Belgium: The Chocolate Heritage
Belgium has been associated with chocolate for centuries and can trace its relationship with this wonderful product since 1635 AD. That was the time when Belgium was under Spanish Occupation and chocolate had been recently introduced to Europe from Mesoamerica. Chocolate gained massive popularity with the upper and middle classes, especially in the form of hot chocolate.
Belgium imported large quantities of cocoa from its African Colony – the Belgium Congo from the early 20th century onwards. Africa’s cocoa plantations fed the demand for chocolate and this access to the cocoa bean combined with the ability to understand how to extract the best cocoa from fine tuning the cocoa bean processing before other countries also cemented Belgium as the leaders in the chocolate industry.
You’d be amazed to know that the Swiss, who are equally famous for their brand of chocolates, also learnt much of their chocolate trade from Belgium. The location itself of the country doesn’t hurt. Being centrally located at the heart of Europe helped Belgium chocolate gain fame far and wide as travelers pass their way through the city on route to other destinations.
The Belgians are brilliant with creating various systems and processes that make life easier – and the field of chocolates were not left alone. They created machinery that processed the cocoa beans so finely that it resulted in extremely smooth chocolate. The innovation of one such process was credited to Jean Neuhaus in 1912 when he figured out a way to produce cold shells of chocolate for what he called “pralines”.
This was the first time where chocolate could be filled with lots of other goodies like flavored nougat or creams like hazelnut, coffee or even more chocolate! Nobody else around the world could produce such complex chocolates with various flavors, and this changed the course of chocolate history for ever.
Another reason for Belgium’s success in being stamped as a world class producer of chocolates is its culture. When you think about French villages – as an example – they are well known for their wines because vineyards are found abundantly all over, and Italians are known for their olive oil because of the abundant supply due to large farms, similarly Belgium villages and towns each have at least one chocolate store.
Belgium is so steeped in chocolate culture that there are recipes which are closely guarded and are passed down from generation to generation. Every detail – ranging from the types of ingredients used to the quality of care and attention given to each part of the process makes Belgian chocolates famous the world over. Most of Belgian chocolate is not mass produced by large companies as you may think, but is actually produced by small family businesses that still rely on basic equipment and their own two hands to produce chocolate marvels.
To keep a tight control on the quality of chocolates, the composition of Belgian chocolate has been regulated by law since 1884. There has to be a minimum of 35% of pure cocoa to be used for it to carry the label of ‘Belgian chocolate’. Stringent measures are taken to ensure that artificial, vegetable based or palm oil fats are banned from chocolate production of products labeled “Belgian Chocolate” even though they raise the melting point of the chocolate for faster production. Adherence to traditional methods and secret recipes has ensured that many of these handmade