Pralines from Mary, one of the most respected chocolate shops in Belgium. / Courtesy of Rachel Sang-hee Han
By Rachel Sang-hee Han
STUTTGART, Germany ― Chocolate and beer may be some of the most popular food and drinks in the world and it does take a while to think which country offers the best. The final answer may be a bit subjective, some may say France for chocolate or Germany for beer, but there's one small country that does both quite well. Very well, actually. Welcome to Belgium, the capital of chocolate and beer.
When Jean Neuhaus II invented the praline in 1912 under the roof of his shop Neuhausin Brussels, Belgium, little did he know that the small, round ball filled with a soft filling would change the world of desserts. Belgium, in fact, produces about 200,000 tons of chocolate annually and is also the home of over 2,000 chocolatiers. Impressive for a country that is the size of Maryland, U.S.
Brussels is not the only place where you can find delicious and famous chocolate brands in Europe, but it is a city where you can enjoy it with a bit more of history. The city, however, did deal with some serious competition from Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands over the past few years. Not to mention foreigners winning coveted titles such as the Belgian Chocolate Master and the World Chocolate Masters competition.
Nevertheless, the enchanting city of Belgium does count as one of the best places to enjoy the savory sweets of old favorites such as Godiva, Leonidas and Guylian. I blame the antique looking, very elegant shops, cafes and restaurants that serve not only chocolate, but related drinks, desserts and even meals.
Most chocolates and pralines sold in Belgium are handmade and hand-decorated, including the ones from Mary.
So what's so special about Belgian chocolates?
"I'm not sure how to explain it, but they are sweet, but not just sweet. They have a more richness to them, something that is hard to find in some German or even Dutch brands. The taste is just different," said Katharina Kaaz, an avid fan of Mary, a 95-year-old chocolate shop that is a favorite of the Belgian royal family and located in Galerie de la Reine along with its other famous counterparts including Neuhaus. And there's actually a reason for the richness. The composition of Belgian chocolates are strictly regulated by law and a minimum level of 35 percent of pure cocoa are to be used. Many chocolatiers also produce their famous pralines by hand and some places, such as Newhaus and Mary, follow traditional recipes that date back from the 1950s.
"The tradition also counts as an important and very effective factor. My mother and grandmother also enjoyed Belgian pralines when they were younger. You can't really find such tastes anywhere else.Only in Belgium," Kaaz added.
A special glass per beer
Germany may be famous for its beer festivals, but when it comes to the variety of beer, it's hard to beat Belgium. The country produces more than 1,130 types of beers, the most distinct type of beers per capita than any other country. So for a fun evening with beers, singing and dancing, go to Germany, but for a festival of colorful beers, go to Belgium.
It can be a bit overwhelming when you walk into a bar and try to decide which beer to drink. The big posters and menus on the wall that say, "We serve 55 different beers!" doesn't help either. The waiters and bartenders are more than glad to help you out, although you may not be able to understand what exactly you ordered before you actually taste it. There are the Blondes, the Reds, the Ambers, the Dubbels and the Whites, just to name a few.
"You just have to try them, one by one, to understand which one you like. The ladies usually enjoy the fruity ones, while the men like to try the darker, heavier ones," explained Belgian engineer Thomas Michel.
Another thing that makes Belgian beers special is their glasses. The beers are mostly served in bottles, almost never cans, and most of them also come with their own particular glass.
For instance, the Kasteel Rouge, which is a rich, cherry-flavored beer, comes with a rather sturdy and round glass, while the TripelKarmeliet is served in a more elegant, curvy and shorter glass.
"Funny as it may sound, the glass does makes the difference," Michel added. With a long list of various beers according to taste, color, alcohol levels and other distinctive categories, the most memorable beer in your life may possibly be in Belgium.
Popular picks "Beer"
Hoegarden One of the most internationally famous Belgian wheat beers, Hoegarden comes from a small town of the same name. It's known to be light and refreshing, one of the reasons why it's so popular, from beer beginners to aficionados. 5%ABV (Alcohol by volume)
Bush Beer The Bush beer is brewed by Belgian family-owned Dubuisson Brewery and they produce four different types of Bush beers. The most famous is the Bush Ambrée, which is the first beer that was produced by the family and is the strongest beer in Belgium with a 12% ABV.
GoudenCarolus There are six varieties under the GoudenCarolus name and each of them has won various awards in beer competitions over the years. Ranging from 8 to 10% ABV, the beer is known to "combine the warmth of wine and the freshness of beer."
Leffe Another favorite overseas along with Hoegarden, Leffe is categorized as an "abbey beer," which means it was originally brewed only at an abbey. The original abbey was destroyed but even after the commercial brewery took over the production, the abbey still remains the original brewery and receives royalties.
Popular picks "Chocolate"
Mary Established in 1919 by Mary Delluc, the chocolate shop Mary is a favorite among the Belgian Royal family. Handmade and hand-decorated, the pralines are one of the bestsellers and they come in various flavors, including caramel, coffee, walnut, pistachio and liquor. Along with the sweet delicates, the delicately decorated boxes are also a favorite among chocolate lovers.
Leonidas Although Leonidas chocolates were first produced in the U.S., the founder Leonidas Kestekides started his company in Belgium and quickly earned recognition. It's one of the highest producing chocolate companies in the world with more than 350 shops in Belgium and over 1,200 shops around the world.
Neuhaus Established in 1857 by a Swiss immigrant, the chocolatier is responsible for inventing the chocolate praline. Products are only made in Belgium and are exported to over 50 countries. Some chocolates, such as the Bonbon 13 and the Astrid are still made following the original recipe that dates back to 75 years.
Wittamer& Co A family-run shop and perhaps lesser known internationally than its counterparts, Wattamer& Co offers a well-designed mixture of tradition and modern manufacturing developments. The shop is not only famous for its superb chocolates, but also its desserts such as tarts, cakes and pastries. Wattamer&Co also created the dessert for the wedding of Philippe, Crown Prince of Belgium in 1999.