LIZZIE GREENAWAY, owner of So Cocoa in Mumbles recently spent some time in the medieval town of Bruges in Belgium. It was in fact a working holiday – it’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it
For those of you who have seen the film ‘In Bruges’ you may remember when Harry stated the line “It’s a fairytale town, isn’t it?” The streets of central Bruges transport you back in time; the cobbled roads, stunning squares, winding canals and outstanding examples of medieval buildings transfix you. It is quite simply as Harry said, a town out of a fairytale.
According to our taxi driver we chose the quietest time of year to visit the city, when the tourists have retreated and the Christmas markets have closed, but there is something magical about walking through the squares of this city when it is deserted. Owning the chocolate shop ‘So Cocoa’ in Mumbles meant the main reason of our visit was to research and sample new chocolates, to source the best chocolatiers Europe has to offer and expand our knowledge; Bruges did not disappoint.
The history of chocolate
The discovery of chocolate dates back to 900AD when the Mayans of South America discovered that they could harvest the beans inside the cocoa pods, and then transform them into a liquid drink. It was however not the sweet, mouth watering delight we know today; it was in fact extremely bitter, made from water, and crushed cocoa beans with the addition of chilli. The word chocolate is actually believed to have derived from the Mayan word for bitter water ‘xocolatl’.
The ‘food of the gods’ chocolate gained in popularity, it became part of religious ceremonies and known for its medicinal purposes. The Aztecs gained power in South America, namely central Mexico, and cocoa in turn became a currency; in Aztec culture it was often used as a bargaining tool by the Mayans to pay their taxes, and trade routes sprung up throughout the region. Although the Aztec’s could not grow cocoa as they had conquered the Mayans they now found themselves with a surplus supply. So fond of the cocoa drink was the Aztec King Mont-ezuma that he drank in the region of 50 cups a day.
But how did chocolate arrive in Europe?
It was in fact Christopher Columbus who discovered cocoa when he landed in America in 1502, upon his return to Spain he delivered some cocoa beans to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, but they were not enamored with the new bean. But in 1519 Hernan Cortes visited the Aztecs homeland, where he was mistaken for the returning Aztec god Quetzalcoatl and offered a cup of cocoa by King Montezuma along with a cocoa plantation, the story of chocolate transcending into Europe had begun.
The Spanish kept the wonders of cocoa shrouded in secrecy from the rest of Europe, and it was only discovered when English pirates attacked one of the Spanish merchant ships, which were filled with cocoa beans, but even then was mistaken for sheep droppings and burnt. It became increasingly popular in Spain, and gradually developed. Cortes preferred the drink warm as he found it tasted sweeter, hence ‘hot chocolate’ was born. Upon his return in 1528 the King and Queen were introduced once again to cocoa but this time alongside the recipe for the drink and the equipment to make it. By 1615 cocoa had arrived in France, and by 1659 the first chocolatier was opened in Paris by David Chaillou, it gradually spread throughout the continent and had soon reached Belgian.
But why is Belgian chocolate so special?
The country is renowned for its excellent quality chocolate but what makes it so special? It is namely down to the strict chocolate composition regulations that were enforced in the country in 1884. To bear the name ‘chocolate’ the product had to contain 35% pure cocoa. In 1924 a law was passed that established that dark chocolate must contain 45% cocoa, 50% sugar and only 5% other dry products. Belgian chocolate is also ground down to only 15-18 microns; this is why it melts on your tongue as it is below the sensitivity of your taste buds. Belgian is revered for its pralines, created here in 1912 by Jean Neuhaus. At first he made a hazelnut coated in chocolate but then he developed the praline, a full chocolate cup.
In 1915 alongside his wife Louise Agostini he also created the ballotin box, which is still used today to pack chocolates across the world.
The chocolate experience
Sampling and learning about chocolate is easy in Belgium as there are simply so many places to visit. Spend a morning at Choco-Story. This museum offers an interesting insight into the history of chocolate, as we know it today. Based in the Maison de Croon, previously a wine tavern, built in the 1480s. The museum guides you through the story of chocolate through the ages, including the development of machinery. There is also a chocolate making demonstration to enjoy. The Museum costs €8 each and is located on Wijnzakstraat 2, 8000 Bruges.
Located in the picturesque Simon Stevinplein, The Chocolate Line is open daily from 10am to 6pm. It was a particular favourite of ours due to its wildly innovative and unusual flavour combinations. We tried flavours such as bacon, coca cola, Cuban cigar, olive, curry and caviar chocolate. The chocolatiers Dominique and Fabienne Persoone began their story with chocolate twenty years ago; the shop is quite rightly featured in the Michelin guide and is a must when visiting the city.
Dumon chocolates was established in 1992. Originally a small scale artisan chocolatier selling to pastry chefs and bakeries on the outskirts of Bruges, the business went from strength to strength. Their first shop in Bruges was opened in ‘Elermarkt’ in the town centre; its medieval architecture combined with the melt in the mouth dark chocolate sold on the premises make it a popular spot with tourists.
Its new shop in Simon Stevinplein opened in 2008 serving luxurious hot chocolate. The Mexicana hot chocolate with a hint of chilli provides a welcome warm tingling on a cold winter’s day.
There are plenty of chocolate shops to sample and it is impossible to try them all but apart from Dumon and The Chocolate Line we recommend Depla chocolatier established in 1958, which is both a café and shop; Van Oost Chocolates, which produce a small handmade collection, and chocolates by Pierre Marcolini and Neuhaus. The latter two have a number of stores within the city.
How to get there
We flew from Manchester airport with Ryanair. The flights started at £21.99 return per adult. It is possible to fly from Cardiff to Bristol for convenience though. The shuttle bus from Charleroi airport to Bruges train and bus station costs €17 and took approximately 2 hours. Part of Bruges’ beauty is its size. It is possible to explore all corners of the city on foot so there is no need to hire a car. There are also canal cruises and horse and carriage rides from Markt Square. We stayed at Saint Martins Hotel, located behind the Belfort Tower. It is in an excellent location and costs from €55 a night, with breakfast on top for €12 per person.
Bruges is the perfect get away, with its romantic setting, fine selection of food and beer, fascinating history, breathtaking architecture and scenery. You could be mistaken for believing you’ve entered a magical world where it real does feel like a fairytale town. With Valentine’s, Mother’s Day and Easter upon us, we’ve been inspired by the delights of the city. We’ve been busy stocking So Cocoa full of luxury Belgian chocolate. Choose from our counter full of high quality pralines, ganaches and truffles or browse our shelves, full of high quality products by world renowned chocolatiers; it is not Bruges but it is a taster of what Belgian has to offer in Mumbles.