Monday, April 4, 2011

Belgium Month: Chocolate and Frittes

When I went to Brussels, I had a short checklist: Eat.

Belgium is famous for many delicious treats. I spent my days imbibing in chocolates, frittes and, my favorite, waffles. In between, I marveled at art nouveau and explored museums dedicated to Magritte, contemporary art and musical instruments. And then I went back to eating.

On the streets surrounding La Grand Place, there were literally chocolate shops next door to chocolate shops across the street from chocolate shops. Most of them shoved free samples in my eager face. Nearby was the Musee du Cacao et du Chocolat, which principally consisted of signs telling the history of chocolate from South America to Europe and information I already knew. (See Becoming a Chocolate Connoisseur, Steps 1 , 2 and 3 .) The new information I gathered from my visit consisted of the history of Belgium’s most famous chocolatiers: Godiva, Neuhaus, Côte d’Or, Callebaut and Leonidas. It was Neuhaus Chocolates that premiered the first ever bite-sized chocolates in 1912, “pralines.”

While this particular international trip isn’t one I feel everyone must take, here are my recommendations for chocoholics bound and determined to hit Brussels. It is important to distinguish the legit chocolate from the tourist junk. For starters, the stuff in boxes may be perfectly okay by American standards, but it’s not the good stuff. To taste what Belgium is famous for, cough up the good money for the fresh treats behind the glass. But, even with those items, it is important to recognize the difference between chocolate makers (roasters who affect how the chocolate will taste) and chocolatiers (those who outsource ready-made chocolate for the use in their own concoctions or simply molding the chocolate into shapes). As you walk from shop to shop, you’ll notice some identical products that were clearly outsourced and whose cocoa butter may be cut with vegetable oil. Thank them for their friendly samplings and do the truffle shuffle to the next place.

The frittes, while not dessert items, deserve at least a short paragraph. I learned frittes are called French fries because (1) the person who named them this consumed frittes in Belgium and (2) one of the major languages in Belgium is French. Thus, (3) the conclusion was made that frittes were a French invention. (Makes sense. I first ate gelato in Charleston, SC; I guess the Italians stole the idea.) What gives Belgian frittes their signature texture is that they are twice fried, which also happens to be the best way to cook plantains. After this, the frittes are topped with your choice of sauces with untranslated names.

As for the waffles—THE WAFFLES!—I will need several blog posts to fully record this religious experience.

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