I actually visited the town of Bruges in Belgium a few years back on a day trip from Paris. The town is known for its lace and chocolate, and the day morphed into a chocolate-hopping tour through town. I didn't know why, but it was most certainly confirmed: this was some of the best chocolate I'd ever had. The reasons for this aren't necessarily cut and dried, but a few certainly stand out.
1. Small Shops & Handmade: So much of the chocolate sold today is mass produced in large factories, and so many of the small Belgian chocolates you'll find in candy shops and food boutiques are still very much made the old-fashioned way, in small dedicated shops, by hand. This makes a difference (and explains the cost, too).
2. A Different Process: In 1912 Jean Neuhaus created a new chocolate process using couverture (or chocolate disks or small chunks) that he'd melt down to form special bon bons containing a variety of fruits, nuts, and creams. Quite a few Belgian chocolatiers today are still known for these special chocolates. Many companies make chocolate this way, but they have to reheat their couverture after it's shipped while many Belgium shops either make their own or acquire it from small chocolate factories close by. So close by, in fact, that they often receive it still warm so they don't have to reheat it, leaving the base of the confections in better condition and retaining more of its pure chocolate taste.
3. A Cultural Tradition: There's something to be said about being surrounded by something in your city or town. In some Belgian towns, there are numerous chocolate shops and stories of which is older. In my experience, folks in town are very willing to talk with you about their traditions and processes. Families pass down recipes to one another; it's almost in the air. Quality is so often more inherent in something with a strong, ingrained tradition and a cultural background. I do think that's the case here.
What's your favorite chocolate? Does it come from Belgium? Or somewhere else?
(Image: Dana Velden)