By Rick Steves
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 brand, plenty of smaller family-run places offer exquisite handmade chocolates.
Belgians take chocolate seriously, and rightly so: It's an essential — and delicious — part of the economy. While Belgium's chocolatiers rake in the euros today, their customers are just the latest in a long line of chocoholics.
In 1519, the Aztec emperor Montezuma served Spanish conquistador Hernàn Cortés 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.
Europeans created the first chocolate bar in 1847. By the 1850s, the process of making chocolate candies was developed, and Belgium, with a long tradition of quality handmade luxuries, was at the forefront. In 1876, a Swiss man named Henry Nestlé added concentrated milk, creating milk chocolate. And in 1912, Swiss confectioner Jean Neuhaus invented the Belgian praline in Brussels. Later innovators perfected the process, among them the Greek-American chocolatier Leonidas Kestekides, who started his internationally renowned company in Belgium.
Belgians divide their confections into two categories: Truffles have soft, crumbly chocolate shells filled with buttercream, while pralines are made of a hard chocolate shell with a wide range of fillings — totally different from the sugar-and-nuts French praline.
Chocolate Shopping in Brussels and Bruges
The heart of Brussels is its main square, the Grand Place. For many, the best thing about the Place are the heavenly treats sold at four venerable shops along its north (uphill) side. Each has a mouth-watering display case of chocolates and sells 100-gram mixes (six or so pieces) for about €5, or individual pieces for about €1. Godiva is at the high end (higher in both altitude and price); the cost goes down slightly as you descend to the other shops.
- Godiva is synonymous with fine Belgian chocolate. Now owned by a Turkish company, Godiva still has its management and the original factory (built in 1926) in Belgium. This store, at Grand Place 22, was Godiva's first (est. 1937).
- Mary (pronounced "mah-ree"), at #23, was founded in 1919 by the first woman chocolatier, Mary Delluc. She shot to stardom when the royal family began favoring her chocolates. Today, the store and its treats' packaging are faithful to her original designs.
- Neuhaus, a few doors down at #27, has been encouraging local chocoholics since 1857. Their main store is in the Galeries Royales St. Hubert. Neuhaus publishes a good little pamphlet explaining its products. The "caprice" (toffee with vanilla crème) tastes like Easter. Neuhaus claims to be the inventor of the praline.
- Galler, just off the square at Rue au Beurre 44, is homier and less famous because it doesn't export. Still family-run, it proudly serves the less sugary dark chocolate. Its top-end choice, 85 percent pure chocolate, is called simply "Black 85" — and worth a sample if you like chocolate without the sweetness. Galler's products are well-described in English.
- Leonidas, four doors down at Rue au Beurre 34, is where cost-conscious Bruxellois get their fix, sacrificing 10 percent in quality to nearly triple their take. White chocolate is their specialty. If all the chocolate has made you thirsty, wash it down with 250 Beers, next door.
Bruges — one of Europe's most delightful medieval towns — is also a chocoholic's Mecca, especially along Katelijnestraat, which sports a half-dozen shops within a few steps. Locals rarely buy chocolate along here (as the prices are marked up for tourists), but this is a convenient place to shop.
All of the following chocolatiers are proud of their creative varieties and welcome you to assemble a 100-gram assortment of five or six chocolates.
- Dumon: Perhaps Bruges' smoothest, creamiest chocolates are at Dumon, just off the Markt. Nathalie Dumon runs the store with Madame Dumon still dropping by to help make their top-notch chocolate daily and sell it fresh. The Dumons will happily describe their chocolates to you — 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. The original location is just north of the Markt at Eiermarkt 6, while a bigger, glitzier Dumon branch is at Simon Stevinplein 11. While technically their flagship store, it lacks the charm of the original. But they produce similar chocolates, offer additional types of pralines, and have a full coffee and hot chocolate bar.
- The Chocolate Line: Locals and tourists alike flock here to taste the gastronomique varieties (pricey at about €7/100 grams) concocted by Dominique Person — the mad scientist of chocolate. His unique creations mix chocolate with various, mostly savory, flavors. Even those that sound gross can be surprisingly good: Havana cigar (marinated in rum, cognac, and Cuban tobacco leaves), Deadly Delicious (a chocolate skull filled with raspberry and hazelnut paste), wine vinegar, fried onions, lime/vodka/passion fruit, wasabi, and tomatoes/olives/basil. The kitchen — busy whipping up 80 varieties — is on display in the back. Enjoy the window display, refreshed monthly (between Church of Our Lady and the Markt at Simon Stevinplein 19).
- BbyB: This chichi, top-end chocolate gallery (whose name stands for "Babelutte by Bartholomeus," for the Michelin-starred restaurateur who owns it) lines up its pralines in a minimalist display case like priceless jewels, each type identified by number. If you don't mind — or actually enjoy — the pretense, the chocolates are top-notch (Sint-Amandsstraat 39).
- Confiserie De Clerck: Third-generation chocolatier Jan sells his handmade chocolates for about €1.50/100 grams, making this one of the best deals in town. Some locals claim his chocolate's just as good as at pricier places, while others insist that any chocolate this cheap must be subpar — taste it and decide for yourself. The time-warp candy shop itself is so delightfully old-school, you'll want to visit one way or the other (Academiestraat 19).
A rule of thumb when buying chocolate in Bruges: The town's informal "chocolate mafia" keeps the price for midrange pralines quite standard, at about €28 per kilogram (or €2.80 for 100 grams). Swankier and "gastronomical" places (like The Chocolate Line or BbyB) charge significantly more, but only aficionados may be able to tell the difference. On the other hand, if a place is priced well below this range, be suspicious: Quality may suffer.
If you're looking for value, don't forget to check the supermarket shelves. Since the country is the largest producer of raw chocolate, Belgium's stores always have a wall of quality chocolate. Try Côte d'Or Noir de Noir for a simple bar of pure dark chocolate that won't flatten in your luggage.