Text & photos ©2010
What could be better at any time of year than chocolate? And what could be a better place to sample it than Flanders, Belgium?
I have recently returned from Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium. I have enjoyed its many charms: its art and architecture, its robust beer, its waffles and crispy chips, but above all, I have been enjoying chocolate — traditional and exotically filled pralines, silky smooth truffles and tablets of chocolate. I have been in Brussels (a French, as well as Dutch-speaking city), Antwerp, Bruges and Ghent.
Many say that Brussels’ Grand’ Place, edged with 17th-century brick and stone guild houses, is the finest city square in Europe. And it was there, at the Maison des Maitres Chocolatiers Belges, in what was once the guild house of cabinetmakers and coopers, that I began my chocolate adventure. There, sipping hot chocolate, I learned the history of chocolate, saw a chocolate-making demonstration and tried my own hand at pouring molten chocolate into molds. Then I set off to visit some of Belgium’s master chocolate-makers.
Near the Central Railroad Station, at Laurent Gerbaud’s chocolate shop, I watched chocolates being made behind glass and sampled some of the new tastes in Belgian chocolate. For the last half dozen years, young chocolatiers have been updating traditional chocolates. Gerbaud, who spent several years making chocolates in China, is one of those in the forefront of the nouvelle vague. With neither butter nor sugar readily available in China, he experimented with making truffles without them. He found that salt and pepper combined well with dark bitter chocolate, as did the Japanese citrus fruit yuzu and the kumquat. At the chocolate shop of Jean Galler, I was told that seaweed and bitter chocolate are another fine combination, as are beets and carrots and chocolate.
Next, I found my way to the Place du Grand-Sablon which, like the Grand’ Place, is surrounded by step-gabled houses and the 16th-century Gothic Notre Dame de Sablon, notable for its stained glass windows. Many of the buildings around the square are now home to elegant antique and clothing shops, but in others, there are chocolate shops. Two of Belgium’s most popular traditional chocolatiers — Neuhaus and Godiva — have shops there, as does Wittamer, a patisserie that is also a leading chocolatier, and Pierre Marcolini who, a few years ago, was named the best chocolate-maker in the world.
At the cosy Neuhaus shop, I discovered that it was Jean Neuhaus Jr. who, in 1921, created the chocolate-filled praline, while his wife, Louise, dismayed that his fine chocolates were being jumbled into a paper cone to be sold, invented the ballotin (the cardboard box in which all chocolate-makers’ confections have been layered ever since).
In Marcolini’s elegant, multi-storied store, I learned that its founder, who says he is “obsessed” with the cocoa bean, finds its chemistry as complex as that of fine vintage wines. Some of his chocolates are traditional, flavored with vanilla and caramel, raspberry and hazelnuts; but others have pink pepper berry flavoring, or are infused with saffron or coriander or Earl Grey tea. Some are simple six-gram squares, far lighter than most chocolates, but especially rich in flavor and texture.
On the rue Royale, not far from the royal palace, I stopped at Mary Chocolatier, a pretty little shop, where President George W. Bush, on a visit, found the chocolates (they are traditional) the finest he had ever tasted. From there, I did a bit of sightseeing, going to the new Magritte Museum of that Surrealist painter’s work and to the Musee d’Art Ancien.
At the Galeries Royales de Saint-Hubert, the mid-19th-century shopping arcade in the heart of downtown Brussels, chocolatiers abound, but with limited time to spend in Brussels, I took the train to Antwerp to see some of its chocolatiers.
I emerged from the train at the massive 1895 iron and glass Central Railway Station. Almost next door is Antwerp’s Diamond Museum. Since Antwerp has been a center of diamond cutting for five centuries, I went in to view diamonds and diamond-cutting. From there, I found my way down the Meir, the main shopping street, and then through winding smaller streets to Günther Watte’s Chocolade Café where I had a raspberry and saffron-filled praline. Next, I stopped at Renee Goossen’s, a chocolatier in business for 50 years. His miniature chocolate hands (the symbol of Antwerp), filled with the local liqueur, Elixer d’Anvers, are old-school, but ever popular. I visited the pleasant Del Ray tearoom for tea and pastry and traditional chocolates. My final chocolate stop in Antwerp was at the Burie Chocolatier that specializes in making chocolate creations in unusual shapes. For the sheik of Dubai, they had fashioned his palace in chocolate, six feet by six feet and, along with two chocolate camels, sent it off to him by air.
While in Antwerp be sure to stop by the 17th-century Flemish Renaissance Rubens House. It was designed by the artist himself and is filled with his work. Nearby and also worth a visit is the 14th-century Cathedral of Our Lady, the largest Gothic cathedral in Belgium, where Rubens’ Elevation of the Cross and Descent from the Cross both hang.
Picturesque Bruges with its medieval brick houses and still canals, its cobblestone squares and little bridges, and the white-washed cottages of its Begijnhof (founded in the 13th century as a retreat for widows and single women), was the next stop on my chocolate tour. It was in Bruges, at The Chocolate Line, that I learned from Dominique Persoone, its founder, all about his up-to-date praline fillings. Their centers, for example, may pair oyster juice with boiled fresh cream or smoked eel with cauliflower and orange. Olives, sun-dried tomatoes and basil are combined in still another praline. Chopped garlic and cream, fried onion, cola or cigar leaves are used in other “new taste” chocolates that Persoone has created.
Because there are 52 chocolate shops in Bruges, more than in any other Belgian town, a two-hour walking and tasting tour of its chocolatiers is offered in summer. Another chocolate attraction of Bruges is its chocolate museum, Choco-Story, where chocolate-making is demonstrated. Nowadays, for health reasons, few chocolatiers allow customers to view the chocolate-making process, and larger shops generally require that an appointment be made in advance.
Next on my Flemish itinerary was the port city of Ghent, divided into islands by its two rivers, the Leys and the Scheldt, and linked together by more than 200 bridges. Many of its streets are being redone just now in preparation of the centennial of the World’s Fair held there in 1913. That made exploring somewhat difficult, but nevertheless, I found my way over its bridges, past its 9th-century castle and down its cobbled lanes on my chocolate shop quest. I took time out, too, to go to St. Bavo’s Cathedral to see the Hubert and Jan Van Eyck altarpiece, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. Then, at the Van Hecke chocolate shop, I sampled dark chocolate ganaches that are softer than pralines. The Van Heckes – father and son- do some experimenting with the new chocolate flavors, but most of their customers prefer traditional chocolates. At Lucas Van Hoorebeck’s, I had a ganache flavored with champagne and, there, without an appointment, I could watch, through glass, chocolate being made on the floor below.
Now I am home from my chocolate-eating rampage, several pounds heavier, I fear, than when I set out. But as well as eating chocolate, I have been learning about it. I now know that the Ivory Coast, Ghana and Indochina, are this century’s leading cocoa producers. I have found out that there are pralines-filled chocolates, and pralinés that are smooth chocolates usually of ground hazelnuts and caramelized sugar. And then there are the ganaches, made from fresh cream, butter and chocolate, combined and flavored with liqueur, tea, or fruit.
And, to my delight, I now know that chocolate is good for almost anything that ails you. It is rich in Vitamin E that prevents aging, and in flavanoids (anti-oxidants). It is also rich in magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and iron. And the tannic acid in it (take out the sugar) helps prevent tooth decay!
But the best thing about Belgian chocolate, of course, is how delicious it is. In Belgium, they know all about that. Their per capita consumption of chocolates is 12 pounds a year!
IF YOU GO:
Because Belgium is a small country, getting from city to city by rail or car is easily done. From Brussels, it is 29 miles to Antwerp, 60 to Bruges and 35 to Ghent. Trains between all major cities leave approximately every half-hour.
More information on Flanders is available from the Tourist Office of Flanders, Belgium, 620 8th Avenue, 44th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10018 New York, N.Y., 212- 584-2336 or from www.visitflanders.us.
La Maison des Maitres Chocolatier, 6 Grand’ Place, Brussels
Gerbaud, 2D Ravenstein, Brussels
Godiva, Grand Sablon 46-47, Brussels
Neuhaus, rue le Beau 79, Brussels
Pierre Marcolini, 4 rue du Bassin Collecteur. Brussels
Wittamer, 6 Place du Grand Sablon, Brussels
Mary Chocolatier, rue Royale 73, Brussels
Gunther Watte’s Chocolate Café, Steinhouwersvest, Antwerp
Goossen’s, 6 Isabellalei, Antwerp
Del Rey, Appelmanstraat 5, Antwerp
Burie Chocolatier, Horte Gasthuisstrasse 3, Antwerp
The Chocolate Line, Simon Stevenplein 19, Bruges
Van Hecke Chocolatier, Koestraat 42, Ghent
Lucas Van Hoorebeke., St. Baafsplein, Ghent
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