Monday, 25 March 2013

A Belgian Dozen - Part 2

Halfway through our whistle-stop food tour of Belgium's dozen best dishes, and things were going well. We successfully had eaten and drunk our way through the first part of the list, the Rennies were still in their box, the aspirin remained untouched and I could still tuck my shirt in.

We had planned a day trip to the lovely city of Ghent, primarily to see the Van Eyck's Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (sadly not edible). But before we could contemplate culture, we called in for some lunch at Het Groot Vleeshuis.

This grand medieval building, set on the canal side, was originally a butcher’s hall before more recently being used as a fishmonger, and even an overflow car park. Recent renovations have now seen it converted into a small café/restaurant and shop, selling only produce from Gent and the surrounding area of East Flanders. The building retains the covered markets original beams, which are strung with magnificent legs of the local Ganda ham. There are also additional outdoor seating areas for when the weather isn't so frigid.

We were here for the Gentse Waterzooi, a Flemish stew, said to have been the favourite dish of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, who was from the city of Ghent. The original dish was mostly made with fish, although chicken is now more common, possibly as the rivers around Ghent became too polluted to sustain aquatic life.

Waterzooi’s name derives from the Dutch term zooien meaning "to boil", and the idea of soggy vegetables and bland chicken floating in a thin sauce wasn't exactly whetting my appetite. Thankfully I stuck with my choice, realising there would be no better place to taste this speciality, and was rewarded with what was possibly the nicest plate of food of our whole trip. 

Beautifully poached soft chicken, fresh vegetables with a welcome crunch, and waxy little new potatoes bobbing in a perfectly seasoned and creamy broth that belied its soporific appearance. Although it was rich, the contrast of textures and flavours kept me rapt until the very last spoonful.

A little mention,too, for the Leute Bokbier; offered as the beer of the month on our visit. First brewed in the 1920's, before disappearing, this dark red top-fermented beer which goes through a second fermentation in the bottle, has only recently been revived. The waiter was so enamoured with it taht he took great pains in explaining the rounded glass had to be place in the stand before mouthfuls, and even insisted picking up my camera and taking a picture of it for us. A very nice drop.

Before a happy afternoon/evening's drinking in the nearby 't Dreupelkot and Waterhuis aan de Bierkant, I had alreadyspied this cosy looking little friterie, and 'Official Bicky Dealer' (a range of Belgian fast food condiments), from across the street.

It proved to be a useful spot, as we found ourselves staggering over there after several genevers and beer chasers, looking for some deep fried ballast to line our stomachs for the train ride back to Brussels. A cone of chips with mayo for the Ewing, one with Sauce Americaine for me, and a icy bottle of coke proved to be our saving grace from the rapidly encroaching hangover.

This was my second attempt on this trip to find 'my' sauce, and this time, with my choice of Americaine, I had picked a good'un. The spicy mayo-based condiment - based on the classic French sauce that usually accompanies lobster, and contains, amongst other things, tomato paste, cayenne pepper, herbs and garlic - was both piquant and creamy, and went perfectly with the cone of hot, crispy potatoes.

As well as our chips we also dared to try some of the mysterious breadcrumbed snacks lined up in the glass cabinet. Firstly a giant frikadel meatball (a mix of minced pork and horse), cut into quarters and nuked in boiling oil until crispy; and the ominously named 'Lucifer', a spicy reformed chicken stick, coated in crunchy cornflake pieces and shaped like a giant Swan safety match.

While I probably wouldn't want to repeat the experience sober, this was the perfect post-beer fast food in a beutiful location and served up by one of the most organised guys I have encountered. It takes a surprising amount of skill to charm keep up single-handedly with the hoards of hungry Gent teenagers on their way out for the night. Not to mention the clueless tourists....

After a morning spent at the Cantillon Brewery, La Fleur en Papier Dore - a maisonette style house dating from the middle of the 18th Century on a distinctly unlovable strip of the Marolles - was the perfect little cosy, friendly and slightly ramshackle bar in which to while away a few hours.

The building evolved from it's original use as a home to the convent of the sisters of Saint-Vincentius, to become, in a rather surreal twist of its own, a meeting place of Belgium’s surrealist scene, entertaining artists such as Paul Rouge, Rene Magritte, Marcel Lecomte, and Georges Remi (Hergé). Magritte even organised his very first exhibition here.

Sadly the famous artworks have all been sold, but there are still many interesting objects adorning the walls, including plenty of antlers and hunting horns, little sketches and framed cuttings from newspapers. There is also a large photograph, hanging up in the back room, which features a number of the above artists posing in front of the pub.

Following on from our morning visit to Cantillion, the Ewing chose a bottle of their gueze I went for the Trappist ale, Chimay Red, a dubbel, a stronger version of the traditional brown beer with a fruity, malty flavour and gentle bitterness.

We had decided on having a light snack before dinner, but ended up getting waylaid by the irresistible offer of stoemp; a sort of pimped-up mix between mash and bubble and squeak. To say the portion was generous may be a slight understatement, the mountain of carbs crowned by a giant pork sausage and two thick rashers of smoked bacon. 

This was the very best sort of comfort food; generous, hot and delicious. Despite my best intentions to leave a little, I ate until there was just a hillock of stoemp languishing in a small puddle of gravy.

Decent dining options around tourist landmarks are normally as rare as Steak Americaine, but ‘t Kelderke, on the Grand Place, is a welcome exception. With a name translating as ‘the cellar’ it may come as no surprise that this is a subterranean dining space, although there is some outside decking with seating for the warmer months.

While this may not be a place to linger for hours - there is a no bookings policy, and queues can get rather long at busy times – it is warm and friendly and the service swift. They also have a menu dominated with Belgian classics, making it perfect for our eating adventure.

While I could have picked the Chicons au gratin, or the Salade Liègeoise, or even the Bloedpens à la Bruxelloise (the very ominous sounding ‘black tripe’), I chose the Carbonnades Flammandes, or, more simply, Flemish beef stew.

Carbonnade has become one of my favourite winter dishes to cook at home. Never previously a fan of slow cooked beef, I initially decided to try cooking it for friends, as using a bottle of ale to stew the meat seemed far more economical than using a bottle of wine. The results were glorious; two hours unattended in a low oven and I was greeted with the sweetness of onion and chunks of iron-rich beef that collapsed into the bitter-edged and glossy gravy.

'T Kederke’s eclipsed even my best efforts. Initially I was rather sceptical; the speed the dish arrived at the table and the pile of frozen chips served on the side made me fear this was going to be a wasted dinner. Luckily the first mouthful put all my fears at ease. This is the sort of food that the word unctuous was created for; gelatinous, sweet and sticky, with a deep, almost liquorice, note from the beef. Yes, the chips were average, but lashing of mayo improved them no end.

The Ewing, as is her wont, picked the most expensive dish, the rabbit cooked in gueze beer. It turned out to be well worth it; the whole beast served up, stewed to a melting tenderness in a tangy, onion-spiked, ale sauce.

The aeons the Ewing spent gnawing each little rabbit bone for every last morsel gave me the time I needed to compose my self for the next course; Herve cheese with a Liegois syrup and baguette - not only did I manage to tick the cheese off the list, but it also came with the traditional fruit-based chutney from the eastern province of Liège, the region in which the cheese is produced, too.

The sticky, orange coloured washed rind pungent aroma gave a clue to the fragrant delights within. A spicy, sharp flavour - recommended for fans of Epoisses or Munster - that pairs very well with both the sweet fruit syrup and the glass of Grimbergen Optimo Bruno I was drinking. 

The Ewing went for the lighter option of Kriek sorbet, a refreshing and fruity delight, with a gentle almond-tinged edge and decorated with a couple of retro, fluorescent glace cherries for good measure.

Our final stop before catching our train back home to London was lunch at Viva M’Boma, a white-tiled former triperie that now specialises in cooking the sort of organ meats it used to originally sell.

The restaurant’s name means ‘long live the grandmother’ in old Bruxellois dialect, and it was living up to it's moniker as an elegant lady of a certain age, and clearly a regular, came in to enjoy a couple of glasses of vin rouge and a plate of meatballs while we were dining.

For the more adventurous of palate this place is a delight, with a menu featuring such dishes as kidneys, sweetbreads, pigs trotter, and pot au feu with oxtail and bone marrow. They even have Pis de Vache, or cow's udder, served three ways as fritters, pate and a carpaccio. 

I went for the 'meat of the moment', with Viande de cheval, or horse. The vast piece of steak they served was nicely balanced between a perfectly rare centre and a charred outer crust; the flesh with a butter-soft texture and a deep, slightly gamey flavour. 

The Ewing's choice, an onglet served with green beans, was served similarly rare, and had that deep ferrous note and decent amount of chew that comes from good, well hung meat.

To accompany were some decent frites (tasting unnervingly as if they came from a British chippie), and some braised witloof/chicory, the final piece in our eating puzzle. In this case the classic Belgian veg had been slowly cooked in stock and butter until it was gently yielding to the merest prod of a fork, and then glazed to bring out the delicate balance between sweetness and acerbity.

To finish, the Ewing managed to persuaded me (it didn't take too much) that I needed to try the homemade Tarte au Sucre, a classic Belgian sugar pie (rather like our treacle tart/a nut-less pecan pie), that had nearly made it into my original top twelve.

The vast slice that appeared was pitched perfectly, like the endive before, between sweet and bitter, with the filling caramelised to an unusually dark and nutty finish. Despite the richness, I was powerless to stop myself eating it; the contrast between the cold and milky ice cream and warm pie with its flaky crust, being outrageously moreish.

The Ewing didn't fare to badly either with her choice of Dandoy speculoos ice cream with caramelised apples and biscuit crumbs. Like the milkshake we had sampled at the Dandoy Tearooms, the crumbly, spicy cookies also make a great ice cream flavour and complimented the slices of warm fruit perfectly.

We had done it! With our last meal of the trip the final dish on the list was consumed and we could contentedly roll onto the Eurostar, to enjoy a final glass of wine, a little snooze and congratulate ourselves on a job well done.

Although it may have started off as rather a novelty, even the Ewing eventually embraced the idea as a good way to explore some previously unknown dishes, as well as still having plenty of opportunity to enjoy some of the tried and tested classics. And, with beer, frites and chocolate being the primary Belgian foodstuffs, it was unlikely our eating experience was ever going to end badly

The Flemings and Walloons may very much still feel they live in a divided nation, both linguistically and politically, but from our experiences it shows it shows that good food and drink knows no boundaries. Smakelijk eten/bon appétit!

Thursday, 21 March 2013

A Belgian Dozen - Part 1

When planning a trip to Cheshire/Lancashire for this spring, I realised I had never properly ventured into the North West corner of our Fair Isle. Thinking it might be a bit of a ‘fun' challenge - I could already hear the Ewing’s groans - I decided to make a list of dozen local foodstuffs to try and sample while on our travels.

As I started to research the idea - learning all about exciting delicacies such as rag pudding, parched peas and hot Vimto - I had a thought; why not try something similar on all our travels this year, starting with our week in Belgium. Cue the Ewing throwing her passport of a bridge, and herself after it.

Fortunately she soon came round, hot chocolate and waffles may have been mentioned, and I began to think about what Belgian delights I could feature on the list. Primarily they had to be traditional, reasonably easily available and, most importantly, edible. Our trip was too short to be staring down  plates of boiled offal or other funky dishes.

Again I was in luck, the Belgians have a proud and varied cuisine that takes the flavours of France and marries them with the generosity of the Germans; the perfect combination. And after much planning, I narrowed it down to a final twelve:

Grey Shrimp
Herve Cheese
Rabbit in Gueze Beer (Lapin à la gueuze)
Eels in a Green Sauce (Paling in 't groen)

Of course there were also chocolates and beer to consider, but such was our dedication to the cause they were going to need separate posts of their own. Yeah, its hard work, sometimes, this blogging lark.

We started our quest with Belgium's most celebrated dish, well, certainly the one they are most famous for, with a trip to Chez Leon for Moules et Frites.

Chez Leon may have seemed like an inauspicious start. With the original branch situated in Brussels - on the ultra touristy and garish Rue des Bouchers - there are now branches all over France and, most recently, London's Covent Garden. Nevertheless, it still makes it into all the guide books as somewhere solid, if unspectacular. Add the fact it was a mere stone’s throw from our hotel and they were also offering, with a voucher printed from their website, 50% off all food until mid March, it seemed the perfect choice for the first dinner of our trip.

I do love mussels - usually when someone else is responsible for cooking them - and these did not disappoint; Plump, all open, and mostly free of grit and unwelcome beardy bits. I chose a mushroom and cream sauce that seemed to be sadly lacking the advertised chives, but managed to be rich and earthy without overpowering the sweet molluscs.

The Ewing’s celery and wine stock was cleaner and lighter tasting, and equally good We, rather diplomatically, managed to share between the two bowls; dipping a chip here, a morsel of bread there, until we could eat no more.

Of course that wasn't strictly true, the Ewing always has capacity for a little bit of pudding, and the crème caramel, baked and served in a cute little glass pots, was certainly worth leaving a room for. The bitterness of the dark caramel on both the top and bottom nicely cut through the sweet, bland wobble of the baked custard.

With starters of Tomaat-garnaal (grey shrimp-stuffed tomato) for me, and Paling in 't groen (eels in green sauce) for the Ewing - both received very well, but the eels were certainly more of an acquired taste - we had already been able to strike off quarter of the list in a first meal. A very good haul, and well deserving of a late night nightcap at Morte Subite to celebrate.

The next morning, thankfully not feeling too fuzzy-headed, we headed down to Place Ste Catherine, for a stand up brunch at Mer du Nord. This little gem started out as a fishmonger and has now expanded to offer freshly cooked seafood and fizz from a little pavement bar on the corner of the square. Somewhere like this wouldn't be out of place in balmy Barcelona, but here in rather more frigid Brussels it’s surely a testament to charm of the place – and the wonderfully fresh seafood - that sees huge crowds jostling, come rain or shine, around the handful of high tables for an informal lunch or afternoon snack.

As it was our anniversary trip, we decided glasses of bubbles and a selection of oysters, for the Ewing, were in order. These were swiftly followed by a bowl of fish soup from the steaming tureen on the bar, accompanied with toast spread with rouille and a handful of Gruyere that formed oozy, unctuous strands when sprinkled into the broth. 

To follow crisp calamari, straight from the fryer, and the intriguing crab 'burger’; featuring a thick patty of white meat, fried until crisp and covered with a piquant sauce, all served on thick brown toast. Far removed from the classic patty on a bun, but fantastic stuff.

Finally we chose a portion of garnaalkroketten, or shrimp croquettes, a real Belgian speciality and the second time I had eaten grey shrimp in as many days (no bonus points, sadly).

I have spoken of my love of the grey shrimp, as well as creating my own version of the croquette, on the blog before, and Mer Du Nord's offering lived up to all expectations. Instead of plain béchamel, these were a lurid orange colour, and deep with the rich iodine note of the sea. Served piping hot and chased down with the rest of our cold champagne, I doubt you could find yourself a better feast before midday.

After a little detour to the hotel for a mid morning nap, the result of too much booze and too many croquettes, we were soon refreshed and ready for an afternoon of sightseeing and chocolate eating. The first stop was the Grand Place, Belgium’s most famous, and probably most beautiful,square. After mooching about for a bit the bitter cold finally got the better of us and we headed off to fortify ourselves with biscuits and hot chocolate from Maison Dandoy.

Established in 1829, Dandoy are still going strong, and producing a fine range of biscuits, cakes and marzipan. The most famous of these is the much loved  Speculoos, a small crunchy biscuit with brown sugar, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg and still prepared here by hand by pressing the pastry into a carved wooden mould. They even sell jars of Speculoos spread, rather like a spiced version of peanut butter.

Dandoy make many different versions of the speculoos, from the small biscuits that bare their name and are served with every hot drink in their tea room right through to great cookies in the shape of Sint Nicholas, available at Christmas time. As we’re in Brussels, their piece de resistance is a one shaped like the Mannekin Pis, which may be enough to put some off their afternoon snack.

I treated my self to a little gift box containing both traditional speculoos and a jar of their biscuit-y spread, while the Ewing, rather reservedly  went for a toasted fresh marzipan bell. They also sell many types of fresh gingerbread, pain au greque, studded with crunchy pearl sugar, and a variety of friable little sables flavoured with different fruit and nuts.

As well as the baked goods, we were also eager to to sample some of their celebrated waffles, served in the tea room upstairs or to takeaway from the front counter. While you can still buy waffles from a van for a Euro, the quality of most of them reminds me of the flabby, greasy pizza slices we used to get for a quid from Leicester Square when we were students. Far better to pay a few euros more to have them freshly cooked to order.

The Belgian waffle comes in two distinct types; the Brussels waffle, a light square confection made with a yeast batter; and the Liege waffle, a denser affair, with rounded corners and chunks of pearl sugar that give it a rather chewy texture. At Dandoy they serve both varieties, and offer a variety of different sauces, fresh fruit and ice creams to top them with.

I chose the classic Brussels waffle, served simply dusted with a drift of icing sugar. It was perfect;  fresh and crisp, served piping hot straight from the waffle iron. This isn't the kind of confection that keeps well, and to taste one as feather-light, yet buttery as this is a rare treat.

The Ewing's Liege waffle was a far richer affair, but no worse for that. To really guild the lily she had asked for chocolate sauce on top which took it, even for her, to the limits of sweetness. Again it was spankingly fresh, hot and crisp, and well worth the zillions of calories contained within.

As if that wasn't enough, we also shared a speculoos milkshake, thick with ice cream and perfumed with spiced, malty notes from the biscuits. Like everything else here it was utterly decadent; even the cappuccino is served with whipped cream and not steamed milk.

You can't possibly go to Belgium without drinking lots of beer, and you can't possibly drink lots of beer without eating something deep fried. - Despite their being named ‘French’ fries across the Pond, the Belgians see themselves very much the originators of the chipped potato. So enamoured are they with these deep fried sticks of tuber that there are even websites comparing the best fritkots in the land.

Sadly most of the top frites picks for Brussels, Frit Flagey, Maison Antoine, etc, were out towards the sticks, but there was one recommendation close to the centre that also happened to coincide nicely with our walk back from a beer sampling session at Moeder Lambic Fontinas.

Friterie Tabora, on the road of the same name, is just next to the Grand Place, making a very beautiful backdrop for a drunken snack. Fried food seems to have the magical ability to democratically unite everyone, and when we arrived there were odd clusters of tourists; a group of young Belgian women on the way out for the night; people queuing for a quick takeaway supper; and a couple in suits, clutching their briefcases in one hand and a cone of fries in the other.

I can’t profess to know enough about the humble chip to know if these were frozen or not, but I did notice the (very friendly and patient) chap working there was carefully double frying them in two separate fryers. The first dip  in a lower temperature oil to cook through, then up onto a draining shelf to cool, before a second dip at a higher temperature, to crisp up.

Plenty of hot and dangerous work, but probably worth it for these fries, which, while possibly not being the market leaders, did an admirable job and soaking up the booze and warming our frozen fingers. For those with even bigger appetites than I then there is the mitraillette, or machine gun, a baguette stuffed with a deep fried burger and chips and slathered in various sauces.

Fries just aren't fries without a topping of some sort. And Belgium is a heaven for a condiment lover like me, who knows that everything can be improved with a little sauce on the side.

This little article makes the very good point that it may take a little while to find your sauce of choice, but once you do it’s yours for life. The Ewing is a straight mayo girl in this respect, having fallen for it when we visited Amsterdam a few years ago. My favourite sauce while we were there was the fabulously titled ‘war’, a mixture of satay sauce and raw diced onions. This Indonesian inspired delight doesn't seem to have reached as far as Belgium, so I settled on a little pot of ‘pickels’ sauce, with which to to dunk. Disappointingly it was exactly like piccalilli; ok when mixed with a little mayonnaise, but not my sauce. The search continues.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Chocs Away - The Belgian Edition

The Ewing's obsessive love of chocolate has been well documented on the blog before - the abiding memory of one of our first 'dates', at a lovely pub in Greenwich, involved me having to run off halfway through, leaving the Ewing lachrymose and half cut, to find emergency supplies of Green and Blacks to restore her sugar levels.  

My love of the sweet stuff is slightly more restrained. While there is surely no finer flavour for ice cream, cakes and milkshakes, I'm not quite as smitten with it in an unadulterated form. I have been known to stash Easter eggs away for months before discovering them under the bed, melted and with a dusting of white 'bloom'. Even writing this now there is a half eaten bag of Christmas chocolate coins within arms reach on the table. But even I was powerless to resist the lure of a mini tasting tour of one of the finest chocolate producing nations in the world. 

Belgium, a country with a population of 11 million, houses over 2,000 chocolatiers producing 172,000 tonnes of the stuff annually. They are also known for taking their chocolate particularly seriously, with many aspects of its production still regulated by law (absolutely no vegetable fats are allowed, unlike their British brethren) with many chocolatiers still following traditional hand made recipes.

Our first port of call was at the Grand Sablon in Brussels, the epicentre of the Belgium chocolate scene with no less than eight shops nestled around the pretty square. And where better to start than with a visit to celebrated chocolatier, Pierre Marcolini, whose two floor flagship store is less a chocolate shop and more an sugar-coated experience.

As glitzy as a high class jeweller, and with wares just as precious, it’s worth coming here just to ahhh and oooh over the magnificent displays of cakes - as well as making fabulous chocolates, Marcolini was awarded the title of World Pastry Champion in 1995.

Walking up the narrow staircase the second floor was filled with an Easter display featuring novelties such a flat Easter eggs in boxes, bunny-eared Easter eggs and white chocolate Easter eggs shaped like chickens; as well as boxes containing Marcolini's famed Single-Origin Grand Cru collection, selections of Palet Fins, and miniature chocolate bars.

There was also a large case of individual ganaches and truffles, sparkling like edible jewels, and we had no problems quickly filling one of the medium-sized boxes with what felt like every chocolate in his collection. While I have no regrets in our choice, I was a little sad we didn't also pick up a range of his Saveurs du Monde, featuring individual lozenges of chocolate from all seven of the different countries he sources his cacao from (although I'm sure my waistline was sighing with relief).

Although the chocolates were quite beautiful to look at, initially I wasn't as taken with the taste. I don't know if it was because I had overdosed on frites and bier, but I have to confess to feeling a little under whelmed. Everything was delicious and beautifully crafted, but missing the little extra wow factor.

It was only when I got back to England and found my remaining chocolates still rattling around in the box (the Ewing's were long gone) that I actually began to appreciate their subtle flavours and elegance. Firstly, they feel really nice as you eat them. Not just the mouthfeel of the chocolate melting on your tongue, but the size and construction of each piece. These are delicate little treats to be savoured.

Secondly, the flavours were clean and bright with no sugary artificiality or cloying creaminess; favourites included the Palet Or Lait,  milk chocolate ganache with a vanilla caramel coulis; Pierre Marcolini's signature truffle - a mix of beans from Venezuela, Ghana, and Peru; a stunning Earl Grey ganache; and, unusually for me, a dark chocolate and cassis number, with a fresh blackcurrant jelly.

Although these were magnificent looking and quite delicious, I didn't fall hopelessly in love. For me they were perhaps a little bit too much style and not enough substance, coupled with the fact that many of the flavours were heady fruit and spice based confections that don't really float my boat. The Ewing, however, was entranced, and proclaimed them; 'my favourite chocolates in the world'. Very high praise indeed with only one venue down.

Wittamer, established in 1910, is sited just on the other side of the Sablon. After visiting Marcolini we had gone for a stroll around the Statue Park and got rather confused on the way back , initially thinking it wasn't there any more. Walking a few metres further it became clear it would be almost impossible to miss this place, with its double fronted hot pink awnings and Belgian flag flying above the store.

What we had failed to realise until after our visit is that this was their 'Pâtissier, Glacier & Traiteur';    a bakery selling a variety of sweet and savoury goodies with an upstairs cafe area. While they do sell chocolates, marshmallows, marzipan and marron glace here, they are all pre-bagged; if you want to chose your own selection then go to their second store front, just a few doors down.

Although initially a little disappointed we didn't seem to have a choice, it turned into a bit of a blessing as we were already in danger of being overloaded by the vast array of goodies on offer. In the end the Ewing kept it simple with a bag of classic dark chocolate truffles with almond praline, while I chose a small selection of their classic handmade chocolates to sample.

The Ewing was fairly underwhelmed by her choice, although it didn't stop her from scoffing them in double quick time. In fact, when I asked if she enjoyed them when we got back home, she couldn't initially remember actually eating them. (I do, I just wasn't that fussed by them. TE).

I was rather more pleased with my selection. The Epis De Mais, a gianduja milk chocolate 'corncob', was divine; with deep notes of malted milk and toasted cereal. The dark chocolate fleur de sel caramel truffle was the perfect balance between sweet, salt and bitter, and the Sumo, a white chocolate with pistachio ganache were also pretty stunning. I wasn't so taken with everything in the box, finding the Trianon Lait, a chocolate covered nougatine, and Diamant, with a caramel mousse filling, rather too jarring and sickly.

From a selection I didn't hold huge hopes for, I ended up being rather impressed with Wittamer's offerings. The nut-based pralines were particularly good; rich and complex without being too sugary sweet. While the individual pieces are not as delicate as Marcolini, there is still obviously plenty of care and attention invested into every handmade piece. A quality treat that did not disappoint.

Neuhaus, founded in Brussels in 1857, is credited with the invention of the praline, possibly my very favourite sort of chocolate; and their selection at the Grand Sablon store didn't disappoint. I really did feel like the proverbial kid in a candy shop as my eyes darted across the miniature cornets of gianduja; speculoos cream truffles; and cookies filled with spiced ganache.

Although only a third of their pralines are still made by hand many of their recipes have not changed in many years, including filled nougatine biscuits debuted for the world expo and a selection of chocolates created for two Belgian Royal Weddings. While their chocolates may be heading towards the mass produced route with over 2000 sales outlets in 50 countries, they must be doing something right.

They are also credited with the invention of the ballontin, to stop all those delicate pralines from becoming crushed, and we had no problem filling up one of their medium boxes from the selection of chocolates in the glass display case. Fillings are all very traditional; chocolate with nuts, cream, caramel, fruit or coffee, but no worse for that.

Compared to the delicate Marcolini offerings, these were like a sweet and sugary sledgehammer to the palate. Creamy, rich and comforting, the sort of chocolates that you can imagine mindlessly shovelling down while sat in front of the telly nursing a hangover or a broken heart. 

Favourites were the 'N' shaped almond and hazelnut pralines - the dark and milk versions devilishly named Satan and Mephisto, respectively - the gianduja cornet, and the smooth, and surpringly light, Javan milk chocolate ganache. Some, however, such as the Tentation, with a nougatine shell filled with coffee ganache, were tooth-rattlingly sweet and I ended up passing them over, half eaten, to the Ewing (who had no such problems polishing them off). 

While the rich cream fillings and slightly saccharine chocolate means they won't be to everyone's taste, but they offer a fun selection, for an occasional sweet treat they certainly hit the spot. They have even created a range of miniature chocolate Smurf figures, made from praline and puffed rice, and sold in special boxes with little collectable toys. 

Godiva, founded in 1926, is one of the best known Belgian chocolatiers (owned since 2007 by the Turkish Yıldız Holdings) owning and operating more than 450 retail boutiques and shops worldwide, with their products available in thousands more speciality retailers. 

While everything looked chic and glamorous, I found the selection of chocolates fairly pedestrian after the excitement of the previous three stops. It kind of reminded me of a glitzy Thorntons, somewhere I'd normally go out of my way to avoid at home. While the Easter displays were cute, and the staff friendly, I couldn't help feeling the whole experience was a little bit soulless. 

For predominantly machine produced chocolates these are also far from cheap, costing around the same price as artisan Frederic Blondeel (see below) and nearly three times as much as Leonidas. In their favour, however, was the fact they were the only store to let us sample several fresh truffles from the cabinet after making a purchase; a nice touch.

Having looked at their American website, they also seem to offer a selection of desert truffles, created with Duff 'Ace of Cakes' Goldman, across the Pond; including such flavours as Red Velvet Cake, Chocolate Éclair, Pineapple Hummingbird, Cookie Dough, Birthday Cake and Butterscotch Walnut Brownie; I still can't quite decide whether this sounds like genius or completely awful.

We tried their signature truffle selection, consisting five of their classic chocolates, and a selection of their mini praline Easter eggs. The eggs, with fillings including; speculoos mousse, lemon ganache,   and vanilla, were decent, if unspectacular. Although I did find both the white chocolate and praline, and  Braesillienne flavours particularly moreish.

Of the Classics, The Truffe Traditionelle 'a speciality of founder, Joseph Drap's, first store in Belgium', was a little nugget of ethereal tastiness; and the Cafe Lait, a coffee ganache created in 1949 for Gone with the Wind, was quite delicios. The others were a little more lacklustre, not bad, but a little disappointing for a such 'luxury' product.

Next stop, just off the Grand Place, was Royal warrant holders, Galler. Founded in Liege, by a baker’s son, who started making chocolate 35 years ago, they now have 30 shops worldwide and are known for  artisinal Praline-filled bars, available in 22 flavours, with their distinctive orange and brown packaging with a coloured stripe, and all still made in Belgium. 

Although they had a large array of fresh cream truffles, and some beautiful Easter chocolates including little flavoured praline eggs, we stuck with their speciality range and bought a bag of assorted mini bars, with a range of different fruit, nut and spice fillings.

The mini chocolate bars turned out to be the perfect size for me, who often gets bored or overwhelmed by trying to finish up larger bars. This way you can sample morsels of lots of different flavours, while at the same time as telling yourself;  'just one more, they're only small...'.

Favourites included the Praline aux noix, Grenoble walnuts and toasted hazelnuts in soft caramel and dark chocolate; Amandes, Fresh almond marzipan, coated with caramelised praline; and the Pistaches Fraiches, with pistachios and white chocolate paste.

Not all were a success, the raspberry was rather artificial, and I found the straight orange flavour too sweet and fruity, but they also offer Cointreau, Mandarine Napoléon liqueur, and Grand Marnier flavours too, each with a good citrus note and an alcoholic kick.

As these bars don't contain fresh cream (so have a much longer shelf life), are pretty robust, and come in a huge amount of different flavours that should please just about everyone, they would make an ideal gift to take home.You can also pick up a few of the larger bars, including hazelnut, coconut and raspberry in some Sainsburys stores.

The shop I was most excited about visiting during our trip to Belgium was Bruges' The Chocolate Line, opened in 1992 by self styled 'Shock-O-Latier', Dominique Peersoone.

As well as being known for his outlandish chocolates, Persoone also has his own Flemish TV show, which sees him trekking around South America, tracing the origins of cacoa, getting tattoos, riding horses and generally being rock'n'roll. He has also created a 'chocolate shooter', a sort of snorting device for the Rolling Stones, is one of only three chocolatiers in the Michelin Guide, and is part of the Fat Duck's tasting panel.

The shop is styled much like an old fashioned apothecary, complete with displays of chocolate pills and chocolate lipsticks. The truffles and ganaches themselves are piled up, higgledy-piggledy behind a glass counter that runs down one whole side of the shop. I really did feel like Charlie in Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory.

To add to the excitement at the back is a workshop with a glass partition, which allows you to look in and  see new batches of fresh treats being freshly created daily - In a small city, housing about 50 chocolate shops, only five make their chocolates fresh on their premises. 

The chocolates were superb. At first I worried that by choosing the more outré flavours I'd end up with a selection that looked very exciting but were mostly unpleasant, or even inedible. After all, it's not often you get a craving for a truffle with crispy onions or olives and sun dried tomato. Another danger with bold combinations is the flavours can sometimes be too subtle, leaving you wondering what all the fuss was about, but these were pretty much spot on.

The Monkey's Favourite was a glorious mix of crunchy peanut and popping candy, the Apero a mixture of white chocolate, vodka, lime and passionfruit and the Bollywood was a rich ganache perfumed with saffron and curry. Some of the nicest flavours were a mystery; not featuring on either the leaflet inside the box or on the website. These included a truffle decorated with swans with a centre that tasted like crunchy peanut butter; a dark chocolate shaped like a corncob and filled with praline, and one labelled 'Damse Eliexir' , which seems to be some kind of poky Flemish liqueur.

While they lack the delicate touch and clean taste of the Marcolini truffles, for me this was a near enough perfect box of chocolates. The wide variety of fillings keep things interesting, while the shock chocs work just as well as the classic fruit and nut flavours. They are also enormous fun, which, although the sourcing and creating are a serious business, is surely the point of good confectionery.

The next destination on our trail was an unscheduled stop at one of Bruges oldest chocolatiers, the wonderfully named Sukerbuyc; or Sugarbelly for the non Dutch speakers. Founded in 1977, on what was originally a quiet backstreet in the heart of Bruges, they initially made about 25kg of chocolate a week in their cellar. As Bruges' popularity grew, so did Sukerbuyc's, and they now make ten times that in a special production unit opened in 1996, as well as owning the De Proverie tea shop directly opposite.

Inside felt rather old fashioned, with chintzy displays of cups and crockery plastered with 'do not touch' signs, and an Easter display piled with delicate chocolate hens, eggs and bunnies. The whole effect  felt rather like being told to be on your best behaviour while sitting in your Nan's front room as a child.

Despite the slightly unwelcoming interior, the lady serving us was very polite, although there was some confusion that saw us end up with two boxes of chocolates - not realising the ballontin boxes came ready filled, we also asked for a selection from the display in the window. Luckily we had been discussing what to buy the Ewing's sweet-toothed parents, and a box of fancy handmade Belgian chocs made the perfect gift. If you really want to go to town then they even offer edible chocolate boxes to fill with truffles, hand painted with scenes from the city.

From our modest selection I most enjoyed the simplicity of the chocolate praline, and a rich butter truffle. While the dark chocolate and pineapple combination made a surprisingly good pairing. A pistachio praline, however, was a huge let down, being filled with a sickly and luminous fondant centre. They also offer a swan shaped Guberdon chocolate, based on the traditional raspberry flavoured Flemish sweets; too sweet for my tastes, but certainly worth a try.

These confections were classic, tasty and well made - the shells were delicate and crisp, and the quality of the chocolate overall was some of the best I tasted on our trip. Good as a present (see above), for those with a less adventurous palate, but they felt a little staid compared to the invention and flair of the Chocolate Line.

The hot chocolate served at De Proverie is supposed to be the best in town, and it also comes with a selection of Sukerbuyc chocolates, so if you don't want a whole box it may be worth calling in opposite for a little afternoon snack.

Leonidas - started in 1913 by Greek-Cypriot American, Leonidas Kestekides - are now one of the biggest chocolate companies in the world, with over 350 shops in Belgium and nearly 1,250 further stores in 50 countries around the globe. On their website they proudly claim to sell 1 in 3 of every 'high quality' chocolate sold in Belgium, and rate themselves as the most highly thought of chocolate makers in the land by 55% of Belgians.

While their many shops may not have the exclusivity of Marcolini, the glitz of Godiva or the glamour of Wittamer, they do have a small town friendliness and generosity, backed up by the towering mountains of chocolates on display, and some reassuringly modest prices to match. In a heavily competitive luxury market, Leonidas still strives to keep its chocolates accessible for everyone, selling their wares for about a third of the price of rival big names, Godiva and Neuhaus.

After days selecting some of the finest truffles Belgium had to offer, I finally caved in and bought a large bag of assorted seafood pralines and another of gold-wrapped Gianduja blocks. A bargain at merely eight Euros for the lot and perfect to scoff on our train journey back to Brussels.

These are my kind of chocs. While I can appreciate most confectionery, ranging from single estate artisan truffles through to Milky Bar Buttons, anything involving nuts, truffle or praline does it for me every time. While Guylian are the most famous of the Belgian chocolate seashell purveyors, the Leonidas version are also very good. There's a lot of fun to be had eating the head off praline sea horses and shrimps, and while eating too many of these sweet and creamy morsels may make you feel rather sick, when they taste this delicious it's hard to stop.

Equally delicious are their blocks of Gianduja, a creamy paste of hazelnut and chocolate that originated in Northern Italy, and tastes like little nuggets of solid Nutella. As well as the traditional smooth hazelnut version they also have a Giantina version, with nuggets of crispy wafer and a new Giamanda flavour, with crunchy almond pieces, and they are all utterly brilliant.

The eighth and final stop on our trip was to renowned Flemish chocolatier, Frederic Blondeel's classy and understated tea room and shop on the Quai aux Briques in Brussels. Yet again we had eaten a huge lunch - this time at the wonderful Viva M'Boma, just around the corner - meaning our ability to sample the patisserie or celebrated hot chocolate on offer was sadly diminished.

Fortunately it didn't seem to hamper our ability to chose a box of truffles to sample later. For only the second time on our trip (maybe a sign of our growing indecision and chocolate fatigue) we both chose the same flavours, democratically selecting half of the box each. As well as the classic truffles and pralines there were also ganaches flavoured with various herbs, fruits and spices, including basil, jasmine, cayenne pepper, fresh mint and redcurrant.

There was no menu included with our purchase, but the sales assistant helpfully told us we could check the website for the flavours. Less helpfully most of our chocolates didn't seem to bear much resemblance to the pictures online - although most of the images seemed to be rather blurry and out of focus, so it was pretty hard to tell what they were anyway. Dodgy photos aside, I was really more interested in how they actually tasted. Had we saved the best until last?

Well, sadly not quite. There were some real high points in our selection; I most enjoyed the aniseed note of the unusual dill ganache, surprisingly one of my favourite chocolates of the whole trip. Eating it was rather reminiscent of the smell when you open a  pickle jar, in the nicest possible way. The Poire William truffle was ethereal, with a lovely, boozy punch; and the Speculoos Truffle was about as perfect as a chocolate can be.

On the flip side I found the chilli infused ganache unpalatably strong and really quite unpleasant, even for a capaisin addict like me; and the walnut caramel a little bitter (To be fair I did eat this just after the chilli, which was probably the wrong move).

Overall the chocolates were delicious, if not my favourites. When they were good, they were very very good; but I found some of the fillings a bit muted, while others were too overpowering. Again, perhaps my hopes were too high; although I certainly wouldn't complain if someone wanted to bring back another box for me to sample.

So, what have we found out from this marathon chocathon? As usual it's far less about cutting edge insights, and far more about mmmm, this tastes good.... While I'm not sure you'd be disappointed by a box from any of the above, Marcolini, The Chocolate Line and Blondeel shine through with their individuality and quality; while Leonidas and Neuhaus satisfy that sugary craving. And that's before we even consider all the shops not visited, including Massimo Ori's, Passion Chocolat; Royal chocolatiers, Mary; and the celebrated Dumon, in Bruges.

One thing's for sure, even the hardest heart couldn't fail to be melted a little while walking around the Grand Sablon, gazing into the assorted chocolatiers' windows, and, most importantly, sampling some of their delicious wares for yourself.