A Paradise for Chocoholics?
By Wendy Hughes
Like me, do you enjoy chocolate? Then a trip to Belgium is a must. Since the 19th century, the industry has been an important part of the nation’s economy and culture, with some 172,000 tonnes of chocolate being produced every year. Cóte d’Or is probably the largest of the commercial brands, and is available widely in every country, followed by Belgian pralines (fondants shaped like sea shells, fish and diamonds, as well as the individual creations that are handmade and sold widely. sold.
Our love affair with chocolate began when Hernan Cortes landed in Mexico in 1520, and the Aztec leader, Montezuma, showered him with gifts of corn, biscuits fruit and meat, all washed down with cocoa, flavoured with allspice, pepper and honey. One of his travelling companions claimed that having drunk it, he could travel a whole day without feeling tired or the need for food. From Mexico chocolate travelled to Spain where doctors recommended it as a health drink. It was then introduced to France by the brother of Minister Richelieu who claimed it cured his bad temper. Another member of the French court, Madame de Sevigné asked her daughter, ‘You haven’t slept? Chocolate will do you good.’ However it was not until the middle of the 19th century that it was introduced into Belgium by a Swiss confectioner, Jean Meuhaus who, along with his chemist brother-in-law, opened a shop in the Galerie de la Reine in Brussels in 1857. As well as selling cough drops, liquorice to cure heartburn they added bars of chocolate filled with a vanilla cream to their stock.
When his son Frederick joined the business, he became more interested in the confection than chemicals, and his early experiments with sugar and almonds resulted in the first Praliné meaning a mixture of milk chocolate with finely ground nuts or toffee, and this should not be confused with the praline, which is the general term for all chocolates made in Belgium.
The raw materials needed for chocolate manufacture fall into three basic categories: Cocoa beans and sugar which produce plain chocolate, and the same mixture with milk powder added produces milk chocolate. Whilst the addition of shelled nuts and other fillings produce the unique chocolates that Belgium is so famous for.
It all starts with the cocoa bean arriving in sacks mainly from South America and Africa. These are first cleaned and sorted before being roasted, usually in a huge drum rotating over an open fire. After cooling the beans they are broken up in a crushing mill that separates the pure cocoa from the husks and peel. The pure cocoa is then poured into a mill for ‘conching’, which grinds them down into liquid syrup of a good brown colour. In this state, it can be used for making chocolate, but sometimes it is passed through a press to extract the fat content, known as ‘cocoa butter.’ White chocolate is then made from this pure cocoa butter, milk, sugar and vanilla. Belgium chocolate is unique because it is ‘conched’ for up to 72 hours, instead of about 10 hours in America and 48 hours in the UK.
Although most manufacturers of chocolate say they have a ‘secret’ ingredient or recipe that makes their chocolate better than anyone else’s, there are only three basic techniques.
The first is the Moulding Process, and these moulds can vary in shape and size and are passed through a machine that fills them with liquid chocolate. They are then turned over leaving a thin shell of chocolate inside, which is hardened as they pass through a cooling tunnel before the filling is added. This can be either a fruit puree or a vanilla cream. The cooling process is repeated before another machine tops each shell with a thin layer of chocolate and after a third cooling, the finished chocolates are unmolded and hand packed.
The second process is call the Enrobing Process, and in this process the centre of the confection, which could be hazelnut paste, caramel or crisped rice is prepared first, then cut into uniform pieces and passed through a curtain of liquid milk chocolate covering the whole piece. After the first cooling, these pieces are decorated by hand with dark chocolate before the final cooling and packing takes place.
The third process is the Artisanal or Hand Made process. For this sesame seed toffee is prepared and spread onto marble slabs where it is thinned and cut into equal sized squares. These are bent to form a pointed tube, which is filled, by hand, with crème fraiche. It is only at this point that any machinery is used as each piece is placed on a conveyor to be ‘enrobed’ with milk or dark chocolate before the final cooling. They are hand packed and sold as soon as possible because crème fraiche has only a three week shelf life.
The structure of Belgian chocolate has been regulated by law since 1894 when, in order to prevent the spoiling of the chocolate with low quality fats from other sources and a minimum level of 35% pure cocoa was imposed. Many firms produce chocolates by hand, and, as you can imagine this process is time consuming and explains the vast numbers of independent chocolate outlets that are so popular with tourists.
Today over 100 different varieties of pralines are made and half the annual production is exported. They are sold in stylish gift boxes and the names to look out for Neuhaus, Godiva, Leonidas and Guylian. The Belgian chocolate truffle is also very popular and sometimes appears in an encrusted form containing wafers or coated in a high-quality cocoa powder. They contain a soft ganache, which is a semi-emulsion of liquid, and therefore has only a shelf-life for a couple of days, and must be kept at a low temperature of refrigerated. Special truffles can sometimes contain a fruit, nut or coffee ganache, but rarely do they contain a fruit-based liqueur or cream liqueur, and are distinguishable from pralines by their shape and texture. Interestingly the Belgians eat their way through around 48 kilos of chocolate a year each, but they are not the world’s greatest chocolate eaters that accolade belongs to the Swiss and the British.
Thankfully you will have no problem finding a shop selling these unique delights as there are around 2200 in Belgium. Perhaps you would like to learn more about this special craft, if so, then head for the Choco-Story Museum in Bruges, situated at Wijnzakstraat 2, (Sint-Jansplein) 8000, Bruges. It is open every day from 10am to 5pm. The entrance fee is 8 Euros for adults, children 6-11 5 Euros, and Children under 6 go in free. The website is: http://choco-story-brugge.be/ENG/
Happy exploring and enjoy!