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Travel & Holiday

Belgians' choc appeal

Chocolatiers in Brussels are updating their sweet treats in innovative ways and exotic flavours
The Straits Times - December 27, 2011
By: Amy M. Thomas
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Belgians' choc appeal Children making chocolate treats at Zaabar, a modern chocolatier known for using foreign spices. -- PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

New York - The capital of Belgium may be known as the Capital of Europe, but it is also, at least as far as most chocolate aficionados are concerned, the World Capital of Chocolate.

Ever since Brussels chocolatier Jean Neuhaus invented the praline 100 years ago, the city has been at the forefront of the chocolate business. There are a million residents and about 500 chocolatiers - about one chocolatier for every 2,000 people. The average Belgian consumes more than 6.8kg of chocolate each year, one of the highest rates in the world.

But these days, the industry is changing. With countries such as Germany and the Netherlands becoming larger European exporters, in Belgium, a new class of chocolatiers is finding innovative ways to hold on to the country's chocolate crown.

They are breaking away from traditional pralines - which Belgians classify as any chocolate shell filled with a soft fondant centre - and infusing ganaches with exotic flavours such as wasabi or lemon verbena, and creating such imaginative pairings as blackcurrant and cardamom and raspberry and clove.

This fall I visited Brussels, intent on exploring three centuries of chocolate history in three days.

It was an ambitious task: The city is home to two of the biggest chocolate companies in the world, Godiva and Leonidas, and scores of boutique chocolate-makers and haute chocolatiers.

To streamline my sampling strategy, I turned to Ms Robbin Zeff Warner, an American and former professor of writing at George Washington University who has been blogging about Belgian chocolatiers since her husband's post with Nato took them to Brussels in 2008.

'You have chocolate for tourists, and chocolate for Belgians,' she said of the national hierarchy in which chocolate produced by manufacturers such as Cote d'Or and Guylian are devoured in vast quantities, but mostly by the city's six million annual visitors. Bruxellois, Ms Warner said, prefer the artisanal makers.

'The big-name big houses are great. But seeing and tasting real handmade chocolate, while buying it from the person who made the chocolate, is something special.'

To prove her point, she suggested we go to Alex & Alex (alex-alex.eu), a nearby champagne and chocolate bar.

Although its chocolates, made by Frederic Blondeel, are not made on-site, they are acknowledged in some circles as some of the best in the city. The bar is tucked away on one of the antiques store and art gallery-filled streets that shoot off the Grand Sablon, Brussels' central square.

I found the herbaceous notes of Blondeel's basil ganache too reminiscent of pesto, but the Alex'Perience chocolates were another story. The first velvety impression of high- quality chocolate was followed by a flood of sweet, fruity cassis.

I spent the afternoon circling the Grand Sablon, which, with no fewer than eight chocolatiers, is the city's epicentre of chocolate. I sampled golf-ball-size truffles at Godiva (godiva.be) and moulded hamster heads at Leonidas (leonidas.com); organic nougat from Pure and minty ganaches at Passion (passionchocolat.be). At Neuhaus (neuhaus.be), I tried a dark chocolate truffle filled with buttercream and with speculoos, a spicy Belgian cookie.

The more I strolled, the clearer it was that the level of sophistication is evolving. The packaging and presentation at newer chocolatiers is as slick as a Place Vendome showroom, while the associated terminology such as 'cru' and 'domain' is akin to what you would hear from sommeliers.

Such was the case at Pierre Marcolini's two- storey flagship (marcolini.be). Smiling saleswomen stood over the glassed-in display of small, rectangular bonbons that looked as exquisite as jewels. Backlighted shelves on the opposite wall showcased what Marcolini is famous for: his single-origin Grand Cru chocolate bars.

My museum outing the next morning was amusingly different. Before I put my change away at the entrance, I was presented with a cookie that had been run under a spigot of molten chocolate. I was inside the rickety 314-year-old Museum of Cocoa And Chocolate (mucc.be), just in time for the next demonstration, presided over by a bushy-browed man in a fluorescent-lighted kitchen with a vat of chocolate before him.

Europe, I learnt, was introduced to cocoa beans when Spanish explorers brought them back from what is now Mexico in the late 16th century. They reached Belgium about 100 years later.

When King Leopold II colonised the African Congo in 1885, largely for the cocoa crops, the resulting genocide was a dark moment in the country's history. It is also when Belgian chocolate started earning its formidable reputation.

Outside the museum, the cavalcade of chocolatiers continued in the Galerie de la Reine. La Belgique Gourmand, Corne and the original Neuhaus were at home under the soaring glass ceilings of this graceful fin-de-siecle shopping arcade. But as big business as those Belgian brands are, none are national gems the way Mary (mary.be) is.

The 92-year-old chocolatier is a favourite of the Belgian royal family, and with its rows of caramel, marzipan, chocolate mousse, ganache and cream-filled pralines, it was easy to see why.

Mary makes small batches of chocolates, so they do not have to be stored, which is when they lose their flavour. Buzzing from the caramelized hazelnut pralines the salesman had offered as a sample, I found myself leaving US$70 (S$90) lighter, but two boxes of pralines and several chocolate bars richer.

In St Gilles, a bonanza of art nouveau, I was due for a class at Zaabar (zaabar.be), a modern chocolatier nearby that is known for its use of foreign spices such as cardamom from Malabar, star anise from China and chilli pepper from Texas.

My workshop started with the instructor dramatically pouring a bowl of melted chocolate on a marble-topped table as the seven of us international students nearly swooned from the intoxicating aroma. He quickly worked two spatulas through the puddle, keeping it in constant motion. This process, called tempering, is when crystals form, giving chocolate, when it hardens, its sheen and snap.

When it had cooled to the proper working temperature of 32 deg C, he divided the still-liquid chocolate between two bowls, scraping the film left behind into neat lines. It was a valuable by-product: cocoa butter, which is largely responsible for making Belgian chocolate superior as local chocolatiers refuse to supplement it with vegetable oils or shortening, as is done in some other countries.

After the instruction came the fun. We dipped dollops of ganache into our chocolate and rolled them in crushed amaretto cookies, Brazil nuts and powdery meringue, creating imperfect but tasty truffles. We poured chocolate circles and studded them with cashews, pistachios, almonds, dried cranberries and raisins, producing delicacies known as mendiants. Soon we were on our way, with enough treats to satisfy a kindergarten class, or two.

After the class, I wandered through Ixelles, the farmers' market on Place du Chatelain, filled with vendors peddling pork sausages, cheeses and jams. Wine had been uncorked and beer was being downed.

The festive atmosphere continued inside Moss & Bros, one of the area's many trendy clothing and housewares boutiques. I fell into a conversation with the shopkeeper - about chocolate, naturally. She told me about her favourite chocolatier in the city, Laurent Gerbaud (chocolatsgerbaud.be), and insisted I visit.

Which is how I next found myself in Gerbaud's atelier on the busy Rue Ravenstein, gazing at a spread of satiny bonbons with figs from Izmir, ginger from Guilin and hazelnuts from Piedmont.

Such reliance on global ingredients is what sets apart this new generation of chocolatiers. And as they continue to push the boundaries of creativity, they are also rewriting the history of Belgian chocolate. -- New York Times

 

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