In May 2018, Cacaopod and I took a 16-day trip around northern Europe. We had several focuses: art, trains, and chocolate!!! The last post was about a well-curated chocolate collection in Amsterdam. This time we overwhelm ourselves with Belgian chocolate.
The entry into Brussel by train from Amsterdam was a bit of a let-down. The train station is a dreary 1960-70s concrete bunker, devoid of charm or decent signage. The neighborhood it’s in looked somewhat run down, but not scary — at least not when we were just breezing in and out of town in a day to check out Belgian chocolate.
I love Paris, and I love French chocolate, but after a short visit to Brussels, I feel a little torn. Like a lot of people, my first exposure to Belgian chocolate was Godiva, and I was not impressed. But in Brussels, I skipped Godiva and the other biggies, Neuhaus and Leonidas (I can find them easily elsewhere), and found Belgian chocolate to be on par with French chocolate. While Brussels is a little rough around the edges, its high concentration of artisan chocolatiers and chocolate shops in a small area made for a great chocolateering day trip.
Pierre Marcolini is a luxury brand of chocolate but without the attitude. We found the chocolates tasty and the shops comfortably chic. Unfortunately, they don’t ship to the US, which is a good excuse for a trip to Europe (or Hawaii — they have a store in Honolulu).
We encountered 4 Pierre Marcolini stores in our afternoon in Brussels. (There are 6 in a 2-mile radius in Brussels proper.) The first, Rue des Minimes 1 (Place du Sablon), was impossible to overlook since the building was covered with slowly turning pinwheels, which was a theme repeated inside the stores too, celebrating spring. Two of the stores were in Galeries de la Reine, the beautiful old covered pedestrian mall that was full of Belgian chocolate shops.
The store we visited, Place du Grand Sablon 39, is called La Manufacture, but there were no chocolates or desserts being made onsite when we were there. It was, however, a bright, airy, yet compact store with cases full of truffles for custom orders, plus macarons and pastries. The shelves displayed an array of bars, pre-made gift boxes, and other gifty chocolate offerings. Not really different from many other chocolatiers, but it was impeccably displayed, and the help was unobtrusively helpful, so it felt luxurious, even though we were just buying a few bars to try.
There was no pressure to make a decision, and the woman who helped us was happy to chat about chocolate as long as we liked. She spoke multiple languages, which seems par for the course in Europe. Even so, her range was impressive: speaking Mandarin to a customer when we walked in, then greeting us in French but switching to English without a hitch while talking with us. And she was doing this while talking about chocolate in detail. It’s one thing to be a chocolate geek, but in at least 3 different languages? I was impressed.
Pierre Marcolini offers 2 kinds of chocolate bars: Barre² and Carré². The Barre²s (not sure how to pluralize these names) are elongated squares (barre is French for bar), or maybe I should say squared bars. They seem to be marketed as an individual treat: Each bar is 24 grams or a little less than one ounce, and their tagline is “For a moment of indulgence.”
We tried 2: The Caramel Vanille Barre² was a nice chewy caramel, really flavorful with a boost from the added vanilla, covered in milk chocolate. Crushed feuillantine in the bar added some crunch.
The Noisette Caramélisée Barre² was a nutty bar featuring a slab of ganache with pieces of hazelnuts and almonds throughout on top of a crunchy feuillantine layer, covered with milk chocolate. Both bars were satisfyingly crunchy/chewy/chocolatey. And the size was spot-on for that “moment of indulgence.”
Squared to share
The Carré² line of larger, almost 4″-square bars (hence the name, carré is French for square) are mostly high cacao percentage single-origin bars, with a few milk chocolate bars, a few inclusion bars, and a white chocolate bar. We picked 3 single-origin bars from places we haven’t explored yet.
The Oriente • Cuba was a 78% made from Cuban Trinitario beans. This was a hard bar that tasted very dark roasted, almost burnt. It started out bitter and very fermented, like wine. But then some cherry notes came out, and it became more interesting. Initially it was not my fav, but the taste grew on me. It had a nice aftertaste, but a powdery after-texture, if that’s a thing.
The Haute Penja • Cameroun was a 70% made from Forestaro beans from the Republic of Cameroon. This bar was harder than the Cuban to the point of being brittle. It had a strong fudge flavor, markedly sweeter tasting than the 78% Cuban, but with an earthy undertone. It also had the novelty of added crunchy cacao nibs. Interesting, but not compelling to me.
The Bahai • Brésil was a 78% made from Brazilian Forestaro beans. This one was a winner with a nice chocolate aroma, creamy texture, raisiny flavor, and a good aftertaste. It got many thumbs up from our tasters with one declaring that it was “as good as it gets.”
Pierre Marcolini La Manufacture, Place du Grand Sablon 39, Brussels.
We also visited the shop of artisan chocolatier Laurent Gerbaud, who is know for off-beat flavors with an Asian influence. In fact, the logo for Laurent Gerbaud Chocolatier is the Chinese word for chocolate designed like a Chinese seal.
The store has a gold and dark-red theme, more of that Asian influence. It’s bigger than the other chocolate shops we visited because it’s also a chocolate café and there is plenty of seating inside and out. Display cases run almost the whole length of the place with lots of intriguing truffles, mediants, and dipped chocolates inside. Bars, boxes, and other chocolate offerings are arranged on top of the cases and fill shelves too. There’s so much variety that it felt very exciting just looking at everything.
After looking, we settled on some of the more-unusual-to-us chocolates in the case and one weird bar.
We pretty much loved every Laurent Gerbaud truffle we tried. The chocolates were not too sweet, the ganaches were smooth, the shells a perfect thin-thickness, and the flavors nicely balanced. In some, an ingredient was not pronounced but rather served to only influence the other flavors. For example, the Banana Rhubarb had a banana and caramel flavored ganache with a slight sourness from the rhubarb, but not the flavor of rhubarb.
The Hazelnut Poire Caramel was a similar experience. It tasted mostly of hazelnut. The pate layer of pear on the hazelnut ganache had the crunch of crystalized sugar and was too subtle to taste like pear (poire); it just added some sweetness.
Others were more robust. I especially liked the Pistachio: A whole roasted nut on top of the piece helped bring out the pistachio flavor. It was delicious, not disappointingly subtle like so many other pistachio flavored ganaches.
I was apprehensive about the Raspberry & Lychee, but it was a good combination of bright raspberry on top of the more syrupy lychee flavor. The tart raspberry cut the sweet lychee down to a level I could appreciate it.
Olive was a surprise: It was definitely black olive and chocolate, not an olive oil and chocolate combo, which is more common. It was a good savory truffle, and nicely balanced.
We had to try the Buckwheat, since we have never had that in a chocolate before. Turns out it tastes like hazelnut, but not quite as nutty. The piece was crunchy and ended with a toasted grain taste. Like the rest of the truffles we tried, it wasn’t super sweet. An interesting piece.
Other Asian-influenced pieces we tried that were more traditional were the Chai Tea Cardamom Ginger, Sesame, and Curry. The Chai Tea Cardamom Ginger was another winner. The chai tea taste came first, with a subtle spike of cardamom and ending with a little ginger heat.
The Sesame was sesame praline covered in chocolate. It was crunchy like sesame butter, with a nice toasted sesame flavor. A good balance with the chocolate, neither flavor overpowering the other.
The only one we didn’t like was the Curry. It had a strong curry spice mixture taste that was also a little burnt tasting. But since the other flavor combos were so good, I wouldn’t let this dissuade me from trying anything Laurent Gerbaud offered.
We tried a chocolate-covered apricot, which surprised me. It had a good tart apricot flavor that lingered afterwards, but what was interesting was the texture: not too chewy, it was almost jellied — not to the softness of a pate, but I’ve never had a dried fruit that was so soft before. If you like apricots, especially chocolate-covered dried ones, you should try these.
The mendiants we tried were OK, but not my fav things there. We tried Quince and Rhubarb, but they tasted mostly of chocolate. It’s probably hard to get a good balance on mediants, since the inclusions are just sprinkled on top. They were pretty though.
We only got one bar to try, which I regret because it was not a winner. Green Cumin in 50% is definitely a savory bar: The first taste is cumin, and the cumin was overpowering all the way through. The bar just tasted like milk chocolate and cumin — and they weren’t getting along. It would have been better as a dark chocolate bar, and with a lighter touch on the cumin.
I did like the custom mold: A large square with a raised grid pattern and the Chinese-seal logo overlapping each intersection in the grid. I think I need to try more of his bars, like the Yuzu, another Asian flavor, or the Speculoos/Gingerbread for a more traditional European taste.
Laurent Gerbaud Chocolatier, 2D Rue Ravenstein
The rest of the day, we mostly did chocolate sight-seeing. Of course, we saw Godiva stores, and Neuhaus and Leonidas. We walked past Wittamer on Place Sablon, which I had to put on a list for next time. It’s recommended by David Lebovitz, who worked there and says they make classic Belgian chocolate and the best Belgian hot chocolate. Maybe we can make it a cool-weather outing.
The Gallerie de la Reine and its brother across the street Gallerie du Roi were the bomb: lots of chocolate shops and luxury food shops that carry chocolate in beautiful old pedestrian malls.
Chocolate in Gallerie de la Reine
Godiva Haagen Dazs, Galerie de la Reine, 1.
Corné Port-Royal Chocolatier, Galerie de la Reine 5
Pierre Marcolini, two locations in the mall, Galerie de la Reine, 9 and 21
Neuhaus, Galerie de la Reine 25-27
Mary, 36 Gallerie de la Reine
Across the street in Gallerie du Roi
Délices Du Roy, Galerie du Roi, 11
Leonidas, Galerie du Roi 24
I confess, all that Belgian chocolate became a blur after a couple of hours. In addition to the big name chocolatiers and the well-respected smaller artisan chocolatiers, there were lots of shops plastered with “Belgian Chocolate” signs. I think there were more chocolate shops than coffee shops in Brussels.
So when we stopped for coffee in the galleries, it was no surprise to see that even the café had a chocolate display. What was unusual was where the chocolates came from.
Aksum Coffee House is a coffee roaster with several coffee houses in Brussels. They source beans from Ethiopia and make a very nice cappuccino. While waiting for the barista to make our drinks, we looked over the chocolate selection and found it to be a small, unique collection.
Anywhere but here
The four shelves of chocolate bars included just 8 chocolate-making companies, and none of them were Belgian. I liked that there was a place, even in a chocolate capital, for outsider chocolate.
We tried 3 brands, one from Ecuador, one from Lithuania, and one from the Czech Republic. The ones we didn’t try were from equally diverse places:
German chocolate-maker, Georgia Ramon, makes mostly organic, fair-trade, gluten-free, sustainable chocolate.
I have no idea if the ones we didn’t try were equal to Belgian chocolates, but I’m sad to say the ones we did try have a long ways to go.
Chocolate Naive, is a bean-to-bar maker in Lithuania. There were several varieties of their big (approx. 3-1/2″x5″) bars. We got the peanut butter because that’s one of my fav flavors and not very common in Europe. It’s a 42% milk chocolate with finely ground peanuts and salt added. It wasn’t too sweet, which I liked, but it also wasn’t very peanut buttery or chocolaty, which was weird.
Weirder still is the description on the back of the bar. According to Domantas Uzpalis, the chocolatier, the bar is made by the devil and a bunch of virgins beating and whipping peanuts into peanut butter, and um, something about defloration and divine tears, and um… maybe chocolate isn’t really his thing.
All that glitters might be salt
We like to try more unusual chocolate, and when we saw the goldenberry and salt bar from Kuná Chocolate, in Ecuador, we were intrigued.
This was a much smaller bar (3″x3″ square), but the packaging and their logo were attractive. We were interested in the flavor because we had tried homemade chocolate-covered goldenberries recently and liked the tart combination. And because we liked Ecuadoran bean-to-bar maker, Valdivian Chocolate’s bars at the last Fall Chocolate Salon, we were interested to try another Ecuadoran bean-to-bar maker who is working where cacao grows.
We were not so enthused after trying the bar. Salt was the first taste and very pronounced. The bar was very hard with a grainy texture from the dried pieces of goldenberry, full of tiny seeds. I’d compare the dried fruit to a tart fig, the seeds gave it that dried fig texture, but the taste was tart, leaning toward bitter. It also had a soapy, medicinal aftertaste. It’s a dark bar, but no percentage was listed on the package. There was also no info about their bars on their very minimal website.
Little lambs eat ivy
Finally, we tried a couple of unusual milk chocolate bars from bean-to-bar maker, Jordi’s chocolate, in the Czech Republic. I loved the packaging that looked like elegant animal argyle patterns in a springtime palette. The twist is that instead of cow’s milk, the bars were made with goat’s milk and sheep’s milk.
The goat’s milk chocolate tasted mostly like creamy chèvre cheese with some chocolate sprinkled in. Maybe it’s because goats are pushy, but it was too cheesy and needed a stronger chocolate taste.
The sheep’s milk chocolate had a totally different taste. I thought it would be milder, but instead it tasted sour or rancid, with an aftertaste of raisins and old peanuts. This is one of those eat-on-a-dare chocolates for me.
Even with our disappointing choices, I think Aksum made a good decision to offer non-Belgian chocolate for people looking for something different. It was a fun discovery for us, and maybe next time we will find some chocolate gems there.
Aksum Coffee House, Galerie du Roi 3
Speaking of gems, supposedly ruby chocolate was going to be available to chocolatiers in Belgium in April, but we couldn’t find it anywhere when we were there a month later. I was on the lookout for ruby chocolate in Europe from the moment we landed at Charles De Gaulle, but never spotted it in any of the cities we visited. It was a bit of a disappointment, but don’t feel sad for me: I had plenty of great chocolate to console me.
Next stop: A week in Paris, my chocolate happy place