Chocolate, Belgian? But of course! Sure, beer was first. And then fries (don't call them French fries to a Belgian). But on the podium of Belgian culinary specialties, chocolate deserves the medal for exquisiteness of taste.
"Other foods are merely food. But chocolate is… chocolate!" This quote by the American writer Patrick Skene Catling describes well the unique appeal of chocolate. And throughout the world, chocolate in all its manifestations is recognised as the Belgian delicacy par excellence. "Nine out of ten people love chocolate, and the tenth person is lying," was the rather clever observation of another American, John G. Tullius, an author of comics (another great Belgian specialty).
Like any great epic, the story of chocolate has its roots in ancient history. The Maya civilisation, which ruled parts of Central and South America, was the first to cultivate cocoa trees.This was some time before the first millennium. Legends soon surrounded this tree and its exceptional qualities. The cocoa tree was a constant companion of the Maya: as a purifier of youth, an aid to conception, and a funerary gift to the dead. Cocoa accompanied Maya life from cradle to grave…
In the 16th century, after the Maya had been conquered by the Spanish, cocoa was taken back to Europe, where it was first enjoyed in liquid form. The first European to taste it was Christopher Columbus himself: in July of 1502, on the island of Guanaja (present-day Honduras); but he found the concoction undrinkable - which kept him from bringing it back to the court of the Spanish King. But in 1519, unlike his illustrious successor, the conquistador Hernan Cortes was seduced by the drink. He did take it back to the Spanish court in 1528, whereafter it fast became a court favourite.
And Belgium in all of this? The port of Antwerp, then part of the Spanish Netherlands, is connected to all parts of the Spanish Empire, and becomes a major gateway for the new delicacy.
At the end of the 17th century, chocolate is all the rage among the upper classes of Brussels. A Swiss visitor, Heinrich Escher, mayor of Zurich, also falls for the fad. He will take home the Belgian recipes for chocolate. For the know-how of Belgian chocolatiers, so close to Spain's American cocoa sources, is soon appreciated throughout Europe.
The quality of the ingredients is perfect. The artisans select cocoa beans with varied and subtle flavours. Their expert combination makes Belgian chocolates an art that is the envy of the world. Ditto for the grinding itself of the beans: very fine, and without equal in the world. The percentage of cocoa is higher in Belgian chocolate than in any other kind in the world. This gives it its powerful taste. Belgian chocolatiers have a great range of skills that allows them to deliver exceptional quality. It has been thus for centuries…
Chocolate is a delight to be enjoyed, and to give. Its packaging as tablets and figurines in the mid-19th century boosts its marketability. And when Belgium, independent since 1830, is able to control its own economic development, the chocolate industry experiences an unprecedented boom. A great boost is provided by the cocoa beans cultivated in Belgium's African colony, the Congo. To this day, Belgian chocolate is made mostly with cocoa beans from Africa, the flavour of which is more assertive than of the South American beans.
The invention of the praline, in 1912 by Jean Neuhaus, guarantees chocolate's place in the pantheon of Belgian gastronomy.
To preserve the delicacy of these sweets, special packaging was patented under the name ballotin ('chocolate box'). Since then, adorned with his finest attributes, the ballotin de pralines is the perfect gift. In any circumstance.