“In battle what do you need the munitions for? I prefer to bring some chocolate,” said George Bernard Shaw. Ever wondered, while tearing open the wrapper of a chocolate bar, how the treat in your hand was once food only for the gods just a few 1,000 years ago? Let’s explore the world of chocolates, their history, origin and the story of chocolates in Brussels, one of the best places for chocolates in the world.
Did you know that the Olmecs, Mayans and Aztecs were the first to cultivate cocoa in Central and South America? The concocted drink (usually with a narcotic) was offered to the sacrificial victim to give them a sense of euphoria. It wasn’t until the 16th century that chocolate was ‘eaten’ when the Spanish introduced and manufactured chocolates by pouring them into moulds. Fascinating and intriguing facts about the history of chocolates, its production process, its origin and evolution, and many more interesting anecdotes can be found in the Musee Du Cacao Et Du Chocolat (The Chocolate Museum) in Brussels.
The Chocolate Museum in Brussels
This private little museum of chocolate-making is located in one of the historic houses of old Brussels, the Falcon House. It was built in 1697 by the De Valk (Falcon) family and the chocolate museum has been functional since 2005. It was conceptualised by Madame Draps who came from a long family line of master chocolatiers.
Origin of Chocolate—Olmecs, Mayans and Aztecs
The cocoa tree grows in the wild in the north-western region of the Amazon Basin. The Olmecs started cultivating the tree a few thousand years ago and the Mayans continued the tradition of using it as a ritual drink called ‘xocoati’ (bitter water) at the time. The drink was prepared by mixing roasted ground cocoa beans with water and spices. I was also surprised to know from one of the exhibits that cocoa beans were considered a luxury commodity then, sometimes used as means of currency and sometimes used as offering to the gods.
The cocoa tree had a very important place and belief in the Aztecs cosmology, their concept of the universe. It was considered to be the tree of the South, which was associated with the land of the dead. It symbolized human blood. When coloured with herbs, stirred with a stick and served foaming, it resembled the colour of blood. The Mayans and Aztecs also used cocoa butter to heal chapped skin and burns, to calm the heat of the sun, to treat the liver and lungs and also snake bites.
Arrival in Europe as a ‘Beverage’
For Europeans, the history of chocolates in Brussels or specifically cocoa beans started in 1502, when Christopher Columbus on his fourth voyage to America discovered cocoa beans being served as a precious gift by natives. The Spanish voyager didn’t find it to his liking and thus never thought of bringing it back to his country. It was only in 1519 when Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortez invaded the land of the Aztecs and brought major parts of what is now mainland Mexico under Spanish rule. He was introduced to cocoa beans and chocolate. However, the first chocolate drink given as a tribute to the Spanish conqueror wasn’t well received. It was termed too spicy and distasteful. In 1528, Cortez took the cocoa beans and chocolate making ingredients back to Spain. Towards the end of the 16th century, it was adapted to European tastes with the addition of sugar (instead of pepper) and became the most popular beverage in absence of beer and wine. It became popular in France and Belgium around the mid 17th century. Seeing the beautifully decorated tea cups and kettles in a few of the exhibits, I could imagine the royalty associated with the beverage.
Chocolate Changes ‘Shape’
The first moulds appeared in the 19th century. Before that chocolate was consumed as a drink. The first moulds were in metal (tin, steel and iron) and came from France and Germany. Though efficient in cooling and giving shine, these were heavy and cumbersome. In 1909, a Belgian chemist invented a mould in bakelite, opacous and breakable. In 1959, makrolon, a high quality of polycarbonate was used by laboratorium Bayer from Leverkusen (Germany). Makrolon is still used nowadays.
In 1802, François-Louis Cailler became the first Swiss producer of chocolate. It was from this time that chocolate bars as we know them today came into being. Later in 1875, Daniel Peter and Henri Nestlé (both Swiss) invented milk chocolate by adding powdered milk to the chocolate. A few years later in 1879, another Swiss, Rodolphe Lindt invented the technique of conching. In this technique, the mass is kneaded for hours in a conch (giant kneading machine). This helped improve and refine the taste and quality of chocolate. Cocoa butter, vanilla, lecithin, sugar (and milk for milk chocolate or white chocolate) are added in different proportions, depending on the type of the chocolate.
Birth of Belgian Praline
Jean Neuhaus, a Swiss with Italian roots, moved to Brussels in 1857. With education and interest in medicine, he opened a pharmacy there. He was the first to think of covering medicines with chocolate to make its consumption pleasurable. In 1912, his grandson Jean Neuhaus Junior evolved this novel idea into the famous Belgian praline we know today.
Making of a Praline
The chocolate museum in Brussels offers a chocolate demonstration by a master chocolatier. It is quite interesting as you watch the chocolate go from liquid to hard shell and then taste the result. The chocolatier will show you the process of making seashell chocolates, pralines and other fancy treats. You are free to record, take video and photographs during the process. At the end, you will be treated to a delicious specimen.
Why does Belgium serve the best chocolates?
I have a soft corner for Swiss and Austrian chocolates. Only when I tasted the pralines of Belgium, did I realise why the Brussels International Airport sells more chocolate in the world than anywhere else—a whopping 800 tons is sold annually! Belgian chocolate typically contains 100 per cent pure cocoa butter and the highest content of cocoa as compared to other international options. Belgium uses high quality cocoa beans sourced directly from Africa. They are usually ground finer so that the texture is the smoothest of all other chocolate varieties.
From Cocoa Beans to Chocolates
Charles Linne (1707-1778), a Swedish botanist gave cocoa its scientific name: Theobroma Cacao (theobroma means food of gods, and cacao comes from the Aztec word cacahuati). The cocoa fruit, also called a pod, contains 20 to 50 beans called cocoa beans. There are three sorts of cocoa: the Criollo, cultivated in Central America, which is delicate and pleasant in the mouth; the Forastero, cultivated in West Africa, Brazil and Ecuador, the most famous with a bitter flavor; and the Trinitario that comes from Trinidad and Tobago, and now cultivated across the world, where the cocoa is fine and rich in cocoa butter.
90 per cent of the world cocoa production originates from small farms with a maximum five hectares of land. 50 per cent of consumers are from Europe, 33 per cent from America, 15 per cent from Asia, and 3 per cent from Africa.
The Process Of Making Chocolates In Brussels
The beans are roasted at a temperature of 100-1400 C which adds the bitterness in the chocolate.
The beans are relieved from their shells; what remains are nibs.
The nibs successively pass through different types of mills resulting in a paste of cocoa mass. From this mass, cocoa powder and cocoa butter gets separated with the help of a high temperature press.
The mass is kneaded for hours in a conch (giant kneading machine). Cocoa butter, vanilla, lecithin, sugar (and milk for milk chocolate or white chocolate) are added in different proportions, depending on the type of the chocolate.
During the production process, the fluidity of the chocolate is measured.
The chocolate is ready to be delivered to artisans and chocolate masters in three ways, drops or callets, five-kilo tablets, or in liquid form.
The museum is located on one of the small alleys near the Grand Place. There are two floors of exhibits which trace the history of chocolate of its origin, discovery, usage, migration and development over the centuries. One of the most curious exhibits is the replica of the famous peeing boy statue of Brussels, the Manneken Pis, completely made of chocolate. The real statue is just around the corner from the museum.
Visiting the Museum
Address: Museum of Cocoa and Chocolate, Rue de la Tête d’Or, 9-11, 1000 Brussels. The museum is open Tuesday to Sunday from 10 AM to 4.30 PM. Adult admission is EUR 5.50, seniors and students EUR 4.50, and children under 12 are free.
Best Chocolates in Brussels
You cannot visit Belgium and leave without trying some of these delicious chocolates from Brussels.
So, When Are You Going To Brussels To Indulge?
Chocolates in Brussels are unlike anything else. And the experience of visiting the chocolate museum is also a unique one. Let us know if you’ve tasted chocolates from Belgium before, and which are your favourite chocolates in the comments section.
Also Read: 6 Destinations Chocolate Lovers Must Visit