The comprehensive history of chocolate that leads to one of the most versatile and beloved foods in the world is nearly void of mention in the small country of Belgium. This is surprising considering that today the country of Belgium, while also known for beer, waffles and as the capital of the EU, is almost synonymous with the word chocolate. From the time when the Aztec beverage made of cocoa beans first arrived on European soil until their independence in 1830, many had boasted control of the land now known as Belgium, including Spain, France, and most recently the Netherlands. This makes it hard to know exactly how the ancient delicacy made its way to this region. We can only guess that is was through the Spanish, the first to bring the delightful nectar to their continent as well as rulers of a large territory that included modern day Belgium at the time when chocolate was gaining popularity throughout Europe. What we do know is that by 1697, the city of Brussels had already begun to share their concoction. It was then that Henri Escher, Mayor of Zurich, drank his first cup of chocolate as an anecdote on the Grand Place in Brussels. He was so passionate about it that he became the first to export the recipe to Switzerland!
Early on chocolate in Belgium was something to bestow lavishly on someone that you loved or at least were trying to impress. This was made more special when, in 1840, a native company was the first to sell chocolate as tablets, pastilles, and figurines in Belgium. The late 1800's, as the independent country began to make more of a name for itself politically and economically, is when their chocolate manufacturing industry really took off. This was aided by the acquisition of the Belgian Congo, which facilitated easy access to Africa's cocoa fields. For the most part, they still use cocoa beans from Africa, which they claim are stronger and more assertive than the milder South American beans favored by American chocolatiers.
While the industry grew during these years it was the invention by Jean Neuhaus in 1912 that increased chocolate's popularity ten-fold. It was in this year that the Belgian chocolate maker, whose Swiss-born grandfather had gotten into the business in 1857, created the first filled chocolates, which he named “Pralines”. The praline is a cold milk or white chocolate shell, or couverture, filled with a variety of flavored nougats or creams. Few contemporary chocolatiers could duplicate the complex flavors of his pralines. With this invention Jean and his wife, Louise Agostini, recognized the need for protective packaging to house the delightful new chocolates as the paper cones in which they were originally sold resulted in bruised and scratched delicacies. Thus their invention of the “ballotin”. This casing for gourmet chocolate made it possible to buy the indulgences in larger quantities and to preserve them longer. The original design of Jean and Louise is still used and sold in Belgium today. Pralines are still the most common form of chocolate that one can find in Belgium, though the fillings have evolved quite nicely. Different chocolatiers specialize in specific fillings, such as manon, filled with cream or butter and often coffee flavored; gianduja, a paste made from mixing ground hazelnuts or grilled almonds with white sugar and cocoa butter or chocolate; or praline [acute] a mixture based on roasted almond or hazelnuts, also with cocoa butter or chocolate. You can also find fillings such as coffee, hazelnut, fruit or more chocolate in almost any shop nationwide.
Today Belgium produces 172,000 tons of chocolate per year, almost 70,500 tons of which are consumed within the country. Much of the rest is exported around the world to make the famed praline couverture. Belgian chocolate makers have a bit of an advantage over other chocolatiers due to the storage of couverture before use. In the chocolate making process, the cocoa beans are ground and mixed with sugar and cocoa butter and then smoothed out through tempering (careful addition of heat). Most chocolate companies receive their chocolate in solid form, which means it must be reheated in order to be usable. Companies within Belgium however often receive their couverture in heated tanker trucks soon after the tempering process which means their chocolate is able to retain much more of the aroma than the cooled varieties.
High quality chocolate consisting of 100% pure cocoa butter can be found throughout Belgium by looking for the 'AMBAO' ('cocoa' in Swahili) label. This was Belgium's answer to the scandalous new European Chocolate Directive, which they fought bitterly alongside France, making it possible for chocolate producers to replace up to 5% of the cocoa butter by six different types of vegetable fats. This is not acceptable to Belgian chocolate makers who, to this day, adhear enthusiastically to Old World manufacturing techniques. Even in today's world of automation and mass production, most Belgian chocolate is still made by hand in small shops using original equipment.
Aside from the praline, which you can find in any of the 2130 chocolate shops covering the country, Belgium has a lot to offer when it comes to chocolate. One can visit museums, take chocolate filled vacations, go to the ‘wearable chocolate' fashion show that opens Brussels' annual Aroma coffee, tea, and chocolate expo, and even see a life-sized car made entirely of 800 kilograms of Belgian chocolate!
The latest homage to this nation's obsession was the first annual Bruges Chocolate Festival, Choco-Laté, held in 2006 and taking place again in April 2007. Chocoholics unite to gobble up information as well, of course, as gastronomic stylings that all share the one ingredient that brought them together. Children play chocolate games and learn to draw with chocolate while adults enjoy chocolate sculpting and body painting. There are exhibitions of fine works of art made of chocolate and presentations of films featuring chocolate. As festival-goers walk the square their most common reaction is "I never knew you could do that with chocolate!"