Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Chocolate dreams

Along with beer, there’s one thing you’ll find very difficult to avoid in Brugge, and that’s chocolate.

The city centre alone has at least 48 chocolate shops – which is one for every week of the year except Lent.

Many of them are explicitly aimed at the tourist market, but local people do actually buy chocolate here too – often as a gift to take to a host or hostess, rather than a bottle.

And while there are chains aplenty, the real deal is also represented – artisanal chocolatiers whose products are still made by hand.

But however they’re made, chocolate has come a long way – albeit over a very long time.

Chocolate – or xocolati – had been enjoyed for centuries in South America before Europeans found out about when the Spanish conquered the Aztecs.

The first records showing its use have the Maya drinking it – over 2,000 years ago.

And it was as a drink that its popularity continued throughout the region. Indeed, historians have suggested that Montezuma’s court consumed approximately 2,000 cups a day, with the king himself being responsible for 50 of those.

The Spanish might have disliked plenty of the culture they were destroying, but they took up this habit with relish.

In the 16th century, a Spanish Jesuit missionary to Peru, Jose de Acosta, wrote that his compatriots were “greedy” for it, sometimes even adding chili, and sometimes making it into a paste that was apparently good for the stomach and “against the catarrh”.

The Spanish then introduced it to Europe, where even as they were having it produced on the other side of the world by slave labour, it remained a luxury for royalty and the well-connected. In England, anyone with money could buy it, and the first chocolate house opened in London in 1657.

It was only at the end of the 18th century that the first solid chocolate was made in Turin, and that kick-started the developments that have led to what we recognise today as chocolate.

Belgium is among the European countries where chocolate making has become an art form. And Brugge reflects that.

The city even has a chocolate museum, but I decided against it.

It is also home to Dominique Persoone – Belgium’s self-styled ‘Shock-o-latier’ – who is a sort of Heston Blumenthal of chocolate, only a bit more rock ‘n’ roll. Which in Brugge isn’t easy.

If readers thought it a tad outré when I tried cheese chocolates from Parisian chocolatier Jean-Paul Hévin last year, then what Persoone does with chocolate could give you a serious jolt.

We had first become aware of him via the Hairy Bikers, who visited his Brugge shop in their ‘bakeathon’ series.

The hirsute culinary pair had tried chocolates flavoured with grass – no, not that sort of grass, the green stuff that cows eat.

They’d also tried Persoone’s ‘shooter’, a little device that enables you flick chocolate powder up your nose. It had been created for a Rolling Stones party and is now available to buy, together with the chocolate.

To be honest, I can’t work out why a €10 note wouldn’t do, but there you go. It is, apparently, an really freaky experience.

My Brugge chocolate mission, I had decided, would include visits to a ‘normal’ chocolatier and a visit to Persoone’s Chocolate Line.

As we took our first amble around the city, we found ourselves in a small square – and there, on one side, was the Chocolate Line.

So, having sussed its location, I left this particular little treat for later in the week.

It’s a small shop with a traditional façade; at first glance, there’s nothing to suggest the unconventional nature of Persoone’s work.

There’s nothing that hits you instantly when you walk inside either.

Oh, it was crowded, and we had to wait until a group of young women who had only come in to look had moved on.

There is a large window at the back that enables you see two of Persoone’s staff busy making chocolates – something fascinating in its own right.

And then there’s the produce: cult-of-the-personality stuff – books and mugs with Persoone’s image – and then things like chocolate lipstick. No, not a bar of chocolate made to look like a lipstick, but a lipstick. That’s chocolate. Put it on and then ‘look for a victim to kiss’.

An old-fashioned, dark wood and glass counter ran down one side of the shop, full of trays of different chocolates. They looked delicious; classy but far from unconventional.

And indeed, many of the creations here are far from being wildly outré. There are bites of taste utilising entirely conventional flavours, from mint to orange to coffee.

But then, as I was guided through making my selection by a delightful young woman, I started to encounter the less familiar confections.

Bacon. Fried onion. Olives. Cola. Curry. Tobacco. Vodka.

Actually, vodka may sound strange – but why would it be? After all, booze and chocolate has long gone together.

In Persoone’s case, the ‘apero’ is a green, cubist creation with a bitter ganache of vodka, passion fruit and lime.

One thing's certain: it's a seriously superior chocolate.

I’ve yet to try the cola, the olives and the tobacco. I’m taking my time with these and alternating between the outré and the conventional.

I passed on the curry altogether.

The bacon was the first I tried and it is seriously strange finding chocolate melt away to leave a small piece of – well, bacon. It’s far from offensive, but I wouldn’t go wild for it again.

The fried onion was a revelation and produced a really interesting taste.

It’s worth remembering that chocolate was also used by the Aztecs in cookery. We’re talking about the seriously bitter stuff (70-80% cocoa solids), but it can give a nice final touch to a chilli con carne or, as I’ve used it myself, with a sauce for venison.

So when you view it like that, none of this is quite so strange.

There is, of course a chilli one, but that’s become almost passé these days. Which is not to say that Persoone’s version isn’t top notch: the flavour develops fabulously subtly on the palate.

The ‘shock’ factor of something like this is one thing, but the truth is, I’d very happily eat most of these again.

On a corner in the same square stands Dumon. Another artisanal chocolatier – with a shop that is far more modern than Chocolate Line; almost like a boutique.

They too make their products by hand. We bought a box for colleagues back at work, plus a slab of chocolate with lavender, and then a packet of chocolate asparagus.

No, don’t worry: this wasn’t some sort of Persoone-like affair, but simply chocolate shaped to look like white asparagus, with a truffle filling.

The asparagus were tasty – but very sweet. In fact, one of those made me feel a tad sickly. And the individual chocolates were very sweet too.

My own taste is much more toward Persoone’s creations.

It’s worth pointing out that there is an outlet of Belgian chocolate chain Neuhaus at St Pancras. These chocolates are not hand made.

But in London at least, the prices are noticeably higher than for top-notch, handmade chocolates in Brugge.

I may have to return to Belgium for the chocolate alone.

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