Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Sweet of Belgium. Chocolate.

Box of assorted chocolates from Château Blanc, Antwerp, Belgium.
(Photo from ChocolateOnlineShop.com, official online store of Château Blanc)
G

enerally speaking, I do not have a sweet tooth.  I much prefer to eat something salty over something sweet.  There are some exceptions.  The first is chocolate.  I love chocolate but I hate eating bad aka cheap chocolate.  I've tried a lot of different brands, from countries near and far. 

With the exception of artisan crafted chocolates like Scharfen Berger (which was sold to Hershey's in 2005) and Mast Brothers, I pretty much avoid eating any American chocolate - even candy bars.  It's all much too sugary sweet and that sugar overpowers the taste of the chocolate.  That goes for Guittard, Ghiradelli and even brands like Ms. See's and Whitman's as well.

The British eating chocolates are just a small step ahead of the American chocolates in terms of taste.  Not quite as sugary and a bit more chocolatey but still nothing that makes me swoon.  Sorry Cadbury's, you don't quite measure up.

The Italians also produce eating chocolates.  Perugina which makes the cute shaped Baci chocolates and Ferrero which makes the nuggets dotted with hazelnuts are two brands I enjoy eating.  The flavor, with the nuts, is nice but the chocolate is not as smooth or intensely flavored as I prefer. 

Pretty Belgian chocolates.  (Photo from Best Belgian Chocolates)
Of course, the Swiss are chocolate masters.  I have long been a fan of Lindt and that is probably not even considered to be the best of what Switzerland produces.

On one of my recent trips to New York City, my friend Pat treated me to two pieces of Teuscher chocolates which are Swiss made.  So divine.  You put the piece in your mouth and without even having to close your mouth all that much, the chocolate begins to melt and smoothly spreads to coat your entire mouth with deep, rich chocolate flavor. 

The French are also chocolate lovers.   I have to admit, beyond Valrhona which I do like very much,  I've not tried many French brands but if the French can do with chocolate as they can do with flour, sugar and butter, I am certain I will fall in love with French chocolate.  I'm going to have to do some taste testing when we get to Paris.  Yes, I hear La Maison du Chocolat calling my name.

Since it was the Spaniards who brought chocolate over from Mexico and introduced it to the rest of Europe, I am sure they have also mastered the art of transforming the cocoa bean into delicious chocolate bites.  I have only tried Blanxart and it wasn't bad.

So the world of chocolate as my palate knows it, is not all that broad but what I do know is that for me, no one in the world makes better chocolates than the Belgians.  Absolutely no one.  In fact, I cannot think of Belgium and NOT think of chocolate. Seriously.

To the Aztecs, cacao was the *bean of the gods*.
In 1502, Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas and when he returned to Spain, he brought back some cocoa beans with him.  His patrons,  King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, were not at all impressed with the odd looking bean.

In 1519, Hernán Cortés landed in Mesoamerica, present day Mexico.  There, he was introduced to a Aztec drink made from cacao bean.  Apparently, Cortés did not enjoy the drink because of its bitterness and the fact that it was often spiked with chili but he as amazed at how the Aztecs valued it.  Before I traveled to Mexico, I did a lot of reading on the history of cocoa in that country and how important it is to the country's cuisine today.  It's a very different take on a food ingredient that most of the world eats as a sweet.

In 1528, Cortés returned to Spain, after having defeated Montezuma II in battle.  Mexico was now Spanish terriroty.  Unlike Columbus,  who only brought back a cacoa bean, Cortés returned with beans as well as the recipe and equipment necessary to make the chocolate beverage of the Aztecs.  Once the taste of cocoa started catching on, Spanish cooks experimented with the recipe and added sugar to sweeten it.

For several decades, cocoa was mostly a Spanish secret, but then its popularity quickly spread to the other countries of Europe.  In no time, Soon, imported cacao became a trade, new recipes were invented and shared, and within 100 years, chocolate had spread throughout Europe.

Belgium's association with chocolate goes back as far as 1635 when the country was under Spanish occupation.  At first, chocolate was only drunk by royals and nobles but by the mid 18th century, chocolate was extremely popular in upper and middle class circles, particularly in the form of hot chocolate.

Cacoa beans.  (Photo from Emoti)
In 1885, Belgium's King Leopold II colonized the Congo (hence the name 'Belgian Congo') and from that point forward was able to import large quantities of cocoa from its African colony and neighboring countries.

While cacao beans and other ingredients such as sugar can originate from outside of Belgium, for chocolate to be considered "Belgian", the actual production of the chocolate must take place in the country.

But what sets Belgian chocolate from that made in other countries that makes it so exceptional?

It starts with the composition which has been regulated by law since 1884. In order to prevent adulteration of the chocolate, with low-quality fats from other sources, a minimum level of 35% pure cocoa is required.  Furthermore, artificial, vegetable-based or palm-oil-based fats, which raise the melting point are banned from products labeled "Belgian chocolate".

When cacao pods are first picked, they are left to ferment for several days to help extraction of the beans. The beans are then left to ferment for several more days before they are dried and roasted.

Once cacao beans have been roasted and the shells of the beans have been removed, you’re left with the nibs of the cacao beans.

The Belgian mastery with chocolates then continues with the processing stages.

The next step is to grind and liquefy the nibs into a fluid form known as chocolate liquor.  The chocolate liquor is combined with more cocoa butter and sugar ground to an extremely fine powder. The finer the grinding, the smoother the resulting chocolate will be.

After that, the liquor can be blended with various ingredients to make different types of chocolate, including dark chocolate and milk chocolate.  Once these ingredients have been added, the next step is known as *conching*.  It's basically an emulsification process.

Conching chocolate (Photo from thatscienceguy)
Rodolphe Lindt invented the "conche" in Berne, Switzerland in 1879.  The machine was shaped like a conch shell, hence its a name.  It produced chocolate with superior aroma and melting characteristics compared to other processes used at that time. Lindt's invention rapidly changed chocolate from being mainly a drink to being made into bars and other confections.

A conching container may take various forms, depending on the chocolate maker’s preferences. The key here is that there are metal rollers or mixers that act as grinders and keep refining and blending the chocolate. The frictional heat of this process keeps the mixture in a liquid state.

Before conching, the texture of the chocolate liquor will be gritty and uneven.  The conching process grinds down the relatively large particles of cocoa and sugar  to the point that they are so small that your tongue can’t tell they are there. That’s why a chocolate that has been conched for a long time will have a smooth, creamy mouth feel.

During conching, the chocolate mass is heated above 55°C, stirred constantly, and exposed to circulating air.  This process removes many of the volatile chemicals in the mixture, reducing the tart flavors and developing the flavors we normally associate with chocolate. The constant stirring also makes a smooth emulsion (particles suspended in liquid), with a smoother emulsion resulting in a smoother chocolate.

In addition, at relatively high temperatures (above 70°C), a great many chemical reactions take place during this process, resulting in changes in flavor profile.  For example, the  caramel flavor in milk chocolate can be made relatively stronger or weaker.

There are two types of conching processes and the Belgians employ both.   
  • Dry conching.  The chocolate is slowly stirred at a temperature of around 80°C (175°F) to rid it of any residual moisture and add viscosity.
  • Liquid conching.  Follows immediately after dry conching.  During this phase, additional cocoa butter might be added to further smooth out the consistency of the chocolate and impart some inimitable flavors to it. 
The length of the overall conching process has enormous impact on both the mouthfeel and also the taste of the chocolate.  Conching can be as little as 4–6 hours for lower-end chocolate and as much as 80 hours for higher end chocolate.

There is no doubt that as labor and time intensive as it is, adherence to traditional manufacturing techniques increases the quality of Belgian chocolate.  Of course, each chocolate make also has their own secret recipe for everything from roasting the bean to conching the liquor.

Chocolate plays an important part in the Belgian economy.  There are over 2,000 chocolatiers in a country that is roughly the size of the state of Maryland!

There are two popular varieties of chocolates in Belgium - pralines and truffles. 

Pralines were first introduced by Jean Neuhaus II in 1912.  They come in many forms and shapes but typically are a thin coverture chocolate shell around a softer filling that often include nuts, marzipan, salted caramel, coffee, liquors, cream liqueur, cherry or a chocolate blend that contrasts with the outer shell. The largest manufacturers are Neuhaus, Godiva, Leonidas, and Guylian.

Guylian chocolate.  (Photo from My Little Space 4 Everything)
Guylian is a brand that is readily available in the US.  You cannot miss the distinctive seashell and seahorse shapes as well as the mottled coloring (produced by mixing dark and white chocolates) of the chocolate pieces.  The filling is truffled chocolate.  Bite off a small piece and it all melts so easily in your mouth.  Just luscious.  A box can last me a couple of weeks!





Belgian truffles.  (Photo from Best Belgian Chocolates)
Truffles are irregularly shaped balls of chocolate - they get their name from the famous fungi., Belgian chocolate truffles are sometimes in encrusted form containing wafers or coated in a high-quality cocoa powder. They contain a soft ganache which is traditionally a semi-emulsion of liquid and therefore has a couple of days shelf-life at low temperatures and/or requires refrigeration. Special truffles sometimes have a fruit, nut or coffee ganache.

While I have learned to make truffles at home, I can assure you that they are nowhere near the quality of the ones that come from Neuhaus or Leonidas.  I am definitely going to make my way to the Neuhaus and Leonidas stores in Belgium to have a few and to buy some for another another chocoholic in the family - my Dad.   He absolutely loves Belgian truffles!!  I have given him boxes of Neuhaus chocolates in the past and I know he's really enjoyed them so a box or more will be brought home on this trip!

Côte d'Or is probably the largest commercial brand, with their products available in virtually every grocery store in the country.  On my trip in 2006, I came back with quite a few bars of Côte d'Or chocolates.  I intend to do the same on this trip!  We're staying in apartments in both Brussels and Ghent which means we have to go to the supermarket to stock up.  Might as well pick up a few bars while I'm there :-)

Lastly, because of the popularity of chocolate with tourists, there are literally handfuls of chocolate tours you can go on.  I don't know that a tour will be worth our while - I'd rather just go to a store and try the chocolate but we'll see.   Perhaps a visit to the Museum of Cacoa and Chocolate in Brussels would be a good starting point instead.