Brussels, as any aficionado can tell you, is the world capital of chocolate. Home to a bevy of culinary wizards whose divine creations can make one weep with joy, it is easy to see why the average Belgian consumes, on average, 15lb of the stuff each year. Make no mistake, Belgian chocolate bears absolutely no resemblance to the cloyingly over sweet bars manufacturers try to tempt us with at supermarket checkouts in the UK. That sort of thing the Belgians contemptuously refer to as ‘confectionary,’ the Belgian ‘c’ word. Anything described as ‘chocolate,’ must contain at least 30% cocoa, but if truth be told, even the milk varieties on offer by the best makers contain a minimum of 50%.
The uniquely Belgian way with chocolate can be traced back to 1857 when Jean Neuhaus opened his shop in the Galeries de Reine. However it wasn’t cocoa based products he was selling back then, but medicines; M. Neuhaus was a pharmacist. He did, however have the innovative idea of covering his pills in chocolate to make them more palatable. When some years later, Jean Neuhaus junior expanded on his grandfather’s idea, replacing the medicine with cream and thus creating the first filled chocolate, he started a culinary revolution. He called it praline. The pralines were an instant success and when Jean’s wife, Louise, designed an elegant box, the Ballotin, for them, they soon became a must have gift.
There are now dozens of varieties to choose from, many of which have been in production for decades. Bonbon 13 and Astrid, created in 1937, have remained classics and are still made to the original recipe. Likewise Caprice and Tentation, created for the World Exhibition in 1958. The delicious nougatine biscuit coated in chocolate and filled by hand with fresh cream or ganache is still, unsurprisingly, extremely popular today.
Their products change seasonally and come Easter they sell possibly the best mini eggs on the market filled with everything from biscuit praline to creamy mint.
Neuhaus is now a global concern with over 1000 sales outlets in 50 countries. Despite this, every chocolate sold is still manufactured in Belgium. And it is still possible to visit the original shop in the Galeries de Reine. It may no longer be a pharmacy but a box of pralines is bound to go a long way to curing many ills.
Godiva and Leonidas are the only two brands who can match Neuhaus for global impact, but for Brussels natives this is chocolate for tourists. Residents prefer the smaller artisan brands with scarcely a presence outside of Belgium. From small family run concerns to contemporary innovators who have turned chocolate making into a hip new art form, these are the places to go for some seriously mind blowing chocolate.
Mary, the Grande Dame of Belgian chocolatiers, is a rather demure concern. Eschewing the contemporary glamour of many of the newer kids on the block for a traditionally elegant refinement, her products are creations of nostalgic beauty, sold in exquisitely made boxes, often hand painted or even covered in silk.
Mary Delluc, who first set up shop in the Rue Royale in 1919, devoted her life to her business and never married. With no heir to pass the business on to, her senior saleswoman took over the reins when Mlle Delluc finally retired in 1950. She eventually sold the business to a M. And Mme Lamberty in 1981 and it is their grand nephew Michel Boey and his wife Sarah Maertens who now run things. They have wisely chosen to respect the company’s heritage and a visit to one of their stores still feels like entering another era.
Dark chocolate mousse on a praline base, caramel ganache on a nougatine base and a white chocolate mousse delicately flavoured with cinnamon are just some of the delightful array of pralines on offer. There are also divine truffles including dark chocolate flavoured with wild berries or vanilla cream dusted with speculoos, and a fabulous range of chocolate covered marzipan. The finest almond paste is mixed with candied orange peel, pistachio or walnuts to create a deliciously rich range of taste sensations.
And as if the chocolates weren’t enough, Mary also offers possibly the finest artisan Melo Cakes on the market. A delicately salted crisp butter biscuit is topped with fluffy marshmallow and then coated in a decadently thick layer of milk or dark chocolate. Try these and Tunnock’s Teacakes will never seem the same again.
The original store may have moved from number 180 to 73 in Rue Royale but it is still considered one of the 1000 places to visit before you die. The writers were probably considering the building’s ornate interior when they included it, but visitors are likely to concur for an altogether more gourmet reason.
Wittamer has had a home on Brussels’ genteel Place du Sablon since 1910 when Henri Wittamer opened a boulangerie at number 6. Henri II and his wife Yvonne expanded it in to a celebrated patisserie and when their offspring Henri III (now known as Paul) and Myrium took over the reins in the late 60s they also began offering chocolates.
Quick to realise the benefit of new technology, they began creating increasingly modern and innovative products. The first makers to use colour in the decoration of their chocolates, they now offer delicacies as exquisite in taste as in design, sold in their signature Schiaparelli pink boxes. Raisins flambéed in rum offer a sublime chocolate version of the ice-cream classic whilst their orangettes and mendicants are possibly the finest in the city. A box of their raspberry ganache hearts are sure to win a place in any recipients affections.
The original boulangerie is still open at no.6. and now houses a cafe where you can sample some of the best patisserie in the city. It also offers an insanely decadent hot chocolate, so thick it is almost like drinking molten cocoa served with a bowl of whipped cream. Pop down the road to number 12 for the full range of their chocolates.
Pierre Marcolini is a very special chocolatier, one of a very select group, known in the trades as, ‘bean to bar,’ artisans who have their own, ‘bank,’ of cocoa beans.
When he started his business in 1995 the market seemed full but unchanging. With the simplest of ideas – smaller chocolates with less sugar combined with innovative new flavours such as flowers, spices and fruit – he managed to start a revolution. Bitter ganache flavoured with pink peppercorns from Morocco, dark chocolate infused with coffee and cardamom, orange blossom and mountain honey ganache, lychee and raspberry and bergamot and lime give you some indication of the variety of innovative flavour combinations on offer.
It was also Marcolini who introduced the concept of Grand Cru chocolate. As the name suggests, this is chocolate to be savoured like wine, which makes perfect sense when you consider that, just as with grapes, every bean has its own colour, fragrance and flavour depending on the climate and terrain in which it is grown. His bean suppliers come from all over the world – Venezuala, Peru, Brazil, Madagascar, Vietnam, Indonesia and, uniquely so he claims, even Cuba. The plantations he buys from are all independent and generally range from 7.5 – 25 acres. To put that it in to perspective, an industrial scale plantation would be around 250 acres. He visits the bean plantations once or twice a year and is on first name terms with the famers.
Unsurprisingly, this attention to detail, results in some seriously good chocolate. His single origin chocolate can conveniently be bought in bite sized squares allowing one’s palate to take a culinary trip around the globe.
Frederic Blondeel is another bean to bar artisan. His cocoa beans are carefully roasted until they have taken on the desired taste and texture using, amongst other things his Grandfather’s Santos Palace Coffee roaster dating back to 1953. He offers ten different single origins bars in addition to three different cocoa powders and a delectable array of spreads – milk chocolate, dark chocolate, chocolate and hazelnut or speculoos.
Pralines as elegant as jewels come flavoured with Earl Grey, basil, thyme, pepper, lime, caramel and rose, raspberry or even wasabi. The Gladiators, single origin discs with the addition of nuts and dried fruit, are sublime.
At his shop on the Quai aux Briques he also serves world class hot chocolate flavoured with cinnamon and star anise or cardamom and cherry. Order an ice cream and the cone is placed under a fountain of molten chocolate before being filled with any one of an array of intriguing flavours. The ginger and chocolate is particularly good.
For Jean-Phillipe Darcis, chocolate is an all consuming passion with skills honed doing internships with the best in the business, including Wittamer. His pralines, decorated with Bridget Riley stripes are edible works of art. Raspberry ganache infused with rose petals, caramel blended with Belgian Owl whisky and lime and chocolate fondant are just some of the milk chocolate delights. The caramel blended with Madagascan vanilla is a treat for white chocolate fans and once you have tried the peanut praline lightly seasoned with Guérande you will never again be able to let a Reese’s Cupcake pass your lips.
A recent addition are ganache batons created from a base of 8 single origin beans, perfect for the Grand Cru novice.
He also offers orangettes, citronettes, mendicants and melo cakes and is renowned for his macarons which, unsurprisingly, come with an emphasis on chocolate combinations; chocolate ganache and banana with a touch of nutmeg, a subtle melange of raspberry and chocolate or a pure Peruvian chocolate which is simply mind blowing.
Jean Galler’s way with the bean has led some to label him, ‘Brussels god of chocolate.’ He has been quoted as saying that it isn’t enough to use the best chocolate, one has to, ‘source the finest ingredients and create delicacies that are dreams.’ In this he has most certainly succeeded as his pralines are indeed out of this world, the apricot and earl grey being particularly fine.
What makes him unique amongst Brussels chocolatier’s, however, are his filled bars. Twenty one different flavours in multi-coloured wrappings offering a kaleidoscope of taste and texture sensations. Dark chocolate with vanilla mousse and Grand Marnier cream, milk chocolate with fresh almond marzipan coated with caramelized praline or a smooth orange mousse blended with Napolean liqueur and orange zest. For white chocolate fans there is a coffee and hazelnut mousse, fresh pistachio and white chocolate paste or a dark praline with shredded coconut.
The gift box of mini bars resembles a delightfully edible box of coloured pencils.
In a crowded market it’s difficult to stand out, but Laurent Gerbaud has managed to do just that with his focus on fruits, nuts and spices. A lengthy stay in China introduced him to the rich realm of Asian tastes which he realised would work well if coated with chocolate. He began with kumquats in dark chocolate and then went on to do the same with plums, pears, apricots, figs and ginger.
His only guide is what he likes but fortunately he has excellent taste. Traditional orangettes and citronettes are complimented by his own unique grapefruit version. Mendiants come in a choice of milk or dark chocolate topped with grilled and caramelized piedmont hazelnuts or grilled and salted pistachios.
The chocolate he uses was developed by the celebrated Italian makers Domori, especially to match the fruits and nuts he chooses. The 75% dark chocolate is a blend of Trinitaria beans from the Sambriana Valley in Madagascar to give richness and intensity, and the Nacional, grown exclusively in Ecuador, to ensure exceptional length. The 50% milk version uses the Nacional with a touch of Guérande salt.
His infectious enthusiasm is evident in the regular Saturday workshops and tastings he offers. Participants are given the opportunity to create their own Mendiants from different families of ingredients. This is followed by a tasting which can turn into a true education for the palate.
Whichever maker you chose – if you can restrain yourself to limiting it the one – be warned, there will never be any going back to Cadburys.
Neuhaus, Galerie de le Reine 25-27, 1000 + 32 2 512 63 59
Mary, Rue Royale 73, 1000, + 32 2 217 45 00
Wittamer, Place du Grand Sablon 6 (Cafe), 12 – 13 (Choccolatier) + 32 2 512 37 42
Pierre Marcolini, Rue de Minimes 1 (Place du Grand Sablon), 1000 + 32 2 514 12 04
Frederic Blondeel, Quai aux Briques 24, + 32 2 512 77 12
Darcis, Rue au Beurre 40, 1000, + 32 2 502 14 14
Galler, Rue au Beurre 44, 1000, + 32 2 502 02 66
Laurent Gerbaud, Rue Ravenstein 2D, 1000, + 32 2 511 16 02