Monday, April 30, 2012

Silky Chocolate in Bruges-Belgian Chocolates

Bruges was the leading commercial center of Europe in the 15th century, famed for its wealth and luxury products. Its later poverty ensured that its buildings remained miraculously untouched, while its extraordinary paintings bear witness to the elaborate craftsmanship of its jewelers, dressmakers, and cabinet-makers. The skills of its fine chocolatiers can still be sampled today.

Bruges still looks and feels like a medieval city. Trapped in time, its network of cobbled streets are lined with stepped-gabled facades and threaded with mirror-still canals that reflect the spires and towers of the skyline. In the early 1500s, vital trade transferred to Antwerp, and for centuries Bruges quietly decayed, remaining largely untouched by the industrialization that transformed other Flemish cities. So its glory days were already over when the Spaniard Hernán Cortés first brought cocoa beans to Emperor Charles V in 1528. Charles V ruled over many countries in Europe, including Belgium, and it was his governor, the Duke of Alba, who first introduced chocolate to the country. The Belgians at first consumed it as a drink, in much the same way as the Mayans and Aztecs had produced xocolātl. It was not until the 19th century, when British and Swiss chocolate-makers experimented with cocoa beans, that the modern form of hard chocolate was invented.
It was the Belgians, however, who invented filled chocolates. Jean Neuhaus of Brussels was the pioneer, creating his first pralines in 1912 and selling them in boxes still referred to as ballotins. Belgian chocolatiers have been working on techniques for filling chocolate ever since, conjuring up little gems using ingredients such as fruit and nut pastes, liqueurs, marzipan, and fresh cream. Meanwhile, the base ingredient – Belgian chocolate itself – has acquired a worldwide reputation for its outstanding quality. Carefully sourced from top-quality cocoa beans, it contains a high percentage of cocoa solids and valuable cocoa butter – a volatile oil that provides the remarkable cooling sensation as the chocolate melts in the mouth. Similar high standards have been brought to the subtle blend of cocoa butter, milk, and sugar that lies behind the famous Belgian white chocolate.
In the 19th century, Bruges was rediscovered by travelers and antiquarians, who recognized the unique survival of its historic fabric and set about preserving it, mixing in a fair dose of Neo-Gothic fancy to reinforce the mood. Bruges, restored and revived, is now one of the most popular tourist destinations of northern Europe, and this has brought a new era of prosperity back to its old streets, visible in the elegant shops, numerous boutique hotels, and excellent restaurants. The city’s feel for consumer luxury today recalls its golden age, and the fabulous, gilded ballotins from its chocolate shops have become the treasure caskets of the modern age.

Above : Belgian chocolates are made from a vast array of natural ingredients, offering an exquisitely tempting choice at virtually every corner

The chocolatiers of Bruges have taken chocolate-making from a conservative skill to a cutting-edge art, calling upon a long tradition 

Best Places to Buy Belgian Chocolate

Chocolaterie Sukerbuyc
Paule Helen Depreter founded Chocolaterie Sukerbuyc (the name means “sugar belly”) in 1977, in the same premises it still occupies in Katelijnestraat, close to the museums. It is the oldest chocolate-making establishment in Bruges, and although it has remained a family business, it has come a long way in 35 years, increasing its production tenfold and establishing a reputation for superb handmade chocolates. You’ll find a wide variety of pralines using dark, milk, and white chocolate based on 100 percent cocoa butter. Clients are encouraged to choose their own selection to fill the pretty boxes, and can see through the store into the workshop where the chocolates are made. The shop also produces fun pictures of Bruges by screen-printing dark chocolate onto a white chocolate background. Their café, De Proeverie (“the tasting place”), is opposite the shop, and is famed for both its exquisite patisserie and its hot chocolate drink, made by slowly melting a chocolate bar into hot milk.
Katelijnestraat 5, Bruges; open 8:30 AM–6:30 PM daily;
Also in Bruges
Several of the major Belgian manufacturers of high-quality chocolates have high-street outlets in Bruges. These include Neuhaus (www. and Leonidas (www.leonidas. com). Although their products are made on an industrial scale, they maintain very high standards and the volume of sales means that their prices are relatively low, given their quality.
Also in Belgium
The major manufacturers all have numerous outlets in Brussels, but there are also smaller makers of exceptional quality. This includes the rising star Pierre Marcolini ( and the splendid traditional pâtissier-chocolatier Wittamer (, both on Place du Grand Sablon. Another noted producer is Mary (, supplier to the Belgian royal family, whose delightfully decorated Rococo-style shop is worth a visit in itself.
Around the World
Manufacturers producing top-quality chocolate are rare. Valrhona ( is a French company founded in 1922 and based in the small town of Tain-l’Hermitage near Lyon; it prides itself on its careful sourcing of cocoa beans and its ability to extract their distinctive flavors. The US company Knipschildt (, founded in 1999 by the Danish-born chef Fritz Knipschildt, has quickly built up a phenomenal reputation for the quality of its filled chocolates, truffles, and bars.
Museum of Chocolate
Choco-Story ( is a museum that tells the story of chocolate from its origins to today. It has thousands of artifacts on display, from cocoa beans, chocolate-making utensils, machinery, and molds to hundreds of examples of ingenious packaging and much more. Visitors can stop off to watch demonstrations of chocolate-making techniques by expert chocolatiers. The collection is designed to appeal to all levels, including those who are interested in the finer details, such as the distinctive qualities of the various cocoa “vintages.” The museum building itself is a historic 15th-century wine tavern.
Three Days in Bruges
Bruges is a wonderfully walkable city that boasts extraordinary paintings and historic buildings; in three days you have ample time to see everything at leisure.
DAY ONE : The Markt is the old central marketplace, dominated by the Belfry, which offers fine views over the city. Close by, in the Burg, is the beautiful Gothic Stadhuis (town hall). For a different perspective on the city, take a canal trip, and then go to the Groeninge Museum to admire its exceptional collection of early Flemish paintings.
DAY TWO : The Gruuthuse Museum is a city mansion full of the domestic artifacts that wealthy Bruges families once craved, and the Memling Museum has wonderful 15th-century paintings. End with a relaxing stroll to the historic Begijnhof (a haven for religious women in the Middle Ages) and the lake called the Minnewater.
DAY THREE : Go shopping in Steenstraat and Zuidzandstraat. Then visit the Friet Museum, dedicated to Belgian fries, or the Museum voor Volkskunde (folk museum). End with a walk to the old windmills by the Kruispoort medieval city gate.
Getting to Bruges
Frequent trains connect Bruges to Brussels, which has an international airport and fast-train connections to other European cities.
Where to stay in Bruges
Charlie Rockets (inexpensive) is central and affordable.
Alegria (moderate) offers charming family-run rooms near the Markt.
Martin’s Orangerie (expensive) is an exquisite boutique hotel in a historic town house.

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