Tuesday, February 21, 2012
Belgium Series - I - Belgian Chocolate
What better way to start this series than with what seems to be one of the most famous products of Belgium - the CHOCOLATE.
It is not the first time I am talking about chocolate (see here), but this time it will be another approach. I am not talking just about raw chocolate, but about chocolate in general and why Belgian chocolate is so famous.
The term of chocolate probably derives from Yacatan Mayan words "chokol"(=hot) and "atl"(=water). From times older than 1400 BC chocolate was used as a drink, a spicy drink. It was a mesoamerican luxury, drunk initially by Mayan and Aztecs. The beverage was done by grounding cacao seeds and turning these into a paste to which water was added so that this mixture would turn into a bitter drink.
In the 16th century, a missionary who lived in Peru and later on in Mexico writes the following about chocolate: "The Spaniards, both men and women that are accustomed to the country are very greedy of this Chocolate. They say they make diverse sorts of it, some hot, some cold, and some temperate, and put therein much of that "chili"; yea, they make paste thereof, the which they say is good for the stomach and against the catarrh...".
1585 was the first recorded shipment of chocolate to Europe for commercial purposes. It was still served as a drink, but in order to reduce the bitterness, cane suggar was added and chilli was removed from the mix.
In the 17th century, while being ruled by the Spanish, Belgium was introduced to the cocoa bean. The drink was highly appreciated and a favourite place to enjoy it was the Grand Place in Brussels. Brussels was the place where the story of Swiss chocolate also began: the mayor of Zurich, Henri Escher, experienced chocolate for the first time in 1697 and took this discovery with him to Switzerland, which is now a primary competitor of Belgium in terms of chocolate production.
Being so much in love with chocolate, the Belgians searched for their own supply and found it in Congo with the help of King Leopold II. Unfortunately, chocolate history in this chapter is very bitter for the population of Congo.
However, the Belgians managed to surprise the world in the domain of chocolate, so nowadays only this part of history is remembered. 1857 saw the opening of the first chocolate shop in Brussels, by Neuhaus, which still exists today. Neuhaus' grandson invented 1912 the first praline, by filling an empty chocolate shell with sweet substances.
What makes Belgian Chocolate nowadays so unique, so luxurious, is the fact that these gourmet products are confections by chocolatiers who use the highest quality of ingredients and Old World manufacturing techniques. It is in the ingredients and the craftsmanship that the quality lies.
There are more than 300 chocolate companies in Belgium, and thousands of shops around the country, and when you walk the streets of Brussels like I have done recently, you will see how many shops offer you chocolate, you just need to turn your head to another direction and there you will see the next place selling chocolate. My advice: go with brands such as Neuhaus, Godiva, Cote d'Or, Guylian or Leonidas.
I have noticed a lot of shops selling you extra offers of "six pralines boxes for the price of ... Euro" or "special offer, only now 6 boxes for the price of 2", and most of them are in very touristic areas, such as next to the Grande Place in Brussels. There was another shop I entered, which was packed with Chinese tourists who bought around 10 boxes each of pralines,... next to the famous Manneken Pis statue, and once they went out of the shop I could see that even the price tags where in Chinese and so was the sales assistant. It was probably a place to stop for the tourists from that region of the world, and a place where they thought they would buy the real thing as a great deal. I must repeat the fact that I advise against it. Just across the Manneken Pis statue is also a small Godiva shop, and when you see the people inside the shop, creating then and there the chocolates, by hand, then you notice the difference.
I am not much of a hot chocolate drinker, but it was a very frosty day when I wandered the streets of Brussels and I must say I had my taste of hot chocolate heaven at Godiva. When I drank that "potion", I understood why that population fell in love with it - it was a drink that surprisingly raised my happiness level, without intoxicating me (as alcohol could do to you), and it makes me smile even now when I think of it. It made the snow which was falling down on me seem nonexistent and the humidity which was going through one's clothes, disappeared as well. Even the grey sky didn't seem to bother me anymore. Maybe all these feelings were also there due to the fact that I was on vacation, but I am positive that the chocolate had a great contribution to my well being.