Assorted for a hero: how the Belgians made chocolate a source of happiness

“Life is like a box of chocolates: you never know what's coming…” Unlike Forrest Gump's wise mother, the Belgians do

In every box of Belgian sweets there is a source of people's happiness. The correspondent of Vokrug Sveta also clung to him, having gone through a big chocolate quest around Belgium.

Assorted for a hero: how the Belgians made chocolate a source of happiness

A small piece of cardboard rolled into a tube is tied to the iron railing of the Manneken Pis Fountain with a beige satin ribbon. On the ribbon is the letter N. I untie the card under the sidelong glances of Japanese tourists. On one side is printed “Recipe for Happiness”, on the other – a rhyme: “Brother Hubert visited the house of N, visited kings and bought gifts.” This is another clue for me.

I confess that I got involved in the quest called “The Recipe for Happiness”, organized by several Brussels chocolatiers, primarily because I wanted to eat chocolate from the bottom of my heart. Well, at the same time to understand the extremely reverent attitude of the Belgians towards him. As part of the quest, I was looking for the “lost recipe for happiness”, guessing riddles hidden in chocolate shops and near attractions around Brussels.

Clues from the Chocolate and Stone Vase Museum on the Grand Place turned out to be dead ends, but the third one immediately led to Manneken Pis. Brother Hubert, home of N… Well, of course! From the “Manneken Pis” five minutes walk to the Royal Galleries of St. Hubert. The store of the Neuhaus chocolate house shines with shop windows there. Inside, in glass cabinets and on tables, boxes with exquisite contents are laid out. On the counters on large dishes are pyramids of sweets: square, oval, round, conical, with nuts and raisins, sprinkled with coconut flakes and decorated with multi-colored glaze. Confectionery aromas intoxicate the head.

Assorted for a hero: how the Belgians made chocolate a source of happiness

At one of the counters stands an elderly man in a coat, a velor hat and a cane umbrella. The seller opens and shows him in turn several boxes containing two or three large candies. The sets are different: from dark chocolate, from milk chocolate, covered with candied fruits, and in one box there are two chocolate triangles sprinkled with multi-colored crumbs. The buyer asks questions about fillings and dates of manufacture. Then he takes each box in turn in his hands, delicately sniffs, examines the sweets, then taking off, then putting on his glasses.

Together with me, the manager of the store, Luca Allard, is watching a strange client.

— K Did a chocolate critic come to you? – I ask.

– No, – Luca smiles. – An ordinary customer.

– He chooses a couple of chocolates, like a smartphone!

– There is no other way. Chocolate is not just food. This is a cultural artifact.

The client finally decides. Two boxes of sweets are tied with a beige ribbon and placed in a beautiful paper bag. The “ordinary shopper” bows and leaves the store with a dreamy smile.

– To understand the value of chocolate for the Belgians, – says Luca, – you need to go on a new, big chocolate quest.

— The first hint?

— You will find a source of happiness in the chocolate country, where the masters have their hands full.

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Take possession

The sculpture in the fountain on the main square of Antwerp depicts a young man who swings in a jump to throw the severed hand of a huge hand. At his feet lies a defeated giant. The legend about the origin of the name Antwerp tells that the giant Antigonus lived on the Scheldt River, who collected a fee from ship captains. Anyone who refused to pay, he cut off his hand. But once the Roman soldier Brabo fought with Antigonus, cut off the hand of the killed giant and threw it into the Scheldt. In honor of Brabo's deed, the city was named Antwerpen (from the Dutch hand werpen  – “to throw a hand”). And now hand-shaped chocolates are in great demand in local stores.

Assorted for a hero: how the Belgians made chocolate a source of happiness

Since 2019, the Chocolate Nation museum, which occupies 4000 m², has been operating in the city. Standing in front of one of his exhibits, a working model of a giant chocolate-making machine, with giant gears, pistons, containers, you feel like visiting Willy Wonka.

– There are more than 2,000 chocolate manufacturers in Belgium, – says Agnes, Chocolate Nation guide. — The average Belgian eats six kilos of this delicacy a year.

Assorted for a hero: how the Belgians made chocolate a source of happiness

Agnes advises where it is better to buy “Antwerp pens”, because in tourist shops there is a chance to get counterfeit instead of real Belgian chocolate.

“There are norms in the EU legislation,” says Agnes, “according to which the butter in chocolate must be at least 95% from cocoa beans, that is, the content of other vegetable oils should not exceed 5% of the total. Belgian chocolate contains only cocoa butter and no others. Our producers have compiled the Belgian Chocolate Code. He emphasizes that chocolate labeled “Belgian” can only be produced in our country. But the document has no legal force at the international level. Abroad they can make chocolate, write “Belgian” on it, and no one will control it.

The largest factories in Belgium are owned by businessmen from Qatar, Turkey, the USA, China, Korea, Holland. The directors of such companies and Guy Galle, Secretary General of the Royal Belgian Association for Chocolate, Pralines, Biscuits and Confectionery, believe that the capital and owners can be from any country, as long as the product continues to be made in Belgium. But local chocolate lovers and master chocolatiers are afraid that their national treasure will be created in violation of technology and will soon disappear. Therefore, small workshops, as well as large market players, care about maintaining the quality and reputation of chocolate, preparing it according to family recipes, taking into account the requirements of the code.

1/5According to EU standards, cocoa butter in chocolate is at least 95%, other vegetable oils not more than 5%. In Belgian chocolate 100% cocoa butter

Saying goodbye, Agnes hands me a box of Antwerp Hands and the following tip from Luc Allard: “Where the lamb was praised, the street was called a cow, four glorious generations prepare a treat for people.”

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Follow the Cow

— Belgians are tied to their favorite chocolate shops, — says Stephen van Hecke, owner and chef at the family confectionery Van Hecke F en Zoon in Ghent, on Koestraat(in the translation from the Dutch “cow street”). – They come to the same place near the house for years: to buy sweets, buns, to drink a cup of hot chocolate. Clients pass us “inheritance” to children. The great-grandchildren of those for whom my great-grandfather made chocolate now buy sweets and cakes from me and my father.

Stephen hands me a bag full of assorted sweets, labeled “The Taste of Life”. While walking around Ghent, he tells how to recognize the layers and nuances of flavors. According to Stephen, sweets differ not only in appearance and composition, but also in the idea that the chocolatier puts into them. And the task of the one who tastes is to understand the meaning of the masterpiece.

– The nutty taste is mixed with creamy chocolate, – Stephen says about the candy that I took out of the package, – and the note of salty caramel brings out the sweetness. It is good to take such chocolate to work in the office, because it harmonizes emotions. The other dark one with ground hazelnuts, raisins and liquor is perfect for meeting friends.

Assorted for a hero: how the Belgians made chocolate a source of happiness

In the Cathedral of St. Bavo, the audience crowds around the “lamb” from the clue – the folding altar “Adoration of the Mystical Lamb” by the artist brothers Jan and Hubert van Eyck. From the local tower of beffroy we go through the bridge of St. Michael and along the Korenlei embankment. While showing the sights of Ghent, Stephen doesn't forget about patisseries:

– On the other side of the Ketelvest Canal, former archaeologist Nicola Vanez makes chocolate with exotic flavors by blending cocoa beans from Asia, Africa and America. And here the same father and son, Luke and Cedric Horebeke are preparing a classic praline. If you walk along the embankment from Appelbrüg Park and turn left, you will find Hilde Devolder's shop there. She paints candies with brushes like an artist.

When asked how his family business feels among competitors, Stephen replies:

— We are more colleagues than competitors. We are not concerned about how to get around each other, but about how to create, store and pass on ideas, recipes, methods of work. Despite the differences, we all make Belgian chocolate.

Having eaten the last candy, I find at the bottom of the package another “key” from Allar: red wine!”

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Try on a shoe

The Chocolate and Happiness store in Bruges resembles a fashion boutique or a beauty salon. Black walls, shelving and counters, pink decor and gold-plated crystal chandeliers. The black candy boxes are printed with famous quotes about chocolate, in particular the same phrase from Forrest Gump.

On the shelves are multi-colored, mostly pink, stilettos and handbags in the style of famous brands. All this is made of chocolate and icing, with fillings of praline, chocolate cream, nuts, caramel, flowers – roses, lavender, violets – and liqueurs. Chocolate hearts, figurines of flamingos, unicorns and bears complete the image of the “kingdom for girls”.

Assorted for a hero: how the Belgians made chocolate a source of happiness

The owners of the business, Sophie and Gino, make their own sweets in a workshop near Bruges. They believe that the advantage is in the details, and are not shy about using the ideas of fashion trends for their chocolate.

 – Our products are cosmopolitan, but with confident Belgian roots, – says a smiling Gino, dressed in a striped pink shirt and a black satin vest, which makes him look a bit like a chocolate impresario. – We work with a methodology that is more than a hundred years, while trying new ingredients. For example, sea salt, rose hips and tropical fruits, aromatic herbs and tea.

From a boutique with mouth-watering shoes, it's a stone's throw to the patrimony of mother Francoise. Together with their daughter Barbe, they cook and sell pralines and truffles in a small shop. On the second floor, Bram, Francoise's son, runs a “tea room” where he bakes waffles with chocolate. At a table covered with a flowered tablecloth, near a stained-glass window framed by dark wooden frames, with a waffle on a plate and a cup of hot cocoa in your hand, you feel an unusual peace. In such a place, you need to discuss purchases for children's holidays and Valentine's Day.

 – We do what the soul lies in, – says Barbe, – and what every Belgian is familiar with since childhood. With chocolate like this: first you give him patience and love, then he supports you on a difficult day or makes you happy on a good one.

Assorted for a hero: how the Belgians made chocolate a source of happiness

But it also happens that it provokes risk. Bruges-based chocolatier Dominique Person thinks his experiments with outrageous candy fillings are like traveling with adventures. Person first dared to prepare pralines with black caviar, oysters, bacon, olives, flavored with gingerbread and a combination of Cabernet Sauvignon wine with caramel and pine nuts. The secret of Person's success is that he knows how to balance seemingly incongruous tastes. It's hard to repeat.

– And you don't need to repeat it, – says Dominique. – There are enough of my colleagues in Belgium who make quality chocolate and know how to push the boundaries in their own way from bean to bar. Someone from Arsi, for example.

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Up the beanstalk

The method is known in the world of chocolate bean-to-bar, when the master personally controls the key stages of production & nbsp; – from growing and preparing cocoa beans to making sweets.

“It’s troublesome, but interesting, exciting and necessary in a situation where there are fakes on the market,” says Jean-Philippe Darcy (from the French d'Arcis – “from Arcy”), head of a chocolate house and factory in Verviers. — I want to make sure that I make chocolate from quality raw materials.

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Jean-Philippe regularly travels to cocoa plantations in Central America, compares and selects the best varieties for future chocolates. When the cocoa beans are shipped across the Atlantic to Belgium, he supervises the sorting of the beans and checks their quality. Darcy has a professional understanding of all processes, be it roasting, cleaning, blending or grinding. The chocolatier is responsible for his reputation for ensuring that, by Belgian standards, the size of the pieces of cocoa beans does not exceed 18 microns. Finally, after conching & nbsp; – mixing and thermal exposure, which improves the taste and aroma of the mass, chocolate is poured into molds under the control of the master.

The Darcy Academy operates at the Jean-Philippe factory, where curious beginners and professionals study at the courses who want to improve their skills.

“Expand the boundaries of ideas about chocolate,” Darcy says during the master class. “Mix textures, play with aromas and tastes. Imagine who will eat your sweets: a child or a lover, a city girl or a king from a distant country. It is in your power to give these people joy, to make them happier.

In front of me is the finished form – a tray with shells of future sweets already frozen in the cells. I fill them from a pastry bag with a filling that I myself came up with: I added rosemary and grated bergamot peel to the signature Darcy praline. I feel like a magician, and a smile appears on my face. I'm taking her to Brussels with me.

Assorted for a hero: how the Belgians made chocolate a source of happiness

The sun pours through the glazed ceiling of the Royal Galleries of Saint Hubert. Luca Allard meets me at the door of the Neuhaus store. Early morning, no one on the trading floor yet. As proof that I passed the quest, I put on the counter a chocolate hand from Antwerp, a bar with “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” from Ghent, a candy with black caviar from Dominique Person from Bruges and the most precious thing – a chocolate bar made by myself at the Darcy factory. Luca pulls a ballotin from the closet, a branded cardboard box for storing sweets, such was invented in 1915. He carefully puts my chocolate in ballotine, adds more truffles in golden papers …

 — Congratulations! You successfully completed the quest!

Luca, with barely noticeable reluctance, gives me the box and asks:

 — Can I steal the one with caviar?


Assorted for a hero: how the Belgians made chocolate a source of happiness

Area 30,528 km² (136th in the world)
Population~ 11,700,000 people (81st place)
Population density 377 people/km²

SIGHTSEEING Grand Place and the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels, the Groening and Memling Museums in Bruges, the Graslei and Korenlei embankments, the Count's Castle in Ghent, the Antwerp Cathedral.
TRADITIONAL DISHES mussels with french fries, beer stew, shrimp potato croquettes, hop sprouts with cream sauce, waffles.
TRADITIONAL DRINKS Belgian beer, hot chocolate.
SOUVENIRS chocolate, lace, tapestries, comics, antiques.

DISTANCE from Moscow to Brussels ~ 2250 km (from 3 hours 25 minutes in flight)
TIME strong> is 2 hours behind Moscow in winter, an hour in summer
VISA Schengen


Material published in the journal ” Around the World” No. 2, February 2020, partially updated in July 2023

Regina Polyakova

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