When you think about chocolate, Belgium is probably the first place that comes to mind. If so, you are not alone. In a recent article in the U.S-based Huffington Post - “16 Ways Europeans are Just Better at Life”- the one ranked number eight was Belgian chocolate. Belgium is well known for its chocolate history and its chocolate is, nowadays, a gold standard for the world. High-street brands such as Leonidas, Neuhaus and Godiva are excellent, but even those you find in supermarkets, such as Galler, are very good too.
But there are hundreds of other less-known brands and artisan chocolatiers to discover: Dumon, at Torhout, for example. It’s even listed by Gault and Millau, a bible for food lovers. As most Belgians will know, it’s impossible to walk more than a few metres in Brussels alone without bumping into an excellent chocolatier.
Chocolate is estimated to be 3,000 years old but what is it exactly that makes Belgian chocolate so famous and, in an ever-competitive market, can it stay ahead of the pack? To find out how the country earned its formidable reputation, first a little history.
Belgian chocolate history
The first trace of chocolate in Belgium dates back to 1635, when records show that some chocolate was bought by the Abbot of Baudeloo in Ghent. Towards the end of the 17th century Emmanuel Soares de Rinero (who was from Portugal or Spain) was issued a license to manufacture chocolate in Brabant.
Chocolate making was not considered a profession at the time but more of a sideline for apothecaries and merchants. As in the rest of Europe, chocolate making really took hold in Belgium in the 18th century, when several manufacturing centres sprang up in all the major cities.
At that time, chocolate was worth 15 loaves of bread, so naturally only the upper classes could afford chocolate drinks (then the most common form of consuming chocolate).
In 1912, Jean Neuhaus invented the “praline”. Three years later, his wife invented “the ballotin”, the typical chocolate box in Belgium. Both contributed to the success and reputation of Belgian chocolate as we know it today.
Chocolate appeared in the kitchen in the late 18th century in all kinds of desserts (cream dessert, cakes, biscuits etc). And when the industrialisation process got underway in the 19th century, the price of chocolate began to fall, making it more accessible.
For Belgian chocolate, 1912 was a very significant milestone: that year Jean Neuhaus (often referred to as Belgium’s most famous chocolatier although he was actually born in Switzerland) invented the “Praline” (a filled chocolate bonbon and a Belgian specialty) in Brussels. Three years later, his wife invented “the Ballotin”, the typical chocolate box in Belgium.
Leading producer of chocolate
Fast forward to the present and, with over 2,000 chocolate shops throughout the country, the reputation of Belgian chocolate remains as high as ever.
Belgium has the world’s biggest chocolate factory at Wieze in East Flanders. Brussels Airport is said to retail the most chocolate of any airport in the world. The country also supplies 20 per cent of the world’s industrial chocolate.
There's even a chocolate academy in Wieze, opened in 2014 by Callebaut, the renowned chocolate maker, on the same spot where it started producing its first chocolate over 100 years ago. It offers pastry, confectionery, bakery and culinary workshops.
Callebaut is the largest importer of cocoa nibs and processes most of the beans into untempered chocolate for distribution in Belgium. For the uninitiated, untempered chocolate dries slowly, does not harden fully and has a dull blotchy finish. Tempered chocolate hardens to a glossy and firm finish.
It is estimated that the chocolate sector in Belgium represents 10.4% of global turnover. Overall, the Belgian chocolate, praline and confectionery industry comprises 332 companies, supports 11,900 jobs and has an annual turnover of some €5 billion.
The secret behind chocolate quality
Experts say Belgian chocolate enjoys an enviable international reputation thanks in particular to the fine balanced taste created by the quality of the cocoa butter.
Since 2003, European Union legislation has allowed the use of up to 5% of vegetable fats, other than cocoa butter (such as palm oil) in chocolate. But this added ingredient is regarded as tantamount to a loss of quality, hence chocolate manufacturers in Belgium continue to use 100% cocoa butter.
For each of the past four years, Belgian chocolate has even had its own show, the annual Brussels Chocolate Fair, which brings together chocolate lovers from all over the world for a veritable bean feast of all things chocolate.
Every year, in Brussels chocolate saloon, local artisanal chocolate makers, chocolate experts and chefs gathers to showcase and share their passion to the visitors. One of the highlights includes the famous fashion show where the models are dressed in specially designed chocolate dresses.
Naturally, the country also has an assorted array of chocolate museums, one of the best known being the Brussels Museum of Cocoa and Chocolate which tells the Choco-Story. Peggy Van Lierde, its director and daughter of the founder, is proud that over 75,000 people visited the museum last year.
However, she says that the role of the port of Antwerp in the story of Belgian chocolate should not be underestimated. “Antwerp is, after Amsterdam, the biggest port that imports cocoa in Europe: around 200,000 tonnes of cocoa is imported per year via the Flemish city.”
Asked why Belgian chocolate continues to be so popular, she replies that one reason is because the Belgians like good food and, therefore, “Belgian chocolatiers have to satisfy their customers.” Brussels is not only the self-proclaimed “capital of the EU” but also, as far as most chocolate aficionados are concerned, the “world capital of chocolate.”
It is also home to Mary, a chocolatier founded in 1919 by Mary Delluc which, through the years, has been a favourite of the Belgian Royal family. The secret of its success is that it makes small batches of chocolate, so they do not have to be stored (which is when they lose their flavour).
But Belgium boasts a new class of chocolatiers like the renowned Pierre Marcolini, who are finding innovative and ever-sophisticated ways to hold on to the country’s chocolate crown. They have broken away from traditional pralines and infusing ganaches with exotic flavours like wasabi and creating such imaginative pairings as blackcurrant and cardamom.
Research on chocolate
Another example of how Belgium refuses to rest on its chocolate-covered laurels is the work being done at Cacaolab, a spin-off of Ghent University and a unique small-scale experimental chocolate and fillings production facility.
Its researchers probe the science of chocolate making, with the potential to dramatically improve quality and shelf life. They partner with industry to create innovative chocolate products and stimulate the export potential of Belgian chocolate.
Given the relatively high level of chocolate consumption in Belgium (6 kg per person every year is one of the highest in the world though still less than the British), it is perhaps encouraging to discover that latest research has found that chocolate is actually good for the brain.
Chocolate, according to Nature Neuroscience, has also been found to reduce blood pressure and the risk of stroke. Dark chocolate, with 70 per cent cocoa solids, is the healthiest, since it has less sugar. So, forget obesity - who wouldn’t want to devour chocolate to keep their brain working as well as it did 20 years ago, especially if the chocolate is made in Belgium!
By Martin Banks