Belgium has long been known for its superb chocolate. One of the first records of chocolate trading in the region is from 17th-century Ghent – a purchase made by a local abbot. As in many parts of Europe, chocolate first became popular as a hot drink enjoyed by the social elite.
Belgian chocolatiers, many of whom are now known worldwide, particularly thrived from the early 20th century onwards, when large quantities of cocoa were imported into the country from Africa – and are responsible for some clever innovations. The praline, an irresistible combination of a chocolate shell with a soft filling, is a Belgian invention and an international favourite.
Belgium also claims the invention of chocolate spread, as well as the ballotin, the distinctive deep cardboard box in which pralines and other chocolates are frequently packaged. Rightly proud of its chocolate-making tradition, the country carefully regulates chocolate production to ensure standards are kept high and traditional techniques are maintained.
Perhaps surprisingly, renowned Belgian chocolatier Neuhaus began as an apothecary. Set up by Jean Neuhaus in the prestigious Galerie de la Reine, Brussels, in 1857, the store was originally known for enveloping the less pleasant tasting medicines it sold in a more appealing chocolate shell. It took 55 years before Jean Neuhaus’s son decided to forgo the medical element completely and, it’s claimed, invented the first praline chocolate as a result.
Today, the Neuhaus collection is consistently innovative and creative, yet every one of its pralines is still made by hand according to traditional and authentic recipes at the company’s Brussels’s workshops. Neuhaus’s signature bites include the Tentation, a wafer-thin nougatine shell filled with fresh cream or ganache and wrapped in milk chocolate, and the sublime Astrid praline, created in 1937 as a tribute to Queen Astrid of Belgium.
Neuhaus, 25-27 Galerie de la Reine, 1000 Brussels, +32 (0)2 512 6359
Artisanal chocolatier Mary Delluc began her business in 1919 on the exclusive rue Royale in Brussels, opening both a chocolate shop and a tea room. She soon developed a reputation for exacting standards and inventive recipes. Today, the quality of the natural ingredients is still paramount at Mary, evident in the chocolatier’s pralines, caramels, fresh creams and marzipans alike. Mary store interiors are inspired by art deco. The flavours on offer within include the Windsor, a dark chocolate ganache infused with Earl Grey tea and the Tonka, a milk chocolate ganache flavoured, as the name suggests, with aromatic tonka beans.
Mary, 73 rue Royale, 1000 Brussels, +32 (0)2 217 4500
A relative newcomer on Belgium’s chocolate scene, Stephan Dumon set up his first shop after he began producing artisanal truffles for nearby bakeries and patisseries. He now has seven stores, including three in Bruges. Visitors can expect to discover a traditional chocolatier that lends a contemporary spin to traditional Belgian recipes and uses the finest possible ingredients in all of its creations; no preservatives are added. Specialities include impeccable praline sea shells and cerisettes – whole cherries soaked in kirsch and brandy and then enrobed in layers of dark chocolate.
Dumon, Eiermarkt 6, 8000 Bruges, +32 (0)50 346282
B by B
Founded by Michelin-starred chef Bart Desmidt and chocolatier Jan Verleye, B by B brings a wonderfully playful and modern twist to Belgian chocolate production. There are over 20 flavours to choose from; chocolate lovers can combine stylishly packaged ‘sleeves’ containing chocolate in different flavours into sets of five or 10. The boutique offers pre-selected collections, but visitors are encouraged to follow their own tastes and create their own. B by B’s flavours are pleasingly experimental, from dark chocolate with rhubarb and violet to white chocolate with passion fruit and basil. Also on offer is a combination of milk chocolate, coffee and babelutte, a delicious Belgian caramel.
B by B, Sint-Amandsstraat 39, 8000 Bruges, +32 (0)50 705760