Culinary Indulgence, Belgian Style
There are adventure vacations where you climb a mountain or sail the sea. There are restful getaways where you burrow into a white sand beach with a good book, only to come up for air when the sun has set and it’s time to go to bed.
Then there are those rare expeditions that elevate your senses beyond what you thought possible. You taste something simultaneously savory and sweet. You stumble upon a town divided for centuries then united by a microbrewery. You dizzyingly dine through 17 courses in a single day - and just when you think you’re about to burst, you take a bite of Napoleon ice cream with ground cherries and you think, "I may be dead because it’s not possible that anything this decadent could be anywhere but heaven."
You are not in heaven. You are in Belgium.
With a population of approximately 11 million people, Belgium is a mélange of Dutch and French speakers and a cultural mish mash of Flemish and Walloon. The differences and uneven economic development of the country has been a source of contention for decades.
Food brings these opposing viewpoints onto an even playing field and the result is a culinary movement that ignores borders. A gastronomic adventure through the central and southern regions of the Brussels-Capital Region and Wallonia is a powerful reminder that a praline may be more impactful than a peace treaty.
Bitter Never Tasted So Sweet
Chocolate arrived in Belgium during the 17th century when the territory was occupied by Spain. The cacao bean became a substantial trade product, but it wasn’t until 1912 when Jean Neuhaus created the praline and chocolate became one of the country’s signature items. Today Belgium has more than 2,000 chocolate shops and produces 172,000 tons of product per year. Brussels is home to some of the best, each exhibiting a unique take on this sweet confection.
Wittamer (Place du Grand Sablon 6, Brussels) is the grand dame of Belgian chocolate and operates out of a charming storefront on Place du Grand Sablon. The brother and sister team of Paul and Myriam Wittamer are the official suppliers to the Court of Belgium. You, too, can get the royal treatment with unusual pralines like dark ganache with Madagascar pepper or milk chocolate ganache with rum and raisin.
While Myriam Wittamer is known for her love of fashion as much as chocolate (just ask close friend Diane von Furstenberg), it is Laurent Gerbaud (2 D rue Ravenstein, Brussels) who has created a couture couverture blend of Trinitario beans from Madagascar and Nacional beans from Ecuador. These beans cumulatively represent only seven percent of global cocoa production. Consequently, Gerbaud’s take on Belgian chocolate is minimalist to allow the exquisite ingredients to shine through. Instead of liquor-laden pralines, he opts for an international array of exotic raw ingredients ranging from Japanese yuzu to Calabrian bergamot. In terms of the Belgian chocolate industry, Gerbaud’s style is renegade, but that seems in line with a man who spent two years in Shanghai running an underground chocolate delivery service out of his apartment while teaching French to expats to pay the bills.
To complete your Brussels chocolate trifecta, Pierre Ledent (rue au Beurre 19, Brussels) is a must-taste destination . As sophisticated as shopping at Tiffany’s, the sharply dressed employees handle the pralines with white gloves, placing Ledent’s confectionary gems into exclusively designed "jewelry boxes". Also noteworthy is the macaron collection. Not to be confused with the coconut-laden American macaroon, biting into a classic French macaron is like nestling into an almond-scented cloud. Ledent takes the sweet treat and elevates it to an unforeseen level. Seasonal flavors include Mojito (mint cream, lime and rum), Fraise (strawberry cream and rhubarb), and Speculoos, which pays homage to Brussels’ traditional shortbread cookies through a modern interpretation of cinnamon cream sandwiched between squid ink almond biscuits.