Friday, April 6, 2012

Belgian Chocolates

This is a continuation of our Belgian food series.

Belgians love their chocolate. Order a coffee at any cafe and you'll be given a piece of chocolate to accompany it. Walk into any grocery store and observe the numerous brands of chocolate and chocolate hazelnut spreads. You can even get a chocolate beer, though this is mostly a gimmick for tourists. Nevertheless, chocolate is as ubiquitous as mayonnaise in this tiny country.

Belgium was first introduced to chocolate in the 17th century by Spanish rulers. Since, Belgian chocolatiers have become internationally renowned for their high quality chocolate and pralines—chocolates filled with various flavors of nougats or cream. Instead of the mass production techniques used by American companies like Hershey's, most Belgian chocolatiers hand make their chocolates in the shops where they are sold.

Whether in fairytale-like Bruges or bustling Brussels, entering a Belgian chocolate shop is like going to the Willy Wonka factory. Mounds of truffles, pralines, and every chocolate-dipped food you can imagine fill the counters. Nearing winter, chocolate molds of Sinterklaas and intricate fruit-shaped marzipan also begin appear on shelves. White-gloved employees navigate the stacks of goodies assembling boxes for customers who look on drooling. Observing the mix of shoppers, you see tourists with bags from other chocolatiers, presumably preparing for a highly caloric comparison between the various shops, and locals picking out their favorites. There is something magical about the experience that undeniably adds another dimension to enjoying the chocolates.

While abroad in Leuven, Belgium, I enjoyed trying and re-trying the most famous Belgian chocolatiers like Neuhaus, Godiva, and Leonidas. Even the grocery store brands like Côte d'Or and Galler are notoriously good, and, of course, I tried these as well to validate the hype. When my chocolate-saturated, among other Belgian delicacies, semester ended, I checked a 36-pound bag of chocolate on my flight home. You can imagine I was definitely the favorite cousin at Christmas.

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