Brussels suffers from a bum rap amongst holiday makers to Europe, the husband included. Brussels is only good for a daytrip, he contended. The Mannekin Pis is so small, the Grand Place, while beautiful gets boring after a while. And unless you are truly interested in political machinations in the continent, the fact that Brussels is the seat of the European Union is merely a footnote in one’s guidebook. All I can say is the husband did not spend his time obsessively tasting Belgian chocolate. If he had done as my sister and I did, he would find that 3 days (with a side trip to Bruges) is not enough.
We do not know how Belgium came to acquire its chocolate making expertise, nor were we interested in the history (though for those who are, colonization of Africa came into play). Ying and I were merely focused on one thing, that is to taste as many truffles and pralines we could get out hands on, not a difficult task when the streets of Brussels and Bruges are littered with chocolate shops, as ubiquitous as bank branches in Manhattan.
Just as there is no one size fits all when it comes to fashion, the chocolatiers also come in all shapes and sizes, from the super commercial to the artisanal, the affordable to the super-luxe. But even at an exclusive hand-made chocolate shop, you will find that the prices are much more reasonable than at home, be it the US or Singapore, where an assorted 500g box of Godiva chocolates will cost you upwards ~SGD100. In Belgian, you can easily feast on freshly made chocolates for less than half the price.
For the budget conscious, a trip to the supermarket is essential. Here, you will find lots of gently priced chocolate (bars starting from EUR1.50-2) from commercial chocolate brands such as Guylian, Cote d’Or and Galler that are billed as luxury items back in your home country.
For those keen on brand named chocolates, Godiva’s, Neuhaus’ and Leonidas’ shops are literally on every street corner. They lure you in with the overwhelming perfume of cacao and cream, arrest your attention with luscious chocolate designs (I was tempted to buy a set of smurf chocolates from Neuhaus) and feed you samples. Before you know it, you’re outside the shop carrying a few boxes of chocolates, rationalizing that you picked up a bargain.
And now we get to the exclusive chocolate makers, each with only one or a few shop fronts, committed to making chocolate the old-fashioned hand-made way. The chocolates are always fresh, and the shopkeepers tend to be much more knowledgeable about their products than at the mass-market shops. Prices while on the high side are not much more expensive than at Neuhaus or Godiva, due to the lack of advertising and other overheads. The best chocolates to try in Belgium are the ones filled with fresh cream, as these do not travel well and are therefore never part of a gift box sold in duty-free shops. And one of the best places to try is the Place du Grand Sablon, where the concentration of quality chocolatiers in the area is even higher than at the touristy Grand Place.
We fell hard for our shared bite of Mary’s speculoos truffle, the dark chocolate shell thin and smooth and not bitter with a lasting flavor, the cream filling delicate and unctuous, full of milk flavor and devoid of the oiliness that artificial cream produces, the dusting of speculoos crumbs adding gingerbread flavors to the mix.
We agonized over which single variety chocolate bar to choose from Pierre Marcolini’s wall of designer chocolate bars, each promising a different feel (the summers of Bahia, the flora of the Amazon), displayed so artfully it was as though one had stepped into a wardrobe full of haute couture.
We were also overwhelmed by the copiousness of chocolate during teatime at Wittamer: the chocolate enrobed crunchy caramel that accompanied our drinks, Sis’s cup of semi-sweet hot chocolate milk, the tray of dark, milk and white chocolate based desserts to choose from and just to make our rich dark chocolate and creme brulee dessert more decadent, a pot of viscous molten chocolate to pour at will.
It was difficult not to sink into a cacao induced coma after all that.
And if you find the chocolatiers too run of the mill in Brussels, take the short train ride to Bruges where you will find more obscure brands making chocolate of similar quality to the Brussel heavyweights, but often at lower prices. Combine chocolates with a jaunt around Bruges’ picturesque waterways, and you’ve found yet another way to while the time in Belgium!
Chocolatiers we visited and/or bought chocolates from in Brussels:
Mary (our favorite!! but expensive boohoo =(): http://www.marychoc.com/
Wittamer (great smooth ganaches and yummy desserts): http://www.wittamer.com/fr/index.php
Pierre Marcolini (beautiful designer chocs): http://www.marcolini.be/#/en
Galler (super value for money): http://www.galler.com/
Dolfin (supermarket brand with interesting line-up of bars): http://www.dolfin.be/index.php?lang=En
Chocolatiers we visited in Bruges:
The Chocolate Line (our picks were a tad too sweet): http://www.thechocolateline.be/the_chocolate_line_brugge.asp?taal=en
Dumon (rich, flavorful homemade truffles, half priced compared to Mary and Wittamer): http://www.chocolatierdumon.be/