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Belgian Chocolate Culture

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I couldn’t roll my eyes any harder than I do when people tell me that Belgian chocolate is the best. Just because we associate a certain food with a specific country doesn’t make theirs the best, nor does it make all of their good— American hot dogs, for one. But the myth of Belgian chocolate has persisted for longer than I’ve been alive. So this year, I made it my mission to sort it all out: is Belgian chocolate really the best?

Similar to my other chocolate travel guides, I made sure to visit the main chocolate cities in Belgium and report on their best shops (& what to get there). But Brussels and Bruges were remarkably unimpressive for supposedly being the best chocolate destinations in the world. Most of the stuff I tried was nicely packaged, affordable, and incredibly flat & sweet in flavor.

In fact, I had better luck at chocolate shops in Amsterdam. But it got me wondering how Belgian chocolate got such a great reputation in the first place. Unlike Italians and pizza, the Belgians didn’t invent chocolate, and their certainly isn’t the best (spoiler alert), so to get answers, I turned to the almighty history books.

Belgian Chocolate History

Bringing Cacao To Belgium

Hopefully unsurprisingly to you, my dear reader, chocolate is made from the seeds of the cacao tree, which grows in the tropics. Belgium is not tropical, and therefore cannot grow cacao, so all cacao used to make Belgian chocolate must be imported from somewhere. Initially, cacao was imported to Belgium from the Americas, via Spain. Back then cacao was mostly consumed in the form of a bitter hot chocolate, affordable almost exclusively by the upper class as a sort of medicinal beverage.

The history of chocolate in Belgium dates back to the 1600’s, when the head of an Abbey in Ghent made the earliest recorded purchase of chocolate. By the end of that century, chocolate consumption had spread across the country. Bruges historical archives show that a local chocolatier sold 83 pounds of chocolate to a Mr. Le Gillon in 1693, according to some Belgian chocolate history I read in the Bruges Chocolate Museum.

According to those same archives, in 1712 a legal ordinance was decreed to offer licenses to tax cacao, further proving its trade & value on the market at the time. Most uses for cacao & chocolate were still medicinal at the time, but since sugar was added to the beverage around the turn of the 17th century, hot chocolate became even more popular throughout Europe. But by then, such cacao was believed to have been brought into Belgium via the Netherlands, as the Dutch were quite quick to begin competing with the Spanish in the cacao trade from the Americas.

The Dutch also had a strategic advantage in Belgium, not only due to being neighboring nations, but also because in the northern half of Belgium they speak a Dutch-variant language called Flemmish. This offered traders ease of moving product and communicating with buyers, something the Spanish just couldn’t compete with.

Belgian Chocolate Manufacturing

By the 1800’s, Belgium was well on its way to developing its own well-reputed chocolate industry. This era of Belgian chocolate is marked by the establishment of many Belgian chocolatiers and several now-famous Belgian chocolate brands, such as Neuhaus (1857) and Côte d’Or (1883). Over time, many of these companies made a far-reaching good name for themselves and their products.

This was especially true following the Belgian invasion & colonization of the modern-day Congo (DRC), then called the Belgian Congo, in the late 1800’s. This power grab allowed the country to import much more cacao than before, increasing its manufacturing sector. Ushering in the 20th century were the foundings a slew of now-famous Belgian chocolate brands, such as Callebaut (1911), Leonidas (1913), Mary (1919), and Godiva (1926).

In perhaps one of Belgium’s most famous contributions to chocolate, in 1912, Jean Neuhaus Jr. (pronounced “NOI-haws”) invented the praline (pronounced “pra-lee-NUH”), the first chocolate with a soft filling. Over the course of the century, the Belgian chocolate industry made several other notable contributions to the world, including the introduction of the chocolate spread and the development of the transport of liquid chocolate.

Modern Belgian Chocolate

So what has made Belgium such a famous chocolate destination, around the world? Well, even though it can be hard to imagine, chocolate hasn’t always been around, and someone had to be the first to bring it to a global market. The simplest answer is that Belgians brought chocolate much of its fame, and as a result, they’re still reaping much of the profits. It all started in the decades following WWII.

As Europe & other parts of the world became more developed in the 1960’s and 70’s, and even into now, Belgian chocolate brands began to look towards exporting their famous creations. Côte d’Or even boosted the overall reputation of Belgian chocolate internationally, through a major campaign at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. For many foreign markets, these brands were often the only “luxury” chocolates they has been exposed to, possibly other than the global force that is Cadbury’s.

This built up an association in people’s minds. Internationally-minded consumers began connecting these brands and their home country of Belgium with higher quality, flavorful chocolates. Since they weren’t exposed to anything better— like craft chocolate— until quite recently, most people made the logical jump that Belgian chocolates must be the best in the world.

From my years living in South Korea, I can confirm that this connection remains strong today, particularly in East Asia. Today, Belgium is home to over 300 unique chocolateries (chocolate shops) and produces more than 15 million pounds (7 million kg) of chocolate each year, most of which is exported. In a normal year, tourists flock to the streets of Ghent, Brussels, and Bruges to go on chocolate tours and duck into the many independent sweets shops that line the roads.

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Due to the public’s now long-term exposure to the concept of chocolate, some Belgian companies have finally begun innovating in more than just flavors. They’ve also challenged the forms in which chocolates are consumed, layering, changing shapes, and supersizing some traditional pieces. Seasonal chocolate flavors and creations have also hit the country in a big way, with Easter and Christmas being some of the most important chocolate holidays in Belgium.

Slowly, the country is opening up to the idea of bean to bar chocolate, and how the nuances of different cacao origins and processing techniques can affect the flavor of a chocolate. The problem is, for so long, Belgian chocolate has been just one thing. It’s become what people expect of the country, and it’s taking some creative and daring artisans to bring the country out of the 1800’s.

Swiss vs. Belgian vs. French Chocolate

On the topic of antiquated notions, people often remark to me that they love chocolate so much, that they’re so picky that they only eat Swiss, French, or Belgian chocolate, because it’s the “best.” They’re well-intentioned, of course, and these chocolate-producing countries have a long history of chocolate-making to give people this impression. But newsflash: neither country of origin of the chocolate maker nor the country in which the chocolate is made gives the final product any kind of magical quality to make it the “best.”

Quality is determined by a complex mixture of factors, beginning with cacao type and processing, and including seemingly small details, like humidity in a chocolate factory. So let’s take a look at how the world came to think that Belgian chocolate is the best (or French or Swiss, or even German): good branding. That’s it. Now hear me out, the main contributing factor behind the idea of Belgian-is-best is history, and specifically these countries’ histories as cacao processors and their historical contributions to chocolate innovation.

One of these innovations has been the regulation of cocoa and milk percentage minimums in chocolate, lending an overall consistency to their countries’ products. In fact, Europe as a whole has been unquestionably important in developing modern global chocolate culture. But to argue today that any one country makes the world’s best chocolate is an argument of opinions over facts.

Any mass-market chocolate from any randomly-chosen country is most likely to taste bitter & dull & overly-sweet. The idea of the best chocolate being from Belgium was cheapened as soon as other countries began processing smooth chocolate for themselves. But the reputation has persisted through the decades, even as the definition of “Belgian chocolate” has been contested (is it based on location of chocolate making, chocolatier’s location, style, technique?).

Moral of the story? Branding isn’t everything.

What is the Best Chocolate in Belgium? (Buying Tips)

I’ve always said that the “best” anything is subjective, but luckily for you, I’ve got lots of opinions. You can read about my recommendations for Brussels and Bruges by clicking their names, but what if you find yourself in a smaller town? Here are some tips for finding the best chocolate in Belgium, wherever in the country you end up.

  • Bonbons here are called pralines, and are almost all sold by weight, but if you buy only a few then the price is per chocolate (often a limit of 3 or 4) before the method shifts to weight. Buying this way is preferable to picking out a prepared box, because this way you can pick & choose flavors.
  • There are lots of different types of pralines unique to Belgium, including Cuberdon and Manon, though I also saw a huge number of chocolate-covered massive marshmallows, and Speculoos & Speculaas chocolates. I’d consider the latter more regional flavors, along with Avocaat (Eggnog). All of these are worth trying at least once!
  • Look for the names of chocolates in both French and Flemmish; most shops have both printed on there. If you can’t sort out the flavor and nobody speaks English, try using the Google Translate camera function to get a better idea.
  • When buying prepared boxes of chocolates, make sure you look for a manufacture date on the bottom, and don’t buy any filled chocolates more than two weeks after manufacture.

Is Belgian chocolate expensive? Well, it can be, but it usually isn’t. Buying Belgian chocolates in Belgium comes down to the weight of each individual chocolate. Most shops display a price per 100g, averaging around €6 ($7USD) per 100g (3.5 oz.), but you can buy as many or as few as you’d like at that same price. Even the best Belgian chocolate online can’t compete with a few euros worth of Neuhaus or Marcolini eaten in the Grand Place in Brussels, though.

​Famous Belgian Chocolate Brands

Famous Belgian chocolate brands include Godiva, Neuhaus, Wittamer, Marcolini, Leonidas, Galler, Côte d’Or, Belcolade, Callebaut, and Mary’s Chocolaterie. To be honest, though, before I moved to Asia several years back, I hadn’t heard of most of these brands. The obscurity around what Belgian chocolate is is well-demonstrated in that very statement.

Almost a decade in the chocolate industry, and even I couldn’t name more than a few Belgian chocolate brands until this year. When a chocolatier brags that they use Belgian chocolate in their products, however, that doesn’t usually mean it’s sourced from one of these more public-facing Belgian chocolate brands. More often than not, the company has acquired chocolate that was technically made in Belgium, albeit from the cheapest materials possible.

Unfortunately, you can taste the quality of the ingredients in the final product, no matter how much sugar is added. In Belgium, however, you’ll find yourself flush with famous chocolate options, all of which are much cheaper in Belgium than anywhere else in the world. While I’d almost always recommend visiting a small, independent chocolate maker, if you do decide to visit Neuhaus or Mary’s, you’ll probably smile at the low price tag (see above).

Bonbons vs. Pralines vs. Truffles

What’s the difference between a truffle and a bonbon and a praline? They’re all chocolates, but can’t you use those words interchangeably? Well, not exactly.

As mentioned above, Jean Neuhaus invented the praline in Belgium over 100 years ago. A praline is basically a filled chocolate, and options for fillings range from nut butters and liqueurs to ganaches and jellies. But this name can get confusing, as there’s also a sugary pecan confection we Americans call pralines (popular in New Orleans), as well as a sweetened nut paste called praliné, which is a popular filling for chocolates.

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The term ‘bonbon‘ is quite a bit older, and is said to have originated in France. Legend has it that the word comes from the repetition of the French word bon, which means ‘good,’ and that the first appearance of the word dates back to the 1700’s. According to French law, a bonbon (bonbon de chocolat) must contain at least 25% chocolate and can come in a nearly endless combination of flavors. ‘Bonbon’ is generally the preferred term for such chocolates, outside of Belgium.

On the other hand, truffles are similar to pralines and bonbons, but more specific in their scope. While truffles can be ganache-filled bonbons, they can also be a simple ganache rolled in cocoa powder or other coating. In Belgium, the term ‘bonbon’ isn’t as common, and most people call any filled chocolate a praline and any rolled ganache a truffle.

What’s Better Than Belgian Chocolate?

For those looking for where to buy Belgian chocolate, if after all this you still just want some well-recognized brand, you can buy Neuhaus Belgian chocolate online, which would be my pick for the tastiest mass-market “luxury” chocolate. But if you’re actually in Belgium, I’d recommend Pierre Marcolini (not available in the US, unfortunately).

Otherwise, for those just looking for great chocolate around the world, I’ve put together a guide to where to buy craft chocolate online, which includes great shops throughout the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Oceania. Feel free to check out any or all of those options, and don’t forget to save some chocolate for yourself!


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Srikanth

Friday 2nd of October 2020

I want to visit Belgium just to explore how and why chocolate has got such big name as Belgian Chocolate. It is interesting article. Thank you for sharing.

Srikanth from India Chocolate Mantra

Max

Monday 5th of October 2020

No problem! I'm glad to share about it.

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