It’s Valentine’s Weekend, another great excuse for chocoholics to indulge. But for serious commitment to the cocoa bean, Belgians are the ones to beat.
THE 17th-century French nobleman and renowned writer François de la Rochefoucauld once said: “Love the chocolate deeply without complexes or guilt, because I remind you; without a touch of madness, there is no reasonable man” — and I think I know what he means.
The mad craving for chocolate is as constant and everlasting a phenomenon as love itself. That seems to be the belief that runs through the veins of all full-blooded Belgians. Their love affair with chocolate began back in the 17th century when the Spanish ruled this part of the world.
It was originally in Zaragoza in 1532 that some clever Spaniards got cocoa beans from South America (where they were already in use for hundreds of years as currency) and sugar from the Middle East, put them together and created chocolate. Europeans couldn’t get enough of it and from Belgium, it spread to France, Italy and all over the place. Ironically, Switzerland was one of the last countries in Europe to discover the seductive pleasures of chocolate and they’re now the most voracious consumers in the world of the stuff, scoffing 12kg a year for each citizen.
Belgium is a close second with a healthy chocoholic problem that sees the average Belgian consume 10kg every year and it’s not surprising perhaps that Brussels finds itself at the heart of the world of chocolate seeing as it is a European invention. Its European heritage is something that will now be celebrated in the Chocolate Way — a new cultural itinerary on the brink of receiving its official imprimatur from the EU officials, according to Dott. Filippo Pinelli — one of the Italian founders of the idea that takes in several countries across Europe:
“I got the original idea five years ago when I was on the Camino de Santiago in Spain. It got me very interested in the idea of our European cultural routes and when I studied it a bit more, I realised that there were so many different cultural routes — gastronomic, wine, olive oil, etc. So it occurred to me that we should make a cultural chocolate route because chocolate is a European invention.”
Filippo was talking to me at the Salon du Chocolat in Brussels. This mammoth roadshow tours around the continent on its own chocolate way, bringing the art of making, tasting and eating chocolate to a spectacular stage. It took place last weekend in Brussels (surprisingly, its first time in the Belgian capital), with masses of crowds crazy for chocolate pouring through the doors to witness an event that venerates chocolate in a cathedral-sized exhibition centre.
All the really big names in chocolate were there and many of them are Belgian: the likes of Leonidas and purveyors to the Belgian royal family Neuhaus. This latter company is the one who brought pralines into the world just over a hundred years ago and they’re still coming up with new ideas, such as the new cornet doré — an irresistible bite-sized golden-hued cone of soft creamy chocolate. One of the Neuhaus master chocolatiers was turning out cornets dorés at a ferocious rate, with people snapping them up as quickly as he could make them.
Another great Belgian institution — Valentinos — were there too and were one of the main contributors to the fashion show of chocolate dresses — a spectacular sight that brings together haute couture, chocolate and female allure. There were many many things made from chocolate at the fair. These included a table display of fruit bowls filled with fruit and ornate candlesticks at each end; all made from chocolate. There was a solid chocolate version of one of Brussels’ most famous landmarks from Valentino — the Mannekin Pis statue, only this little boy was also peeing liquid chocolate. Chocolate shoes, lips and more intimate body parts were for sale. There was even an obscure piece of artwork involving what looked like skulls half-buried in a pile of wood-shavings, except that the entire thing was made of chocolate. The pièce de resistance, though, was the towering Leonidas display that was a glorious piece of chocolate sculpture, featuring a number of their trademark Greek hero’s heads and a column studded with a vast array of their many different chocolates, all topped with another huge Leonidas head coming out of a chocolate sphere.
Lots of the artisanal ones were there too, including chocolate ice-cream maker Gilfi, Brussels-based Laurent Gerbaud who makes chocolate with the most unexpected flavours but no sugar, the naked-lady-on-a-horse approach from Godiva and the glitteringly mouth-watering chocolate displays laid out like a jewellery shop under glass cases, such as with Pierre Marcolini and Debailleul.
Back in the heart of Brussels city centre, everything gravitates towards the Grand Place. This is where Brussels is at its most charming. By day, it’s a gorgeous and lively spot but it’s at night that the Grand Place really comes to life. The 17th-century gothic buildings that were so lovingly built by the merchants of this city are magnificently lit and their gilded edges sparkle back the light so magically that it would take the hardest of hearts not to be seduced.
The streets emanating from each corner of the square are arguably the most choc-full of chocolate shops that you’ll find anywhere in the world. All the best names are on display within a stone’s throw. Neuhaus and Godiva are both on the Grand Place itself, with Leonidas, Elisabeth and La Maison du Chocolat all quite literally within a stone’s throw down the beguiling side streets. On top of that, there are dozens of the less-well-known names crammed into this area — the small and medium-sized chocolate-makers that make up the bulk of the country’s heaving chocolate industry offering a dazzling variety of their wares in their window-fronts. Even the museum devoted to the story of the cocoa bean is in this area.
The Belgians are a famously divided people — two languages and two separate cultural identities that avoid mixing with one another unless they really have to. In the business of making and consuming chocolate, however, they are united and it’s in the heart of Brussels that you get to inhabit and walk around this harmonious world: a glimpse of a glittering, romantic jewel of a city centre and one that is made for lovers of that touch of madness that makes reasonable people of us all.
Aer Lingus operates direct flights from Cork (twice a week) and Dublin (daily) to Brussels International Airport. For further details, see www.aerlingus.com. A regular train service brings you into the heart of the city in 20 minutes for about €8.
Le Méridien Hotel ( www.lemeridienbrussels.com) is a high-level option if you want your creature comforts. It enjoys an unbeatable location in the heart of it all, right across a pleasant pedestrian plaza from Brussels Centrale Station and therefore accessible directly via the 20-minute train ride from the airport.
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