Neuhaus Boutique in Sablon
June came and went and I realized that I have been remiss about posting on the blog. Apologies. We were on vacation and traveling overseas, hence the silence. Which brings us to this post. Our travels took us to Belgium, arguably the Beer and Chocolate capital of the world. We will focus on Beer in a subsequent post. Chocolates is what we will talk about in this one.
For many of us, Belgium and Switzerland are often spoken of in the same breath as being the center of the Chocolate universe. Godiva (pronounced “Go-dee-vah” in Belgium) and Lindt to a lesser degree, have boutiques in just about every major metropolitan area in the world. What we discovered though, is that there is a whole separate universe beyond the mass-marketed brands like the aforementioned two, whose products aren’t even in the same category, they are just in a completely different league, in a good way, I might add. Having lived in Switzerland, I can further attest that, for aficionados, there really is no comparison between Swiss and Belgian Chocolate. The Belgian kind is the gold standard. My wife was born in Belgium and grew up there, so we had some familiarity with Belgian chocolate. Think Godiva, Cote d’Or, Leonidas and Guylian. So before we traveled, we researched our options.
There was an excellent article in the New York Times that became our guide (link here). Armed with this knowledge, we traveled to Brussels.
The sweet shop is an essential part of human civilization – whether it is the Baklava shops in the Middle East, the Mithaiwallas in the Indian sub-continent or the Chocolatiers in Europe. As somebody who grew up in India surrounded by people with a sweet tooth, there were quite a few parallels one noticed between the Belgian Chocolatiers and the Mithaiwallas of India. The good ones relied on great ingredients, had products that were made in small batches (or made to order) and the products had to be consumed fast.
In Belgium there is clear differentiation between the chocolate for the masses (Cote d’Or and Galler to name a couple), the chocolate for the more discerning (Godiva, Neuhaus) and the absolute high-end (Marcolini, Mary etc). Some of the brands like Neuhaus straddle both the mid and high-end of the market. In terms of price, this translates to paying about $1.50/100gm on the lower end to all the way to about $10/100gms on the high-end. The other big difference is that the mass marketed chocolate lasts longer because of preservatives and additives whereas the high-end chocolate is “purer” and meant to be consumed quickly.
The Holy Trinity
The two areas of Brussels we did most of our sampling at were the area around Grand Place and the Sablon area. Both are excellent places to sample a number of different styles of chocolate in a short distance. Another point to note, is that, without exception, everything we had was phenomenal. So our likes and dislikes are without a doubt, based on personal preference more than the quality of the chocolate itself. Without further ado and in the order of our sampling the chocolates, here goes.
Wandering around the Grand Place area brought us to Elisabeth. There was a Godiva and a Galler boutique across from it. Ultimately, our kids picked this one as our first stop. This was a great introduction to artisanal chocolate. Creamy ganache and melt-in-your-mouth chocolates and absolutely phenomenal fruit jellies is how I remember this one.
Marcolini is somewhat of a rockstar of Belgian chocolatiers. A number of our Belgian friends put his chocolates at the top of our list so we had to try him. He is known for a couple of things – one, the use of exotic ingredients (Coffee Beans from places like Venezuela, Cuba and Madagascar, Cardamom from India etc) and the size of his pralines compared to his competition. The pralines are noticably smaller and meant to be eaten in one or two bites. The chocolate was excellent but we realized this was not to our taste.
In one word, stunning. We had never heard of Mary till the NYT article. They make small batches and are a supplier to the Royal Belgian Court. They ended up as our personal favorite, we couldn’t have enough. We brought back some but clearly not enough.
Neuhaus is a known name and for good reason. Their shops are known for their quirky, Magritte inspired decor but their claim-to-fame is that Jean Neuhaus Jr invented the praline. Excellent choice, you can’t go wrong here. These were our second favorite.
This was a recommendation from the NYT article and they were also very good. They are known for their chocolates that use coffee. They seemed to have a smaller selection of pralines but everything we had was excellent.
This is one of the best known and loved brands for a good reason, they are uniformly excellent and relatively affordable. You can’t go wrong with these. Best of all, these are readily available in many countries around the world.
Galler and Cote d’Or
These are brands that are available at the grocery store. Both of these are streets ahead of the Hersheys, Nestles and Cadburys you might be used to. If you are looking to buy chcolates for friends and family and are shopping on a budget, you can’t go wrong with either (though my vote would be for Galler).
We loved Brussels – the city, the people, the beer, the chocolate and the waffles, among other things. Since there are over 500 chocolatiers in Brussels alone, we simply scratched the surface. A chocolate lover could keep coming back to Belgium again and again, and still not do it justice. Speaking for ourselves, Belgium is just too delicious a destination to stop with one visit. We’ll be back.