Brussels, World Capital of Chocolate

Amy M. Thomas / New York Times News Service /

Published Dec 25, 2011 at 04:00AM

Chocolate — like fashion, wine and finance — has become a complex cultural phenomenon. There is basic chocolate for the masses, artisanal chocolate for purists, and avant-garde creations for connoisseurs. In Brussels, a polyglot city at the geographic and cultural crossroads of Europe, you get it all.

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 the 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 some 500 chocolatiers, about one chocolatier for every 2,000 people. The average Belgian consumes more than 15 pounds of chocolate each year, one of the highest rates in the world.

But these days, the industry is changing. With countries like 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 center — and infusing ganaches with exotic flavors like wasabi or lemon verbena, and creating such imaginative pairings as blackcurrant and cardamom and raspberry and clove.

I had gotten a taste of Brussels’ classic-contemporary chocolate dichotomy last year on an overnight sojourn from Paris.

But between the flea marketing, beer sipping and art nouveau strolling — other big draws of Brussels — there was little time for chocolate.

So this fall I returned, 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, as well as scores of boutique chocolate-makers and haute chocolatiers.

The chocolate hierarchy

To streamline my sampling strategy, I turned to Robbin Zeff Warner, a U.S. expatriate and a 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,” Warner said of the national hierarchy in which chocolate produced by manufacturers like Cote d’Or and Guylian are devoured in vast quantities, but mostly by the city’s 6 million annual visitors. Bruxellois, 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, as we were leaving Wittamer, the century-old chocolatier in the center of the city that seduces both locals and tourists with its heritage recipes, Warner suggested we go to Alex&Alex, a nearby Champagne and chocolate bar. Although its chocolates, made by Frederic Blondeel, aren’t made on-site, they’re 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. Its dark, cozy interior, along with the glass of Drappier rose and array of square bonbons before me, was a lovely respite from the trolling chocolate tourists outside. 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 epicenter of chocolate. I sampled golf-ball-size truffles at Godiva and molded hamster heads at Leonidas; organic nougat from Pure and minty ganaches at Passion. At Neuhaus, I tried a dark chocolate truffle filled with buttercream and with speculoos, a spicy Belgian cookie.

Industry evolution

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 — like “cru” and “domain” — is akin to what you’d hear from sommeliers. Such was the case at Pierre Marcolini’s two-story flagship. 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.

In 2004, Marcolini raised the bar when he started scouting the globe for the best cocoa beans. He became the only chocolatier in Brussels to work directly with plantations in countries like Venezuela and Madagascar, bringing the beans back to his ateliers for roasting and grinding.

“Most people think it’s the percentage that makes a difference,” said a saleswoman, speaking of the amount of cocoa in the confections, “but it’s the origin of the cocoa bean that does. It’s a little bit like wine.” Indeed, when I bit into the Cuban cru — Marcolini claims to be the only chocolatier in the world working with cacao from Cuba — I could detect vibrant notes of dried cherries in the slightly acidic chocolate.

Afterward, I climbed past the Gothic Notre-Dame du Sablon church to the Place Royale. Rush-hour trams and traffic buzzed by, and the red and black roofs of “lower town” were splayed below me. Done with chocolate for the day, I was ready to experience another national specialty: art. The Royal Museums of Fine Arts offer a trove of works from Belgian and Flemish masters. The sublimely surreal flying fish, skeletal corpses and falling angels of Delvaux and Rubens and the Brueghels seemed an appropriate counterpoint to the indulgence of the day.

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, 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 learned, 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 colonized 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, I dodged the camera-wielding tour groups gathered before the magnificent Grand’Place, with its 15th-century Town Hall and rows of guild houses, and walked down narrow streets lined with friteries and waffle stands.

Digging deeper

Soon 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 is.

The 92-year-old chocolatier is a favorite 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 don’t have to be stored, which is when they lose their flavor. Buzzing from the caramelized hazelnut pralines the saleswoman had offered as a sample, I found myself leaving $70 lighter, but two boxes of pralines and several chocolate bars richer.

Compelled to dig deeper into the chocolate of Brussels, and the city itself, I ambled down the crooked Rue des Bouchers, avoiding eye contact with waiters trying to lure me into their cafes for buckets of mussels; past the big, blocky Bourse where workers in loosened ties ate sandwiches; into St.-Gery, where the canals once used for transporting building materials are now filled in and home to seafood restaurants. I veered left and found the big shop windows of Ste. Catherine, an area popular with artists and fashionistas.

I was on Rue Antoine Dansaert, put on the map by the radical Antwerp Six, the designers who established Belgian fashion in the 1980s. Today the neighborhood is still a bastion of cool with boutiques like Stijl, which features the likes of Ann Demeulemeester, Raf Simons and Dries Van Noten. In recent years, foreign brands have infiltrated, including our very own Marc Jacobs.

Any chic shopping district worth its salt has fantastic places to eat, and I found mine in Selecto, a bistro that opened in August. Drawn by the vintage ad posters that were splashed across the smart black and white interior, I ordered cod served atop polenta, just the sustenance I needed before heading to the lesser-known neighborhood of Ixelles.

The 30-minute walk across town felt like a tour of different cities. I passed comic murals and quirky second-hand shops in the gentrifying Marolles neighborhood. I gazed up at the medieval Porte de Hal, the last remains of the city walls. After crossing the wide, looping Boulevard de Waterloo, the landscape became hillier and the architecture uniform. I was in St.-Gilles, a bonanza of art nouveau.

Wrought-iron balconies, turrets, oriel windows: block after block, the residential facades were unique and homogenous at the same time. On my previous trip, I had visited the neighborhood’s crown jewel, the Horta Museum, once the home of the art nouveau architect Victor Horta. There was no time for a repeat visit; I was due for a class at Zaabar, a modern chocolatier nearby that is known for its use of foreign spices like cardamom from Malabar, star anise from China and chili pepper from Texas.

Class time

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 degrees Celsius, he divided the still-liquid chocolate between two bowls, scraping the film left behind into neat lines. It was a valuable byproduct: 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.

‘A way of life’

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. It was 7 p.m. on a Wednesday, and the crowds of young professionals extending from the market to cafe terraces lining the square told me this was the place to be.

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 favorite chocolatier in the city, Laurent Gerbaud, and insisted I visit.

Which is how I found myself in Gerbaud’s atelier on the busy Rue Ravenstein the next morning, 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’re also rewriting the history of Belgian chocolate.

“People pay attention to what they buy, and where,” is how Ryan Stevenson characterized the local chocolate culture. A London-trained Australian transplant who moved to Brussels for its chocolate reputation, he’s acutely aware of Belgians’ devotion to all things cocoa. “This is a way of life that’s really important. It’s important to me, too.” Clearly. Stevenson is the two-time national Chocolate Master for his host country.

When I visited him in his cluttered lab above St.-Aulaye, the French bakery where he’s pastry chef, Stevenson was concocting creations for the coming 2011 World Chocolate Masters competition, representing Belgium. Sketches and notes were strewn about near the bins of ingredients and racks of bonbons. Life being all about timing, I got to sample what he was creating for the competition.

The first was a yuzu-flavored ganache atop a pine nut praline. It was tart and nutty, with flavors and textures that melded beautifully beneath a dark chocolate couverture. The second — a milk chocolate caramel with lime and wild flower — was citrusy and woody, chewy and sweet. As it melted in my mouth, I could just taste the evolution of Belgian chocolate that was under way. And if Stevenson — and Gerbaud and Blondeel — have their way, revolution won’t be far behind.