Belgian chocolate has a worldwide reputation for quality. Chocolate makers of almost any land might boast that they are using ‘Belgian chocolate’, by which they mean raw chocolate slabs produced in Belgium. This quality comes from a tradition of carefully sourcing the beans, primarily in South America and West Africa, and then the manufacture: extra time and effort is put into refining and processing the chocolate to produce a smooth finish, and only 100% pure cocoa butter is used. All of this gives the chocolate its shine and crisp ‘snap’ and – because of the evaporation from the volatile cocoa butter – a sensual cooling mouthfeel.
But the excellent reputation of Belgian chocolate also includes boxes of the filled variety, which in Belgium are called pralines. The best are not only made with highquality chocolate but also contain exquisitely designed fillings of fruit pastes, truffle chocolate, scented creams and fresh cream. Belgium is also famous for its white chocolate, made with milk and cocoa butter.
Just about every village in the country has a quality chocolate shop. This could be a branch of one of the famous upmarket chains, or a specialist independent chocolatier, or a pâtissier with a sideline in chocolates. Any community without such a thing would be considered deprived, and Brussels is no exception: it has hundreds of chocolate shops of all categories. The Belgians themselves are prodigious consumers of the stuff, and will buy a box as readily as a bunch of flowers to give as gifts or to guzzle guiltily at home.
The world of mass-produced, luxury Belgian chocolates is dominated by three brands: Godiva, Leonidas and Neuhaus. They all have branches across Brussels, in Belgium in general, as well as abroad. And just because they are mass-produced does not mean these chocolates should be sniffed at: far from it. These companies produce excellent products, beautifully presented and, in the case of Leonidas, at a very reasonable price. Neuhaus has some claim to being the first to create the classic kind of box of Belgian chocolates that has become so familiar today.
Jean Neuhaus came to Brussels from Switzerland, and founded the company in 1857, opening their first store in Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, the spectacular shopping arcades near the Grand Place (it is still there to this day). His grandson, also called Jean Neuhaus, is credited with creating the first praline here in 1912. Three years later his wife Louise invented the distinctive tapering cardboard box called the ballotin in which pralines are now almost universally sold.
Neuhaus is highly respected as a chocolate manufacturer, and the quality is reflected in the relatively high prices. It now has more than 1500 sales outlets worldwide, but all of its products are still made in Belgium, at Vlezenbeek to the southwest of Brussels.
The world of chocolate in Brussels is constantly moving forward, kept vibrant by new chocolatiers who take the profession into fresh dimensions. Laurent Gerbaud, for instance, has made his name by focusing on the pure flavours of carefully sourced chocolate, sold in slabs and truffles (not pralines) and mixed with exotic fruits and nuts. Frederic Blondeel is not just a gifted chocolatier but also a torréfacteur who roasts his cocoa beans himself at his workshop in the Quai aux Briques.
Both of these artisans have followed in the path of the first modern pioneer of note, Pierre Marcolini, now master of a worldwide brand famed for its style, innovation and quality. Pierre Marcolini was born in 1964 in Charleroi, to a family of Italian origins. After training as a pâtissier, he opened his first shop in Brussels in 1995. He was quickly recognised for his originality, playing with new flavours such as apple, pear, melon and blackcurrant. He was also a pioneer in the ‘bean to bar’ approach of direct sourcing, taking a personal interest in the cocoa farms that provided the raw materials: his square grand cru de propriété tablets are made of pure, single-source chocolate.
His stylish selection of boxes typically contain small, dark tiles, cubes, roundels and hearts of chocolate with beautifully scented fillings, presented in a way that alerts the senses in advance to sit up and take notice. This is haute chocolaterie at its finest, and you can see the full range at his flagship shop overlooking the Place du Grand Sablon.
This museum of cocoa and chocolate, very close to the Grand Place, tells the story of chocolate in history and in its manufacture. It also offers demonstrations of how pralines are made – and opportunities to taste along the way. The journey from bean to praline is one as unlikely as it is fascinating. The raw product is barely edible, and requires fermentation and roasting to make it so. But its appeal was recognised by the ancient Mesoamericans, who found sacred powers in drinking cacao that are still reflected in the Latin name for the cacao tree Theobroma cacao: “Theobroma” means “food of the gods”. Its use was confined to a drink until solid chocolate was first created in Europe in the nineteenth century.
This is the story told at this museum with a multitude of artefacts: from the South American origins to the worldwide industrialisation of chocolate, as well as modern Belgian artisan manufacture. Choco-Story Brussels is actually the result of a marriage between two chocolate museums: the original Brussels Museum of Cocoa and Chocolate (in the Grand Place) founded by the Van Lierde-Draps family in 1998, and a similar chocolate museum called Choco-Story, which was founded in Bruges by the Van Belle family in 2004. In 2014 the two enterprises came together to create the new museum at the current site in Brussels, a listed building dating from 1697.
This is a perfect pilgrimage spot for chocolate lovers: a beautiful and historic square within walking distance of the Grand Place. The Place du Grand Sablon has long been famous for its antiques shops and its weekend antiques market. But over the years it has also attracted virtually all the big names in Belgian chocolate. Here you will find the flagship shop of Pierre Marcolini as well as branches of Godiva, Neuhaus and Leonidas. This is also the home of Wittamer – boulanger, pâtissier and chocolatier of the highest quality, founded in 1910 and still run by the same family.
The pâtisserie is exquisite, the handmade chocolates a marvel – and when they are combined in a cake, angels dance on your tongue. The shop has a café attached where you can test to see if this is an exaggeration. Towards the top of the square, near the beautiful Gothic church of Notre Dame du Sablon, you’ll find Passion Chocolat. The company was founded in 1998 with a mission to use artisan techniques to develop new flavours and revive old forgotten ones in a range of more than 80 pralines, ganaches and truffles. This shop opened in 2009 and “where passion meets pleasure” is their slogan: a fair summary of the cult of chocolate in Brussels.