By Rick Steves
In 1519, Montezuma served Cortes a cup of hot cocoa (xocoatl), made from cocoa beans, which were native to the New World. It ignited a food fad in Europe. By 1700, elegant "chocolate houses" in Europe's capitals served hot chocolate (with milk and sugar added) to wealthy aristocrats. By the 1850s, the process of making chocolate candies for eating was developed, and Brussels, with a long tradition of quality handmade luxuries, was at the forefront.
Cocoa beans (native to the New World) are husked, fermented, and roasted, then ground into chocolate paste. (Chocolate straight from the bean is very bitter.) The vegetable fat is pressed out to make cocoa butter. Cocoa butter and chocolate paste are mixed together and sweetened with sugar to make chocolates. In 1876, a Swiss man named Henry Nestle added concentrated milk, creating milk chocolate — a lighter, sweeter variation, with less pure chocolate.
Belgians are connoisseurs of fine chocolate. You'll be tempted by chocolate-filled display windows in nearly every town. While Godiva is the best big-factory/high-price/high-quality local brand, plenty of smaller, family-run places offer exquisite handmade chocolates.
The heart of Brussels is its main square, the Grand Place. And for many, the best thing about the Grand Place are the heavenly treats residing in four venerable shops along its north side. Each has an inviting display case of 20 or so different chocolates and sells mixes of 100 grams (six to eight pieces). Pralines are filled chocolates — uniquely Belgian (and totally different from the French praline). The shops are generally open daily from morning until late in the evening.
Godiva, at #22, with the top reputation internationally, is synonomous with fine Belgian chocolate. Their almond and honey goes way beyond almond roca.
Neuhaus, a few doors down at #27, has been encouraging local chocoholics since 1857. Look through the glass floor at the old time choco-kitchen in the basement. Their enticing varieties are described in English and they publish a fine little pamphlet (free, on the counter). Their "caprice" (toffee with vanilla crème) tastes like Easter. They claim to be the inventor of the filled chocolate.
Galler, just off the square at Rue au Beurre 44, is more homey and less famous because they don't export. Still family-run (and the royal favorite), they proudly serve less sugary, dark chocolate. The new top-end choice — 85 percent chocolate — is called simply "Black 85" — and worth a sample if you like chocolate without the sweetness.
- At Leonidas, four doors down at Rue au Beurre 34, most locals sacrifice 10 percent in quality to double their take by getting their fix here. White chocolate is the specialty.
While Bruges is one of Europe's most delightful medieval towns, to me it means sugar buzz. I blame that on two wonderful shops:
Perhaps Bruges' smoothest and creamiest chocolates are at Dumon. Madame Dumon and her children (Natale, Stefaan, and Christophe) make their top-notch chocolate daily and sell it fresh just off Market Square at Eiermarkt 6. Their ganache, a dark creamy combo, wows chocoholics. They don't have English labels because they believe it's best to describe their chocolates in person — and they do it with an evangelical fervor. Try a small mix-and-match box to sample a few out-of-this-world flavors, and come back for more of your favorites..
- Locals and tourists alike flock to The Chocolate Line for their "gastronomique" varieties: unique concoctions such as Havana cigar (marinated in rum, cognac, and Cuban tobacco leaves — so therefore technically illegal in the United States), lemon grass, ginger (shaped like a Buddha), saffron curry (a white elephant), and a spicy chili. New combinations from Dominique's imagination are a Pop Rocks/cola chocolate, as well as "wine vinegar" chocolate (surprisingly good). The kitchen — busy whipping up their 80 varieties — is on display in the back (Simon Stevinplein 19).