How did one of Europe’s smallest countries become one of the world’s largest exporters of quality chocolate? It all comes down to a king, a chemist and some exceedingly clever technology. Like a craggy truffle, Belgium sits snugly between France, Germany, the Netherlands and Luxembourg – and it is the country’s crossroads location that has helped it to develop a reputation as one of the greatest chocolate-making nations on earth. For a tiny country, Belgium produces a massive 270,000 metric tonnes of chocolate every year and boasts more than 2,000 chocolatiers, which form part of an industry dating back to the 1600s. But just what is it about Belgium that makes it a haven for chocolate lovers around the world? The Belgians have the Spanish to thank for at least some of their sweet prowess. When in the seventeenth century Spanish explorers conquered and plundered South America, they brought back cocoa beans to the old world, including to Belgium, which was then ruled by Spain. However, as with many luxury goods such as tea, tobacco and wine, cocoa remained the preserve of the ruling elite, until the second half of the nineteenth century, that is, when Belgian King Leopold II colonised the Congo.
Leopold didn’t know it then but he inadvertently kick-started a Belgian chocolate revolution when he shifted cocoa cultivation from South America to west-central Africa, which not only promised the perfect climate for growing cocoa but also a ready supply of slave labour. With the kind of access to cocoa that other European countries could only dream of, Belgium’s chocolate-making industry flourished. But the Belgian public didn’t just enjoy the taste of chocolate; they used it as a form of medicine. Crucially, in 1857, a gentleman named Jean Neuhaus opened a pharmacy in Brussels, where, among pills, syrups and tinctures he sold bars of high-quality homemade chocolate. Inevitably, customers preferred cocoa to cough medicine, prompting the entrepreneur to focus his efforts on chocolate making. It was a move that would change Belgian enterprise forever because in 1912, Neuhaus’s grandson, Jean II, invented the now-famous Belgian praline by filling hard chocolate shells with a soft cream and nut paste.
One of the things that continue to set Belgian chocolate apart from the rest is a stubborn insistence on tradition (much like its army of world-respect abbey brewers). Today, Neuhaus & Co, along with thousands of artisan chocolatiers in towns, villages and cities across the country, continue to make chocolate in much the same way as their forefathers.
However, these days cocoa is not only sourced from the tropical rain forests of Africa but also from Asia, the Pacific islands and Central and South America. Here, ripe cocoa pods are hand harvested and left to ferment for up to a week, kick-starting a plethora of enzymatic reactions that improve both the flavour and colour of the final product. After a week of being sun-dried, the beans are rigorously tested for quality, roasted and then winnowed (de-shelled). Finally, the nibs (as they’re known) are ground into a thick paste called chocolate liquor, which is pressed to extract cocoa butter, leaving behind a solid mass that is ground into cocoa powder.
According to the Belgian Chocolate Code, products labelled as “Belgian Chocolate” must be refined and molded in Belgium. Belgian chocolate makers also insist on using 100% cocoa butter (as opposed to the vegetable fats, palm oil and shea butter found in the mass-produced stuff), resulting in a smoother finished product.
In another stroke of genius, before conching and tempering, Belgian chocolatiers cleverly grind their sugar and cocoa particles down to a size of 18-20 micrometres – smaller than the distance between the papillae of the tongue, which has the effect of super-charging its flavour. It is this kind of attention to detail that results in chocolate with over 600 flavour compounds, making it one of the most complex foods on earth.