The writer put a lot of effort into a three day tour, but covered a lot of ground. Chocolate making workshops, several of the high end makers, etc.
“The big-name big houses are great. But seeing and tasting real handmade chocolate, while buying it from the person who made the chocolate, is something special.”
To prove her point, as we were leaving Wittamer, the century-old chocolatier in the center of the city that seduces both locals and tourists with its heritage recipes, Robbin suggested we go to Alex & Alex, a nearby Champagne and chocolate bar. Though its chocolates, made by Frederic Blondeel, aren’t made on-site, they’re acknowledged in some circles as some of the best in the city.
The bar is tucked away on one of the antiques store- and art gallery-filled streets that shoot off the Grand Sablon, Brussels’ central square. Its dark, cozy interior, along with the glass of Drappier rosé and array of square bonbons before me, was a lovely respite from the trolling chocolate tourists outside. I found the herbaceous notes of Blondeel’s basil ganache too reminiscent of pesto, but the “Alex’Perience” chocolates were another story. The first velvety impression of high-quality chocolate was followed by a flood of sweet, fruity cassis.
I spent the afternoon circling the Grand Sablon, which, with no fewer than eight chocolatiers, is the city’s epicenter of chocolate. I sampled golf-ball-size truffles at Godiva and molded hamster heads at Leonidas; organic nougat from Pure and minty ganaches at Passion. At Neuhaus, I tried a dark chocolate truffle filled with buttercream and with speculoos, a spicy Belgian cookie.
The more I strolled, the clearer it was that the level of sophistication is evolving. The packaging and presentation at newer chocolatiers is as slick as a Place Vendôme showroom, while the associated terminology — like “cru” and “domain” — is akin to what you’d hear from sommeliers. Such was the case at Pierre Marcolini’s two-story flagship. Smiling saleswomen stood over the glassed-in display of small, rectangular bonbons that looked as exquisite as jewels. Backlighted shelves on the opposite wall showcased what Mr. Marcolini is famous for: his single-origin Grand Cru chocolate bars.
IN 2004, Mr. Marcolini raised the bar when he started scouting the globe for the best cocoa beans. He became the only chocolatier in Brussels to work directly with plantations in countries like Venezuela and Madagascar, bringing the beans back to his ateliers for roasting and grinding.
“Most people think it’s the percentage that makes a difference,” said a saleswoman, speaking of the amount of cocoa in the confections, “but it’s the origin of the cocoa bean that does. It’s a little bit like wine.” Indeed, when I bit into the Cuban cru — Marcolini claims to be the only chocolatier in the world working with cacao from Cuba — I could detect vibrant notes of dried cherries in the slightly acidic chocolate.
Outside the museum, I dodged the camera-wielding tour groups gathered before the magnificent Grand’Place, with its 15th-century Town Hall and rows of guild houses, and walked down narrow streets lined with friteries and waffle stands. Soon the cavalcade of chocolatiers continued in the Galerie de la Reine. La Belgique Gourmand, Corné and the original Neuhaus were at home under the soaring glass ceilings of this graceful fin-de-siècle shopping arcade. But as big business as those Belgian brands are, none are national gems the way Mary is.
The 92-year-old chocolatier is a favorite of the Belgian royal family, and with its rows of caramel, marzipan, chocolate mousse, ganache and cream-filled pralines, it was easy to see why. Mary makes small batches of chocolates, so they don’t have to be stored, which is when they lose their flavor. Buzzing from the caramelized hazelnut pralines the saleswoman had offered as a sample, I found myself leaving $70 lighter, but two boxes of pralines and several chocolate bars richer.
Compelled to dig deeper into the chocolate of Brussels, and the city itself, I ambled down the crooked Rue des Bouchers, avoiding eye contact with waiters trying to lure me into their cafes for buckets of mussels; past the big, blocky Bourse where workers in loosened ties ate sandwiches; into St.-Géry, where the canals once used for transporting building materials are now filled in and home to seafood restaurants. I veered left and found the big shop windows of Ste. Catherine, an area popular with artists and fashionistas.