** special thanks to Emma for contributing photos to this post. Her images are truly delicious.
Belgium is the self-proclaimed chocolate center of the universe. Each year, Belgians consume 9.69 kg of chocolate per person. Back in 1857 Jean Neuhaus opened an apothecary shop near the Grand Place. Soon in addition to selling medicinal cures, he was selling liquorices, marshmallows and dark chocolate tablets. Its said he even chocolate coated some pills to make them more palatable to swallow.
Gradually he and his son Frederic gave more and more shelf space over to the chocolate and the traditional medicines retired. Frederic was pretty forward thinking and invented a chocolate filled bonbon called pralines, and they were wildly popular. There is an urban myth today that the Belgian Health Ministry requires pralines to carry a label “potentially addictive” because they are so delicious.
Given we only had one day to explore Brussels (and I don’t like beer) we totally devoted ourselves to the pursuit of chocolate. We started the day with breakfast (bread with chocolate hazelnut spread for me) hot chocolate for the kids.
Then we met our chocolate tour guide outside Godiva. We tasted 90% dark bar there and we learned that while percentage of chocolate mass in the bar is important, the variety of the cacao bean makes all the difference. Cacao beans are a bit like coffee– different places produce wildly different tasting product. Godiva uses a blend of beans from the Caribbean and they are very mild—making it possible to have a 90% (which I found too sweet).
The posh chocolate shops in Brussels resemble jewelry stores. There are gorgeous window displays with discrete lighting. Boxes are embellished and stylish so that the chocolate experience begins way before you ever taste it. People speak in quiet voices like they are in a museum to appreciate a masterpiece.
White, black, brown is the color pallate to best offset the chocolate. Posh places have very subtle branding and high quality product is sold in very small quantities! Clerks behind the counters (usually fashion model beautiful girls wearing wearing white gloves) serve customers personally, placing one chocolate on a platter, as if it were a rare gem.
We had tastings with 4 other chocolatiers —some good, some fantastic, and some not so great. And then best of all, we went to a chocolate workshop where we created our own chocolates.
Max loved this part and made some delicious chocolate discs with nuts and toppings. I got pretty fancy and made chocolate monograms for each of us.After 4 hours of chocolate tasting, Max cried for mercy and we ate waffles on the way home. Thanks for the sweet visit Belgium!