Last week I visited my relatives in Belgium and of course I’d made a merry chocolate round about. First we went to Leuven (Flanders) for having a chocolate drink (for the Belgians eating or drinking hot chocolate is much as part of life as drinking beer). We entered into a quite new chocolate bar called Quetzal. Looking around, the interieur wasn’t striking or seductive at all just nice and comfy. The walls were painted in terracotta color, the modern furniture was shiny, deep bordeaux. There were no statues, no knick-knacks displayed or any hints to the Aztecs or the origin of the chocolate but despite of the modest decoration the bar was totally full. So it meant something! When we settled down I checked the menu. On the front page it was written: Some say it chocolate is better than sex….Okay ….and on the other side you could read: our chocos are excellent, heavenly and cause addiction…Let’s taste!-I exclaimed and I was ready for order something from the menu palette! From the wide choices I asked a Baileys choc-shock with milk chocolate with a kick of Baileys and cream on top (you had to choose from what kind of chocolate do you want to have it done from black-bitter to milk or white), one of my friend chose the Amaretto flavoured drink made with black chocolate and cream, and my daughters wanted to have the Marshmallow’s versions. When we were served alongside our chocos we also got a small nip of brownie. (Even regular coffee or hot chocolate is accompanied by a square of chocolate in most cafés in Belgium). All hot choco drinks were made with “tempered” chocolates so you could immediately feel-taste the difference between the German kind of hot choco drinks which are made with cacao and milk powder and the Quetzal’s chocolate bar’s version. They were Heaven on Earth! Erotic, titillating!
When we were about leaving I stepped to the owner and congratulated her on the great business, she told me with a big smile that because of the meteoric success they have already opened two more chocolate bars one in Gent and one in Antwerp. (www.chocoladebar.be-www.quetzal.be)
Next day we met in Brussels with relatives and friends. We started our little outing at Grand Place and then went along to the Mannequin Pis (to the famous peeing boy’s statue). In downtown of Brussels it seemed as if only chocolate shops had been existed! Cornet, Godiva, Neuhaus, Leonidas shop windows were sparkling thus almost all Belgian chocolate trade marks were present in such a small area. Then we left for square Sablon where the first chocolate shop had been established. At the corner there was the Lady Godiva shop. The decoration was sophisticated and funny, Godiva was riding on her horse surrounded by thousand Easter bunnies. In front of the Godiva was the relatively new Marcolini’s chocolate shop. Well new because Pièrre Marcolini entered into the chocolate business in 1990. Today in the Marcolini’s outlets (in Brussels, Paris and in Tokyo) everyone can find not only limited solely to chocolates but the delights of biscuits, ganache, icecreams, cakes made of cocoa beans from Mexico and flavoured with fresh vanilla from Tahiti. Pierre Marcolini´s name has become a trade name of Belgium because of its unique taste. His success resides in how long the cocoa beans are cooked.
Further list of the best home made praline shops: Leonidas (the brand was named after a Greek confectioner, Leonidas who started his chocolate business in 1910, today Leonidas has 1700 outlets across five continents in 40 different countries), Godiva, Cote d’Or, Galler, Guylian (was established in 1960, with its unique, seashell form chocolates, with distinctive hazelnut cream filling. The inventor was Guy Foubert, the son of a baker, who had begun making truffles in Antwerp. There, he married a girl called Lilian and they continued to run the chocolate business together, creating the seashell chocolate series called Guy+Lian=Guylian) Corné-Port Royal (my favorite) and Nirvana.
What makes Belgian chocolate so unique? It is the quality of ingredients and an almost fanatical adherence to Old World manufacture’s technology. Even in today’s world of automation and mass production, most Belgian chocolate is still made by hand in small shops using original equipment. In fact, these small chocolate outlets are a popular draw for tourists visiting Belgium today. Much like wineries, tours of Belgian chocolate shops include tastings and exclusive souvenirs. They are available for the public in countless forms and varieties. However industrialization has reduced prices but regardless of this they still retain an air of luxury and decadence which only adds to our appreciation. The hand-made pralines are sold loose, in bags or in boxed selections but in spite of this fact the Belgians prefer to point to the ones they fancy tasting or ask the shop attendant to create a mixture, rather than buy a pre-prepared box.
There is one more technical advantage of the Belgian chocolate over other confectioners: the storage of couverteur before use. In the chocolate making process, the cocoa beans are ground and mixed with sugar and cocoa butter and then smoothed out through tempering (careful addition of heat). Most chocolate companies receive their chocolate in solid form, which means it must be reheated in order to be usable. Belgian chocolate companies often receive their couverteur in heated tanker trucks soon after the tempering process. Because the chocolate has not cooled, it retains much more of the aroma than the cooled varieties. Commercial chocolate makers rush the cooling process, making up for it by adding sugar whilst fine chocolatiers take time to allow the bean to release its full flavour.
That means that Belgian chocolate may be expensive, but those who have sampled it say that there is no comparison between a standard chocolate bar and a Belgian praline. As a gift or special indulgence, Belgian chocolate is one product which lives up to its reputation for quality. In my opinion Godiva, Neuhaus are famous and expensive but if you want the best, go to the small brands. For standard bars and for melting chocolate (ice cream topping), you should look for respectively ‘Côte d’Or’ (which means ‘gold coast) and for ‘Callebaut‘.
PS: Nowadays Godiva and Neuhaus companies reported to have almost 2,000 sales outlets in over 50 countries. The most popular store is located on the Galeries St.-Hubert, in downtown Brussels, a location where Neuhaus has been selling their chocolate creations for more than 130 years.