Friday, April 18, 2014

P is for (Chocolate and) Pralines

When in Belgium, you have to eat the chocolate and sample the pralines.

The Belgians didn't create chocolate, they just perfected it. Chocolate comes from the Theobroma cacao tree native to Mexico and Central America. The ancient Aztecs and Mayans were the first to fall in love with it, as a drink. Christopher Columbus brought chocolate back to Spain and by the 17th century it was served throughout Europe, as a drink. It was only in the 19th century that an enterprising Dutchman created a sweeter powder form of cacao that could be used in solid forms. This innovation was called “Dutch cocoa”. It’s still used for baking today. 

Which brings us to the Belgians. The Belgians have been consuming chocolate for over 400 years since the era when they were ruled by the Spanish crown. In the 19th century the Belgians imported cacao from their African colony, the Belgian Congo. Today each Belgian consumes 15 pounds of chocolate a year. 15 pounds!

What makes Belgian chocolate so good is its purity. Since the 19th century Belgian chocolate has been defined—by law—as consisting of at least 35% pure cocoa. This prevents manufacturers from using vegetable-based fats that are less rich and not as creamy—two of the elements that we all love about chocolate. 

What is the difference between “Belgian chocolate” and “pralines”? Chocolate comes in rectangles, bars and slabs and it is just that: chocolate. Chocolate is pure. Nuts, cherries, coconuts, etc. are not found in chocolate bars in Belgium. Popular Belgian brands eaten in the chocolate capital of the world include Cote d'Or, Bernard Callebaut and Guylian.

Then there are pralines. “Praline” refers to the process of grinding sugar-coated almonds, hazelnuts and other nuts into a powder which is then used to make chocolate confections. Pralines can have a center that is a nut, fruit or liquer which is then covered in chocolate. The varied assortments, colors and combinations are stunning to behold. Belgians do things with pralines that make being a chocolatier more than a science, it's a fine art.  

Brussels’ main thoroughfare, Anspachlaan / Boulevard d’Anspach is lined with countless praline shops. Come to think of it, most streets in Belgium have praline shops. How else would Belgians buy the 15 pounds of the stuff annually? 

Some popular Belgian praline shops include Godiva, Leonidas and Neuhaus. And if you really want your mind blown, go to the Place du Sablon in Brussels and eat the pralines from Pierre Marcolini, although before popping them in your mouth, feast upon them with your eyes. Belgian confections are perfection. Enjoy!