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. 

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