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Flanders’ nouvelle chocolat!

Innovation and startling new flavours are the driving trends in the world of super luxury Belgian chocolates

By Anoothi Vishal

In the world of luxury foods where provenance is more important today than it ever was, one tiny country that spells decadence and indulgence is, of course, Belgium. Think chocolate and you are bound to think of premium chocolatiers like Neuhaus, Godiva or Guliyan. Yet while pralines, ganaches or those delicious dark squares now deemed the “new” superfood (with enough antioxidants to promote not just happiness, lower blood pressure but even weight loss!) from these top-of-the line labels sell stupendously the world over, what is really interesting to see are the new innovations happening at the smaller, boutique places in the world of Belgian chocolates today.

Innovation and the story of Belgian chocolate goes hand in hand in any case. The country that exports over 100,000 tons of chocolate (even as its own per capita consumption is 12 pounds a year) became the big chocolate daddy of the world only in the late 19th century — almost 500 years after the bean was discovered by Columbus and much after the Azetcs had used it as a magic, bitter beverage. In fact, the world’s best known dessert got its sweet moorings when Spanish aristocrats started mixing it with sugar and cream (each family had its secret recipe for the drink) in what must have been an equivalent of today’s hot (or, more correctly, warm) chocolate.

Once Belgium got access to Colonial plantations in Africa in the late 19th century, confectioners started borrowing French recipes to make their own chocolate but it was only in 1912 when they invented the praline (small chocolate bites filled with the likes of hazelnut) that marketing history was made. And chocolate inevitably got associated with luxury and luxury gifts — particularly since what was also invented was the now-famous ballotin, the now all-pervasive cardboard box in which chocolate is layered (it was earlier sold in paper cones).

In Bruges, a small, medieval town in Flanders (the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium with its own distinctive culture), I finally discover—and taste— the next generation of innovation happening in the world of nouvelle chocolate. The small town has an astounding 52 chocolate shops plus a museum where you can watch hand-crafted chocolate being made. It makes for an ideal place to indulge in a chocolate walk. But The Chocolate Line, a praline boutique, is one of the most astounding places you can arrive at. Dominique Persoone is quite a well-known name in the world of luxury chocolate. He describes himself as more a chef (he is a trained chef after all) than chocolatier and his cutting-edge creations reflect that sensibility. With a chocolate bar tattooed on his forearm, Persoone goes about making the strangest of fillings for pralines including oyster juice and smoked eel with cauliflower and oranges, bacon, cherry-and-cabernet sauvignon (that Michelin Star restaurants buy up from him for their patrons) and so on. In fact, I even found a “Bollywood” chocolate in his window—flavoured with curry powder and saffron.

If Persoone has made the wackiest of flavours super trendy, Laurent Gerbaud is another name to look out for if you are seriously into chocolate. With a shop in Brussels, Gerbaud is now at the forefront of the new movement, experimenting with non-dairy, non-sugar chocolate and combining not just salt and pepper but also lemony Japanese flavours like kumquat and yuzu with the best of chocolate. There are other chocolatiers too who are experimenting and it is possible to order a box of seaweed chocolate!

Flanders is very much at the forefront of this new trend. But, it is equally possible to sample some old, quintessential luxury bites. In Antwerp, the city famous of its diamonds and diamond bourses, mini chocolate hands (the symbol of the city) spell decadence, particularly since they are filled with the local liqueur Elixer d’ Anvers. Plus, there are also chocolatiers that scale everything up making chocolate statues and palaces and sculptures.
You can drink chocolate, pure, liquid gold, as they call it, and wonder why it is that chocolate in India never tastes the same — though, of course, the bars we usually grab are all mass-produced, mid-market products. But one reason I discover is lies in the quality of the beans. All top chocolatiers in Belgium use African produce (the gold standard in cocoa is Ghana, while chocolate from other parts of the world is equally distinctive: from Equador, it is smoky, musky; from West Africa, fresher; from Indonesia, earthy…). In India, on the other hand, most commercial brands use around 50 per cent Indian cocoa.

Moreover, Indian chocolate is “tropicalised”, as it is called in the trade, to keep it stable in the heat. In Flanders and Belgium, on the other hand, only pure cocoa butter is used. Indian chocolate is also milkier because dark chocolate has fewer takers in our country. Of course, that is another trend that’s changing.

(The article appeared in the Sunday Financial Express)

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