Lauren Razavi learns the art of chocolate making and reveals the best places to try and buy chocolate in Brussels.
I walk through the door at Laurent Gerbaud (Rue Ravenstein 2D), in the historical centre of Brussels, and the sweet smell of chocolate fills my nostrils. Escaping the winter chill of the Belgian capital, I have come here to spend the morning with the shop’s eponymous owner, Laurent Gerbaud.
His café-cum-chocolate shop probably isn’t one for weight watchers; everything leads you to temptation – the cabinets, shelves and even the walls are covered in opulent cocoa produce and imagery. Chocolate is a serious business here.
Gerbaud emerges and explains, to my delight, that we will begin with a tasting. A plate crammed with chocolates is placed in front of me; the selection is designed to explore the best parts of cocoa as an ingredient and to play with different tastes, ultimately aiming to change your palate in just half an hour.
Each chocolate has a different shape, size, texture and fragrance, ranging from a basic dark button to a candied kumquat doused in a rich, high-quality blend. These distinct flavours are influenced by Asia; before returning to Brussels to establish himself as a rising star in the world of chocolate, Gerbaud spent two years living in China. His careful combinations contain no sugar, butter or alcohol, resulting in what he describes as “pure tastes that provoke addiction”.
We move in a clockwise circle around the plate, savouring each chocolate as it melts away. As we move through the selection, the quality of cocoa and the flavour intensity increases; we segue from salty, fruity, rich and sweet chocolates all the way through to savoury. Every possibility is delicately explored – caramel, fig and black pepper are amongst the highlights.
Behind the till, a large windowpane divides the shop from the mini-factory where Gerbaud’s chocolates are created. I’m guided through to the other side of the glass, and watch for a few minutes as his apprentices work on tray after tray of chocolates with unbelievable speed.
Enormous blocks of chocolate are loaded into machines to melt, exiting the other end in one big chocolate waterfall. The liquid chocolate is then poured into moulds and shaped by hand. It’s a meticulous art form; the chocolate must be shaped and the additional ingredients added, before anything solidifies too much. Timing is everything.
Gerbaud demonstrates the process with experienced ease before asking if I’d like to have a go. I place a rubber mould beneath one of the chocolate flows and scrape across it with a flat knife to discard the surplus. It doesn’t quite work, so we share a giggle, and I try again with his help.
After just a few minutes, I have my own chocolates to flavour. Bowls before me offer many possibilities; pistachios, barberries and apricots are just a few of the interesting ingredients available.
When I’ve finished, the chocolates are left to set while I grab a coffee in the café. The creations are sealed in a Gerbaud-branded bag, which provides a brilliant memento of my brief stint moonlighting as a chocolatier.
More for chocoholics
Belgium is synonymous with chocolate and Brussels is teeming with offerings for chocolate lovers. But where is the best place to buy chocolate in Brussels?
Well, Brussels Chocolate Tours offer guided walking tours of Brussels and take participants to seven of the finest chocolate houses in the city. The tickets aren't particularly cheap at £59, but those signing up are taken on an entertaining journey through the history and techniques of local chocolatiers and get to sample the goods. A truffle-making workshop is also included in the price.
Godiva (Place du Grand Sablon 47-48) is probably the most famous name in Belgium chocolate and their store is an Aladdin’s Cave of delicious confectionary. Pierre Marcolini (ING Bruxelles Sablon, Rue de la Régence), meanwhile, is lauded for its luxury chocolates.
To feed your mind, head to the Museum of Cocoa and Chocolate (Rue de la Tete d’or 9-11), which offers two floors of history, facts and stories about chocolate, starting in the 1500s, when Europe was first introduced to cocoa, to Belgium’s modern-day reputation for confectionary. The ticket price of €5.50 per adult includes a demonstration and chocolate samples.
If you’re around in March, do head to the Chocolate Festival in the neighbouring town of Mons. The festival brings together a variety of chocolatiers to showcase weird and wonderful creations – from giant chocolate Easter bunnies to every kind of white, milk and dark chocolate imaginable.
Laurent Gerbaud runs chocolate classes every Saturday at 11.30am. Tickets are priced at €35 per person, which includes chocolate tasting and a little bag of your own chocolates to take home (or to munch while you walk around for the rest of the day). The shop (which includes a café) is open every day from 10.30am to 7.30pm.
Brussels Chocolate Tours offer chocolate-themed walking tours of Brussels, which include visits to seven chocolate houses, a truffle workshop and tastings.
The Mons Chocolate Festival takes place every March.