier-sur-Vevey in 1819.

Today, Switzerland and Belgium have strong economic ties. And one of the main Belgian sectors where Swiss companies operate is food, including chocolate production. The port of Antwerp, the second-largest in Europe after Rotterdam, is a key centre for trade and the shipment of goods to Switzerland, including cocoa imports. 

Another point for Swiss-Belgian relations: President Cassis's upcoming visit to Belgium

On 24 November, King Philippe and Queen Mathilde of Belgium will hold an official reception for President Cassis and his wife, Paola Rodoni Cassis.

The two-day visit will include a meeting with the Belgian prime minister, Alexander De Croo, in order to discuss bilateral affairs as well as European and multilateral issues. Mr Cassis will go on to visit Flanders and Wallonia as well as participating in an event featuring artists with close ties to both Switzerland and Belgium, further highlighting the cultural exchanges between the two countries.

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