Why is Belgian chocolate so special?
Belgium enjoys a reputation among chocolate aficionados that is only rivalled by Switzerland. Indeed, these two countries are the only places where the use of “chocolate” is legally restricted to products containing only cocoa butter, cocoa solids, sugar and milk. Today, around 172,000 tonnes of chocolate products are manufactured each year in Belgium, by around 500 different manufacturers, sold through 2,000 specialist shops. Average annual sales equate to 8kg per head of population, though many of these sales are to foreign tourists or are export sales.
The unique taste, “mouth-feel” and texture of Belgian chocolate is due to several factors: (i) the higher-than-average cocoa powder content (typically around 43%, compared to around 20% in the US and the UK), (ii) the longer conching (blending) process ensuring a smoother end product, and (iii) the top-quality training that most Belgian chocolatiers receive.
The origins of the Belgian passion for chocolate go back to the late Middle Ages, when it was part of the Spanish Habsburg empire. The practice of drinking chocolate had been observed among native Central and South American tribes by the conquistadores, who brought the habit back to Europe where it became fashionable among those rich enough to be able to afford this luxury product throughout the Spanish territories and all over Europe.
By the nineteenth century, Dutch merchants based in Rotterdam had cornered the market in cocoa beans imported from West Africa and Central and South America. They developed improved roasting, separating and grinding techniques to produce the chocolate nibs used by chocolatiers to make couverture, the liquid chocolate that could be moulded into bars and other shapes, or used to make pralines, the delicious filled chocolates invented in Brussels in 1912 by Jean Neuhaus, the son of a Swiss pharmacist. Today, Neuhaus still occupies its original shop in the Royal Galleries in Brussels, and it has around 1,000 other outlets worldwide.
The invention of the praline coincided with increased availability of cheap sugar and a surge in consumption of chocolate and other confectionary. Milk chocolate and white chocolate were developed as variations of dark or plain chocolate, and chocolatiers divided into artisans, who continued to make chocolates by hand, and larger, industrial-scale manufacturers who used machines. The larger manufacturers set up their own cocoa plantations and worldwide distribution networks.
In Belgium, working with chocolate became a key part of the training of pâtissiers (confectioners) who devised ever-more elaborate and decorative chocolate cakes, biscuits and desserts, many of them also making pralines. Today, both old firms such as Neuhaus (established 1857), Corné (1932), Godiva (1926), Wittamer (1910) and Leonidas (1913) exist alongside more recently founded chocolatiers such as Guylian (1960), Galler (1976), Pierre Marcolini (1994), Jean-Philippe Darcis (2001) and Laurent Gerbaud (2002).
The original pralines were filled with ganache (a mixture of chocolate and cream), gianduja (chocolate mixed with powdered hazelnuts) marzipan, caramel, nougat, nuts and candied citrus peel, and these continue to sell well. Recently, new pralines flavoured with exotic spices, tea and herbs have become popular, as has chocolate made with cocoa beans from specific countries or plantations.
Belgian chocolate enjoys an excellent reputation around the world, especially in the UK, whose population are allegedly the world’s largest consumers of chocolate, where Marks and Spencer’s luxury chocolate biscuits are made with Belgian chocolate. It has been said that you don’t need a calendar in Belgium, one look in the window of your local chocolate shop will tell you what time of year it is, as the displays change from Christmas to St Valentine’s, to Easter, to Mothers’ Day, to Fathers’ Day, to Belgian National Day, to Halloween!