Asian-Inspired Chocolate in Brussels
When we travel, we can become someone else, and in Brussels, I fancied myself a chocolate designer. I’d open a small corner shop just off the Grand Place, where it’s less chaotic and I could create beautiful pieces of art that also happen to be delicious. It would be more of a chocolate salon, a place where marble counters and elaborate displays showcase impossible-to-resist treats.
Of course, I have zero talent in chocolate design, but daydreaming about my boutique comes easily in Brussels, where there are more than 500 chocolatiers — the equivalent of about one for every 2,000 people.
And the Belgians actually eat the stuff, at one of the highest rates in the world for pounds consumed each year. When flying home, visitors can stock up (or replenish what they already devoured), as the city’s airport sells more chocolate than any other in the world.
While doing some proper background research on the Brussels chocolate scene, I found myself drawn to the houses of Marcolini, Galler, and Neuhaus. Wittamer, owned and operated by the same family since 1910, has a rich history in the Grand Sablon and a cheery second-floor cafe — the perfect place to duck in from the cold.
But I discovered very different flavors at Laurent Gerbaud, who owns a a sleek shop away from the tourist’s epicenter of chocolate, the Grand Sablon. There is no marble or gilded anything here; it’s more like a Zen chocolate zone with a coffee counter. And there’s a reason for that: Gerbaud has been making a name for himself by creating confections inspired by extended stays in Asia for more than three years now. (Just look at his signature — the Chinese symbol for chocolate, embossed with “LG,” his initials.)
At his shop, you’ll discover chocolate-coated fruit and truffles with flavors like Japanese citrus, black pepper, sweet chili, and ginger, alongside more traditional squares festooned with pecans and dried cranberries.
I found myself completely satisfied with a bite or two of Gerbaud’s chocolate, when three packs of peanut M&Ms can somehow feel inadequate. “My tastes really changed thanks to China, as there were no sugar or sweets then,” says Gerbaud, who is preparing for a month of chocolate-related travel in London and Asia. “Back in Belgium, there was too much fat, sugar, and alcohol.”
While the health benefits of chocolate can be overdramatized, you won’t find any added sugar, butter, or alcohol in Gerbaud’s creations. He explains that with a 75 percent cacao bar, you already have 25 percent sugar, which is plenty. “Fifteen years ago, you could only find 55 percent cacao, and now tastes have shifted to darker blends,” he says.
Selecting just the right cocoa beans for aroma and taste is crucial to the process, something Gerbaud likens to selecting the right grapes for wine. His exclusive dark chocolate is made from beans from Madagascar and Ecuador and produced in Italy.
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Gerbaud has to laugh at chocolatiers who present new collections of chocolate each season as though they’re fashion designers, believing instead that fantastic new products take time and inspiration. When I ask him how he decides on new flavors, he says: “I always think, do I want a second one or not? I work on product, not the next or new thing that the press wants. I do only what I like.”
You won’t find in Gerbaud’s shop is flowers mixed with chocolate (he says “lavender and rose are too much like toilet water”), but you will always find milk chocolate with pistachio (“the symbol of addiction”).
The best selection to take home with you? A small mixed bag of treats called “A little bit of everything.” But savor it slowly, or you may be the one frantically buying up chocolate before your flight home.
Annie Fitzsimmons is National Geographic’s Urban Insider, giving you the dish on the best things to see and do in cities all over the world. Follow her on Twitter @anniefitz.