Chocolate was on my mind as I entered the coolly contemporary apartment we’d rented in Brussels through airbnb. With sacks of groceries from our local produce market in hand, I had just climbed the 78 stairs to our cozy, light-filled, fifth-floor penthouse, the four rooms artfully styled by our interior designer host, Vale, in contrasting black and white and overlooking the capital city’s Etterbeek neighborhood. The building has an elevator, but I wanted extra justification for my planned indulgence. The time had come to polish off the last piece of candy I had purchased from Dumon chocolatier during our recent excursions to Brugge. It was a perfect cycle of effort exerted and reward enjoyed.
Chocolate is my favorite flavor. Whether milk or dark, and especially when paired with caramel, like the fine piece I was savoring in the kitchen, chocolate has an unrelenting hold on me. It really should be its own food group. Recently I’d spotted a woman, obviously a kindred spirit, in a café wearing a T-shirt printed with this saying, “Chocolate doesn’t ask silly questions. Chocolate understands.” That science has discovered chocolate possesses multiple health benefits only sweetens, pardon the pun, its attraction.
Although I knew Belgian chocolate is internationally heralded, generally the only time I think about Belgian chocolate in particular is at Christmas when one of Bill’s research suppliers sends him a box of Godiva Belgian chocolate biscuits. In the spirit of advent, we anticipate its annual arrival, and are delighted when the package arrives.
Traveling in Belgium brought the country’s chocolate culture to the forefront. I searched online and found a chocolate tour and workshop by Global Enterprises. Besides learning about the history of chocolate and partaking in all-important tastings in several of the most exclusive chocolate boutiques, we also would walk by prominent historic and cultural sites of Brussels. This was a mash-up made for me.
The next morning, our tour began at, ironically, Godiva’s original chocolate shop from 1926 in La Grand-Place, or Grote Markt, the extravagantly ornate and cobbled central square of Brussels. The shop hadn’t yet opened, but our guide, Avo, recounted how the Godiva name, familiar now for its gourmet chocolates, was first popularized in the 11th century as part of an English legend. Lady Godiva, upset at the high taxes her husband levied, rode naked on horseback through town to urge his leniency. The only prying eyes were from Tom, forever known as “Peeping Tom”, who was struck blind.
Avo then launched into a brief history lesson about La Grand-Place and Brussels’ heritage as a commercial powerhouse of northern Europe.
Brussels originated in the 10th century, when the Duke of Louvain built a fortification along the Senne River. The adjacent marsh was drained and an open-air market built, and the general rectangular shape and architecture of La Grand-Place developed over the centuries. The Duke of Brabant built indoor markets selling the basics – bread, meat, and cloth – which enabled year-round business regardless of Brussels’ frequent wet and humid weather. Merchants established guilds, and up went houses, the City Hall, and the Maison du Roi (now the City Museum). Various armies bombarded the square, which the citizens rebuilt, restored, and renovated time and again. The current configuration dates mostly from the 17th century. La Grand-Place is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Officially one of the most beautiful town squares in Europe, La Grand-Place is the city’s main tourist attraction.
But back to chocolate…
The quality of cacao beans depends on their geography, with much of the world’s supply coming from Venezuela, Cuba, Madagascar, Ecuador, Ivory Coast, and Ghana.
“Chocolate making in Belgium is an art,” Avo declared. “Many have been rewarded with royal warrants; you become a noble.”
The secret to Belgian chocolate, he said, is high-quality cacao beans and darkly rich couverture chocolate with extra cocoa butter. Chocolatiers elsewhere commonly use chocolate that’s been converted to a solid form. They reheat it to melt it, and by then the aroma is gone. In Belgium, chocolatiers receive their chocolate in heated trucks. This sticky, liquid form of chocolate, much like the consistency of yogurt, is more expensive, but easier to work with and the aroma stays intact. In addition, they largely employ old-world techniques, such as marble tables and methodic, by-hand production.
Avo led us to the original outposts of renowned artisanal chocolatiers, and we sampled their delicacies. Some highlights of each:
· Corné Port-Royal – Located within the opulent Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, Corné Port-Royal’s tradition is authentic recipes, gourmet artisan expertise, the best single-origin cocoa, and the finest raw materials.
· Neuhaus – Also in the Galeries, Neuhaus began in 1857 as a pharmacy with chocolate-covered medicines to make them more palatable. In 1912 the founder’s grandson traded the medicine for fresh cream, thus inventing the praline, Belgium’s iconic soft-centered confection encased in a chocolate shell.
· Pierre Marcolini – The luxury chocolate from the 1995 World Champion of Pastry features purity of ingredients and tea-flavored chocolates, which are a huge hit in Japan.
· Chocopolis – Opened in 2006, Chocopolis, one of the new breed of chocolatiers, makes chocolates within the shop. A vastly scaled down, look-but-don’t-touch chocolate replica of the City Hall attests to their craftsmanship.
Back to history…
Our path from one chocolate shop to another took us past other landmarks – the Stock Exchange, Royal Palace, comic strip murals, Royal Museums of Fine Arts, a surviving section of a medieval wall, and Church of Our Lady of Sablon.
The hands-down crowd favorite, though, was Mannekin Pis. Symbolic of the city’s rebellious spirit, Mannekin Pis is a small bronze statue of a naked boy urinating into a fountain. According to legend, a boy named Julian in the 17th century tried to stop fires created by an invading army by peeing on the flames. For special events Mannekin Pis appears in costume. Bill and I had seen him au naturel the day before. The day of the tour he was decked out in honor of May Day. As expected, chocolate versions of Mannekin Pis are everywhere.
And back to chocolate…
The chocolate workshop consisted of tables set with pots of warm chocolate, cinnamon speculoos (a traditional Belgian shortcrust biscuit), and bowls of dried fruit, nuts, and seasonings for us to fashion our own chocolate creations. I was more interested in the process that produces pralines.
Every step and component is critical. Our demonstrator used a polycarbonate mold with individual seashell patterns. He filled them with the heated chocolate, scraping with a trowel-like tool until there were no bubbles, then rapping the mold on the counter to release any lingering bubbles. I helped pipe in the filling, a gooey mixture of honey and almonds, and he repeated the chocolate process to enclose the filling.
We returned to Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert for our final stop at Mary, home of the king of Belgium’s favorite champagne-filled truffles.
I hit chocolate overload afterwards, not surprising when you begin eating the best of the best at 9:00 a.m. and continue for several hours. Like the chocolate ace I am, my taste buds and stomach rebounded later that day.
Without apology, I admit I embody the quip the late actress Katherine Hepburn reportedly uttered – “What you see before you is the result of a lifetime of chocolate.”