Belgium is a small country nestled between France, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands but this tiny country has produced some of the finest products in the world – Chocolates, a luxury and a daily pleasure. This country which has a land area of only 30,528 sq. kms is home to over 2,000 chocolate businesses and produces over 170,000 tons of chocolate every year.
But what makes Belgian chocolate so special? Why is it different from chocolates produced elsewhere in the world? What is the secret behind the mouth watering, flavorful chocolates? The secret is in the ingredients used in the production of the chocolate products. Only the finest of ingredients are used, coupled with original recipes passed down generations and created by hand produces the finest chocolates in the world.
The story of Belgian chocolate begins in the tropical rain forests of Africa, Central and South America, Asia and the Pacific Islands. Cocoa trees grow abundantly in temperatures ranging between 18 – 32 degrees and at altitudes of 30 – 300 m. The ripe cocoa pods are harvested from the cacao trees, where they are sliced open and the white pulp and seeds are collected. The pulp is left to ferment and then is dried, roasted and removed from the shells. The beans are then ground and separated into cocoa butter and powder. It is further refined and conched, tempered and lastly, molded.
During this entire process, stringent quality measures are applied to ensure that only the finest beans are utilized for the chocolate production. For example, after the fermented beans are dried, potential buyers can perform various tests like the grainage test. In this test the number of beans present in 100 grams is counted. They should be fewer than a hundred. The cut test involves the random selection of 100 cocoa beans and slicing them in half to check for mold or insect damage, germination, shrinkage and a different color like grey or violet which is an indication of poor quality beans. There is also a weight test where farmers weigh the cocoa beans before and after removing their shells. If the mass percentage of the shells is more than 14%, this is an indication that the beans are not of the required size or haven’t been properly fermented.
When the beans are roasted, various flavor compounds develop through multiple chemical conversions collectively known as Malliard reactions. A ‘Winnower’ machine cracks and deshells the cocoa beans which are then ground into a thick paste known as chocolate liquor. This is further pressed to extract cocoa butter leaving behind a mass that is ground to form cocoa powder.
According to the Belgian Chocolate Code, products labeled as ‘Belgian chocolate’ have to be refined and molded in Belgium. Although the other processes of grinding and production may take place elsewhere, the mentioned processes have to be done in Belgium.
Chocolate liquor is mixed with sugar and cocoa butter to create industrial chocolate. The EU has allowed some chocolate makers to substitute up to 5% of cocoa butter with Shea butter or other vegetable fats, but makers of Belgian chocolates pride themselves on using 100% cocoa butter.
The conching process is a closely guarded secret in many chocolate companies. This is the process when chocolate is heated and mixed for up to 78 hours. Unwanted flavors are evaporated in this stage, and this is what sets Belgian chocolates apart from their Swiss counterparts. Swiss chocolate is conched liquid and Belgian chocolates have three phases – liquid, dry and pasty. This is then tempered and is ready to be sold to chocolate businesses so that they can mold the chocolate into pralines or forms that they want to sell in their stores.