Belgian Chocolates

Place du Grand Sablon: The center of the chocolate world
Place du Grand Sablon: The center of the chocolate world
What I left the Sablon with
What I left the Sablon with

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They say every writer needs his inspiration, so it only seems fitting that I tuck into my bag of Godiva chocolates as I begin to write this entry. That’s about as much mention as Godiva is going to get in this writeup as, despite all it’s popularity, it does not rank anywhere in my favourites.

So what defines great chocolate? I’ve honestly never thought too much about it until now, so it’ll be interesting to see what follows next… I know, this IS the stuff that great suspense novels are made of.

Undoubtedly, the most important thing is the origin and the quality of the cacao beans. As much as coffee beans determine how good a coffee can be, the same goes for cacao beans. I choose the words “can be” on purpose as we all know good Costa Rican coffee beans can still be massacred in the hands of a barista from Starbucks.

But I digress, I was talking about chocolate, not coffee.

To be quite frank, I can’t really tell the difference between Ivory Coast beans from their Venezuelan/Ghanan/whatever-other-place-in-the-Amercias counterpart. Piere Marcolini apparently reigns King for selling single origin chocolates at superb quality. I tried a selection of 9 chocolates from his shop the other day, each one made from different cacao origins, and all I could think of was “this ones tastes like chocolate. Yes, this too tastes like chocolate. Oh and look, another lone that tastes like chocolate”. And though I did feel like I was partaking in an experience enjoyed by many a choco-nerd, his chocolates didn’t really rock my boat. Why? Well, this brings me to point #2.

[Jamie Cullum is on now. Expect a jazzy second point]

Probably almost as important as the quality and source of the cacao beans is the ratio of cacao to butter to sugar. I personally think the perfect chocolate has enough butter that your mouth doesn’t feel like it’s being sucked dry but not too much that you can actually taste that it’s there. The sugar should also be just enough to make you not feel like your being hit in the head with a cricket bat, but not too much that it takes away from that interesting bitter edginess that the bean delivers. What this golden ratio is I wouldn’t even dare guess, but I can tell you which chocolatiers have absolutely nailed it (once I’ve finished my dramatic soliloquy).

Cue factor number three (which sounds more like a very weak sun cream that anything else): the filling. This is not to say I don’t love a good 72%-85% Chocolate bar like the next chocoholic, but I do have a special weak spot for Pralines & Ganaches. What constitutes the elements of a delicious filling comes down to art really (and personal preference, of course), but there a few chocolatiers that have mastered both this skill and the right balance of ensuring that the filling does not upstage the chocolate. Let’s not forget who the star is, after all.

Neuhaus_irresistibles Wittamer

Finally, texture plays a part worth mentioning in the enjoyment of a chocolate. I’ve recently come to believe that the hard outer shell of a chocolate piece should progress almost naturally to the filling inside, almost in such that you cannot tell where one begins and the the other ends yet at the same time allowing both layers to play their role in providing the different textural sensations that they bring.

Cue my top two chocolatiers that absolutely dominate in all my categories listed above.

Neuhaus: The lovely Toni Mason bought me a box of chocolates from Neuhaus during the Easter of 2012 and from my very first bite, a love affair was born that continues to exist until today. I’ve tried many a chocolate in Switzerland and Belgium since then and none of them can compete with the sheer quality that Neuhaus delivers.

Wittamer: I’ve only had the pleasure of trying the chocolate from Wittamer in my most recent visit to Brussels and it’s no surprise why they rank as one of the best in Belgium. They do however pack a slightly heavy price tag and maintain a bit of exclusivity to them (bit like Piere Marcolini, I suppose). It’s hard to say at the time of writing if I prefer Wittamer to Neuhaus, but my first impression is that they are both almost equal in all my criteria except that Wittamer may possibly have better quality ingredients for their ganaches & pralines.

I’ve guess I’ll just have to eat some more to find out.

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