Thursday, January 15, 2015

Finding Chocolate in Belgium

Many foods popular in Belgium are not at all foreign to the Canadian palate, including French fries, waffles, and of course chocolate. Although they did not invent chocolate, its use for confections is a skill that the Belgians have mastered, arguably above any country in the world.  So when you visit the land that made chocolate great, what should you try?
The first thing you should know is that you don't have to worry about trying to find a great Belgian chocolate experience; there are plenty of opportunities.  The main problem you might find is fixating on one particular type of chocolate and not going out to experience others.  You could find yourself stepping out of your hotel room, stopping at the first chocolate shop you find, tasting a sample, and then spending all of your chocolate money in that one shop because the quality is just that good.  This is a mistake.  If you want to truly enjoy the Belgium chocolate experience the key is to spread out and buy in moderation at several shops.

The biggest problem with buying chocolates in Belgium is the overwhelming number of brands to choose from.  On the main square in Brussels alone, there are at least four shops, and down each street you'll find many more.  You don't have to sweat your choice that much; just about anywhere you buy your chocolate you will get a very high quality product.  That's not to say that there are no differences between each shop, they each just have a specialty that serves a different taste.
The two main categories of chocolates you'll find in these shops are hand made, and mass-produced.  Most people tend to gravitate towards the hand made and avoid the mass produced, or so you might think.  In fact after talking to several shop owners I discovered that the mass-produced chocolate outsells the hand made chocolate.  This happens because people want to take sweets home to friends and family and the price difference between these two types of chocolates is very extreme.  A box of mass produced, high quality, chocolates can cost you as little as 5 or 6 Euros for more than a dozen chocolates.  A high quality chocolate will often be sold by weight and can cost you between 70 cents and 1.50 Euros for an individual chocolate.

There are two distinctive kinds of stores when it comes to the high quality chocolates.  There are large chains, such as Neuhaus, Godiva, and Leonidas, which are based here in Belgium but sell all over the world.  And then there are smaller shops, and small chains of shops that only sell in Belgium such as Mary's and Loretta. The prices in these shops don't vary too much, but you'll often find that the large shops will carry their regular products that you find all over the world, along with special hand made treats only available at these stores.  The smaller stores may only sell their own products, but some may also carry some of more mainstream chocolates as well.

Finding chocolate stores in Belgium is a fairly simple task; most of the stores are crowded around the main squares in each town or city.  In Brussels the Grand Place and in the Galerie Hubert have many stores producing hand made chocolates as well as a few stores selling mass produced chocolates.  To tell them apart all you have to do is walk around the store.  If you notice bars (or as they call them tablets) made by large companies such a Cote' Dor or Godiva, then chances are the contents of the shop are the mass produced chocolates.  Companies like Godiva, NeuHause, and Leonidas, have many shops all around these areas as well, and they often feature their own bars, which can sometimes be mass-produced.
There are smaller stores outside of the main tourist areas, but they may be hard to find.  The advantage of these little out of the way shops is if you do find them you'll often get the greatest service and some very fine chocolates.  If you happen to forget to pick up a few treats for friends and family just before you leave, don't worry.  Many hotels have chocolate shops in the lobbies, and the airport is full of chocolate shops as well.

Now that you know a little about what kind of chocolate shops can be found in Belgium, the question is how do you pick the perfect chocolate?  My method is simple, fun, and will guarantee a great chocolate selection.  Take your time and sample, don't let the store clerks intimidate you into buying full boxes right off the bat, instead walk around the city, enjoy visiting the sites, and sample from as many chocolate shops as you can.  Many, but not all shops, may offer you free samples, don't be shy and take them.  If they don't offer samples, then invest a Euro and pick one chocolate that appeals to you.  Spend a day or two just visiting sites and sampling treats, then after you've sampled as many chocolates as you possibly can, and you're a chocolate connoisseur, go back to your favorite places and pick up a box or two for home.  Don't buy too much, since most of the fine chocolates will drop in quality when stored for long periods of time, some can go off in as little as a few days.

The best tip I can suggest when you're either sampling or making your final purchases is to ask for help, in fact, I've found that my favorite shops always have very good staff.  If the staff isn't helpful and knowledgeable, then it might be a sign as to the quality of the chocolate.  Every store I visited that had excellent products had a knowledgeable and helpful staff.  The staff at Mary's in particular knew every single detail about the chocolates being sold as well as a keen general knowledge about chocolate.

In many shops you might find chocolates filled with all kinds of flavor combinations, from black pepper, hot peppers, fruits, and salts. Seasonal treats and new flavors are also something to look out for when choosing chocolates.  The shops that include seasonal products in their chocolates, are a special treat, and are a sign of an expert and creative chocolatier.  If fancy flavors don't appeal to you, you can be sure to find chocolates in fun shapes for every season and occasion as well.  Including some that are rather risque, and many stores have their own rendition of the famous Brussels statue of the Manneken Pis(the famous statue of the little boy peeing).
Before you overdose on hand made chocolates, make sure to sample all the forms of chocolate available as well.  One of the most popular ways to enjoy chocolate can be found in the “Gaufre au Chocolat”, but you might know them better as a Belgian waffle with chocolate.  There are many places to get these fine treats as well as many different toppings to enjoy.  My personal favorite is the simple drizzle of fine Belgian chocolate, it's a taste experience you can't miss.  Belgian chocolate also produces one of the finest hot chocolates you could ask for.  It's a great way to warm up on a cool day with a fine pastry sitting in a cafe watching the world go by.

To try and find the “best” chocolate in Belgium is a task that no one person could ever do.  To attempt to find the “best” chocolate in Belgium will guarantee one of the best vacations for any chocolate lover.  This city is truly a place where one can spend the whole day wandering through twisting streets, seeing great sights, and over indulging on chocolate in all its splendor.  No matter what your chocolate tastes might be, you will find something that will blow your socks off and send you into chocolate bliss.


No comments: