ANTWERP - Belgium and chocolate, a long-standing marriage like no other. Belgian chocolate is a mark of quality. If Belgium does have an image abroad, it is one of culinary enjoyment. Classics such as beer, chocolate, chicory, sprouts and the famous Belgian (not French!) ‘frites/frieten/fries’ spring to mind immediately.
For many years Leonidas has been selling ‘freshly made Belgian chocolate’ made in Brussels, as this is the city where the praline was born.
Leonidas now has a presence in around forty countries with fourteen hundred stores (1.400!), half of which are in Belgium and France.
All stores offer a standard assortment as well as products tailored to the local marketplace. Prices vary from circa €24 per kilo in Belgium to as much as €120 (!) in Japan, where pralines are worth their weight in gold.
The Belgian master chocolatiers safeguard the quality of their products and develop new ones too, finding their inspiration in fashion and design...Belgian chocolate is characterised by the use of 100% cocoa butter, hence its rich and full taste. It will come as no suprise to learn that chocolate consumption in Belgium is high, with the average Belgian enjoying between four and ten kilograms each per year.
Admittedly, we did not invent either chocolate or beer. However, throughout the years, we have never stopped tinkering with quality and thus we have developed our own signature, ranging from committed niche players who experiment with surprising aromas, flavours, shapes or colours which you would not immediately associate with chocolate, up to the large chocolate producers.
Luc Jansen allows me ‘a look under the bonnet’. Luc is in charge of training for chocolatiers, both from Belgium and abroad, and is based in his brand new International Chocolate Training Centre in Antwerp.
Luc’s background is on the technical side and he has years of experience in chocolate making. He explains that both time and temperature are crucial factors in roasting the cocoa bean.
During the 'conching' process chocolate dough is kneaded for hours on end at high temperatures, so any acidic elements will evaporate, resulting in a balanced taste.
It is also typical of Belgian chocolate that it is ground and flattened (rolled out or 'gewalst') to a very high standard, so there are no discernible grains. All of this determines the chocolate’s taste and quality. However, there are not many chocolatiers left in Belgium who produce their own chocolate.
There are large producers such as Barry Callebaut and Belcolade who supply the desired basic ingredients, using the exact recipe that was specified by the chocolatier themselves.
From artisan to artist
The niche players fire up the market with an explosion of creativity and spectacle. Above all, they are the market movers who are in the news and thus raise the profile of Belgian chocolate in general. Also, the large players have succeeded in democratising the praline, once the preserve of a small elite.
“We have tasted many varieties and so we have grown more demanding. We look for a pure authentic taste and appreciate the craft of the chocolatier,” is Luc Jansen’s opinion.
His colleague, a former production manager with Burie in Antwerp and now known as a chocolate sculptor, adds to this: “We have developed the praline culture with an endless variety of fillings. Also, we create our own set pieces. Imagine famous buildings, animals, busts of famous people, all made out of chocolate”.
Just like Belgian beer, Belgian chocolate is a reference point all over the world. Also, it makes the perfect gift for a Belgian and the perfect souvenir for visitors from abroad. It is therefore unsurprising that chocolate sells very well at the national airport, just like in the cities of Brussels and Bruges. Bram is addressing ten trainee chocolatiers: “I am now going to teach you the basic rules of molding (shaping). Practice as much as you can and you will develop and eye for the thickness of the chocolate and the right processing temperature."
"Keep your tools clean! Once you have filled the mold, finish it off with the knife as soon as possible!”.
As is often the case, it is harder than it looks. Luc is now demonstrating how you table, or temper, the chocolate without using machines.
He is using a spatula to work with the molten chocolate on a granite slate. “Ideal to test the chocolate or if you are working with small quantities”, he explains. The air in the atelier has a fragrance of chocolate. There are far worse things in life.