Brussels – a chocolate lover’s delight?

Just before Christmas I managed to squeeze in a trip to Brussels, and came back weighed down with purchases and samples and just a little disappointment.

Despite it’s reputation – a success of marketing, rather than fine quality – Brussels is mostly full of very commercial chains or smaller shops, all carrying the same kind of industrial products. On the whole these are made using chocolate from Callebaut, the company with Belgian roots that now dominates the couverture market. Belcolade, who make similar chocolate to Callebaut is also popular.

Outside Frederic Blondeel's storeThere are a few highlights though; Pierre Marcolini perhaps the most famous with his ultra-slick marketing, Frederic Blondeel, Mary – offering reasonable quality pralines, our old friend Laurent Gerbaud who works with Domori and a spattering of other small chocolatiers who are trying to achieve some level of quality.

I tried a 250g box of Blondell’s counter selection. These were competent ganaches, using Callebaut and Belcolade couverture. Nothing outstanding, but reasonably fresh and quite edible, though some were on the sweet side. The shop was attractive and stylish, with a small café.

This was in huge contrast to some of the ultra-cheesy down-market commercial stores. One of the worst offenders was Wittamer, whose pink, kitsch Christmas window was truly, truly ghastly! (Wittamer probably don’t think they are down-market by the way, but I certainly had that impression.)

Marcolini

A visit to Marcolini is a must, if only to see how seriously they take themselves. I stopped in at the Rue des Minimes branch. The style is somewhere between a nightclub and a boutique, with lots of black curtains,  which reminded me somehow of a stage magicians backdrop. Marcolini is well known for having some of the slickest marketing, presenting a really modern approach.

Pierre MarcoliniMarcolini give the idea that they make their own chocolate. As far as I know, they make the chocolate from the bean for the origin bars and ganaches, and the rest is straightforward Callebaut.

Rumour has it that Marcolini was on Belgian radio recently with not too kind words about Callebaut, who subsequently threatened to stop supplying him. Perhaps this is in some way connected with Marcolini’s recent deal with Nestlé?

I came away with an origin sampler box (Coffret Original de Poche), which feature six origins as ganaches, and solid chocolate with nibs and ‘liquor’. This is meant to allow you to sample the chocolate at three different stages of its production.

The ganaches were not bad, except the texture was a little gritty. Flavour-wise they were acceptable, but I’ve certainly had better. The ‘nibs’ were basically solid chocolate, with roasted nibs sprinkled on top. These were not bad to eat, with some unusual flavour notes coming through – like green tea in the Équateur and a typical milkiness in the Venezuelan.

The ‘liquor’ was pretty weird. Basically a thick layer of ordinary chocolate on top of a thinner layer of slightly roughly ground 100% chocolate. I’d call that more ‘paste’ rather than ‘liquor’. Certainly far more processed than all the liquor I’ve every tried – which is essentially unrefined ground down roasted nibs. The two layers easily split when attacked with a knife. The chocolate in the Venezuela did remind me of Callebaut …

Other shops

Chocolate shop or tourist attraction?Most of the rest of the shops in Brussels were quite depressing. Many, many copy-cat shops selling industrial type pralines we’d all recognise from the international Belgian-style chains.

We passed one store where the chocolates in the window were really badly bloomed, which was very off-putting. There were also tourist chains like Corné Port-Royal, which were incredibly cheesy and chintzy. (And which I didn’t dare enter!)

Laurent Gerbaud

Laurent Gerbaud in his workshopAfter all this mix of either goodish chocolate with slick marketing and over-sweet industrial type products, it was a relief to spend some time with old friend Laurent Gerbaud, who uses a blend made specially for him by Domori as his base.

Laurent’s products are mainly coated dried or cured fruit, though he does have some great new bars with fruit or spices blended into the bars – more of those soon as we hope to get them in the shop.

I imagine Laurent gets some sideways looks from the Brussels chocolate community for using Italian couverture – this in a city where you can barely find Valrhona.

The general attitude in Brussels seems to be that the consumer can’t tell the difference between good chocolate and bad, and as the couverture most of the chocolatiers are using is almost a third of the price of anything decent, they don’t seem in a hurry to change. I think in time this will catch up on them, and perhaps consumers will realise ‘Belgian’ does not necessarily mean ‘best’.

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