Stuart Forster heads to Antwerp and Brussels to report on Chocolate in Belgium.
Chocolate has widespread popularity yet few places are quite so closely identified with it as Belgium. Belgian chocolates are widely regarded as being among the best in the world and the nation’s leading chocolate chefs continue to come up with new recipes and pushing back boundaries.
For more than a century the term ‘Belgian chocolates’ has had people conjuring mental images of row upon row of freshly filled pralines. Yet prior to 1912 this type of chocolate was unknown.
Neuhaus and couverture chocolate
Jean Neuhaus invented the praline after developing couverture, a new type of chocolate, rich in cocoa butter. Couverture chocolate could be moulded to form a thinner shell than was previously possible, thus opening up new possibilities to chocolatiers, including the opportunity for Neuhaus to add fillings to chocolates’ centres before sealing them.
The exportability of Belgian chocolates helped create and sustain global interest in what is widely regarded a luxury product. The box – known as the ballotin – in which Belgian pralines are now traditionally sold was developed by Neuhaus and his wife, Louise Agostini, in 1915.
The boxes helped protect chocolates, thus allowing greater numbers of people to appreciate pralines undamaged. This contributed to the growth of Belgian chocolate’s international reputation.
Chocolates are classified as a foodstuff rather than as a luxury item in Belgium and, consequently, are taxed at the rate of just six per cent.
Chocolate at Antwerp’s Del Rey
“We like to live and to eat and to drink…chocolate is in our culture as everyone likes it,” says Bernard Proot, Maître Chocolatier at Del Rey in Antwerp.
For many people, the idea of working in a chocolate factory sounds heavenly. “Somebody who works here can eat as much chocolate as they like. In the beginning they eat a lot and then they say ‘oh! woah! my weight is changing’,” says Proot, laughing.
He sees the benefit of having people on site who enjoy chocolate, “it is much easier to sell a product if you know it. We never had girls here who said they don’t like chocolates.”
Belgium’s Museum of Cocoa and Chocolate
If you like chocolate and history it’s worth popping into the Museum of Cocoa and Chocolate (at Rue de la Tete d’Or 9-11) in Brussels. You’ll learn that Proot’s team is following a tradition of production that can be traced more than 300 years, to the late 1600s, when Emmanuel Soares de Rinero began making chocolate in Brabant.
In those early days of manufacturing chocolate was usually enjoyed as a drink, just as the Mayans and Aztecs had done with Xocoatl, which was introduced European courts via Spain.
Drinking chocolate is enjoying something of a comeback, any you can sit outside of the Neuhaus cafe at the Galeries Saint-Hubert in central Brussels.
Several Belgian companies continue to produce chocolates by hand and are constantly on the lookout for new recipes.
“If you like chocolate you live the whole day in that world. Maybe you are busy but you are thinking about chocolate. You eat something, like a black truffle, and you think ‘how can we manage that with chocolate?’ You try other foods and you get creative,” says Proot.
Burie chocolates in Antwerp
Bram Hullebroeck is the chocolate chef at Burie of Antwerp (Korte Gasthuisstraat 3) and also responsible for designing the chocolate sculptures displayed in Burie’s shop window or made to meet client orders. These edible works of art have included Easter Island style heads, a 2.20m tall giraffe plus the Sheikh of Dubai’s palace. Just like an artist who works with wood or marble, Hullebroeck has a range of chisels with which he can work his medium.
Dominique Persoone is the man behind The Chocolate Line at the Palace on the Meir in Antwerp. A chef by training, rather than a chocolatier, Persoone makes chocolates filled with unconventional flavours, including as asparagus, cauliflower and sake.
Dreaming about Belgian chocolate
As he talks about chocolate, Persoone’s passion for it is evident. “I love food and I dream about food. I work seven days a week but I never have the impression that I’m working,” he says.
Persoone has explored how emotions and the environment in which food is eaten impacts the perception of flavours. His friend, Heston Blumenthal, is one of the inspirations for his research.
Chocolate and The Rolling Stones
Persoone is also known for creating the chocolate shooter from which powdered chocolate mixed with mint can be snorted, in a fashion similar to the consumption of snuff.
The shooter, admits Persoone, started life as a novelty item, a joke during the dessert course of a dinner attended by the Rolling Stones, to celebrate the birthdays of Ronnie Wood and Charlie Watts. Popular demand, in the wake of press coverage, meant that Persoone decided to make the shooter available in his shop.
Yet for most people, despite those developments, Belgian chocolate continues to mean enjoying a selection of freshly made pralines.
Stuart travelled to Belgium as part of a five night Benelux holiday by Railbookers. Similar trips include all train travel from London, Ebbsfleet or Ashford, two nights central 4-star hotel accommodation in Luxembourg, one night in Antwerp and two nights in The Hague, all including breakfast. Call +44 (0) 20 3327 3551 for more information.
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