11 December 2009

Chocolate Week Continued: The Chocolate Shop

Chocolate. When you talk about Belgium, most people think of chocolate. They don’t think that Brussels is the capital of Europe, they don’t think that the new President of the EU is Belgian. They think chocolate. They don’t think that Belgium has the oldest spa and the oldest casino in Europe. They don’t think about the Formula 1 circuit. Nope, it’s chocolate. They don’t think about fries, which were invented here. They don’t think about the bazillion different beers brewed here. Nope, nope, nope--they think chocolate. Me too!

Chocolate is an important part of life in Belgium. Belgians have said for years that chocolate was good for you. Now we know that it's true: chocolate lowers cholesterol and keeps us happy. Chocolate is serious business here. Every year, the grand chocolate houses create new chocolates. When the crown Prince and Princess have another child, chocolates are created to celebrate. Needless to say, buying a box of chocolates is a very different experience here than in the US.

First, you have to know that there are different ‘grades’ of Belgian chocolate. The international industrial chocolate brands are what has brought Belgian Chocolates their reputation, and they’re an important part of the chocolate story here. But Belgians rarely buy them. Then there are the smaller industrial brands, generally available all over Belgium and perhaps in neighboring countries, but not overseas. Those are, in my opinion, a step above the international industrials. But they’re still industrial grade chocolates. That is to say, they’re made by machines.

The chocolates prized by Belgians are those that are made by hand, the artisanale chocolates. With some notable exceptions, these are only available in the region where they’re made, often only available in one shop. In one town. Everybody has his or her favorite chocolatier, and I’m no exception.

This is our favorite chocolate shop, La Maison Saive.

It was opened 11 years ago by Christophe Saive, who’s the maitre chocolatier. Christophe is always smiling, always in a good mood. (I probably would be too if I worked around chocolate all the time). When you go into his shop--or any artisanale chocolate shop in Belgium--you’re confronted by a wide range of chocolates, or pralines. (in Belgium, a praline is a filled chocolate--it has nothing to do with the pecan confections that you can buy in New Orleans.)

In Christophe's shop you’ll see more than 80 different kinds of pralines, made with dark chocolate, milk chocolate, white chocolate, sugar-free chocolate, single-source chocolate. You’ll also see chocolate bars, chocolate spread, cocoa, liqueur filled chocolates, chocolate covered cherries and orange peel, pâtes de fruit, marzipan, marrons glacées. The choice is staggering. What you won’t see is boxes filled with chocolates. Nope. Each and every one is created at the time you buy it.

You choose the box size and form, and then choose what you want to go in it. The vendeuse then puts on a white cotton glove and carefully places each chocolate in the box. When the box is full, it’s closed up and finished with a bow. Each box. Every box. Made personally to your specifications.

Christophe makes around 8 TONS of chocolate each year. Ninety percent of that is pralines, which weigh between 10 and 15 grams each. That’s more than (lemesee....carry the two....divided by....) 575,000 individual chocolates. Each one made by hand. In the workshop (atelier) Christophe works with Sophie, his apprentice. In the front of the shop there’s Florence, his wife. In the busy seasons (like now) his parents help out--his dad in the atelier and his mom in the shop while Florence packs the Christmas orders for corporate customers. It’s a real family business.

Like the big chocolate houses, Christophe creates a new praline each year. In the past, he’s introduced us to pralines with lavender, rose, licorice, allspice, as well as some surprising ones: beer, cumin, tomato (it IS a fruit!), balsamic vinegar, and (oh, yes!) cardamom. Cardamom was my favorite until this year. This year, Christophe brought us truffled truffles. Oh, my.

Continuing chocolate week, in my next post I’ll show you how these chocolates are made. Meanwhile, don’t forget the double truffle giveaway --there’s still time to enter!


Bob said...

Hey, I think of beer when I think of Belgium! Some of my absolute favorites are Belgian, Chimay and Duvel both leap to mind.

Course, my next thought is chocolate... :D

Amber Tidd Murphy said...

It's that time of the month, and now that I've read your post, I must have good cholocate NOW!

La Table De Nana said...

I am so old... er now I can say:)" He is handsome"~

Thank you for showing us une Chocolaterie Artisanale..C'est beau!!!

zurin said...

What an interesting chocolate story. Gosh what have I been eating all these years? Industrial chocolate. .....hmmm.....that'll just have to do until I get to Belgium someday! :))

that little shop sounds so enchanting....imagine having a business centred around chcocolate. I wld be as happy as Christophe is !

tq for sharing. A lovely post.

My Carolina Kitchen said...

What an interesting story about Belgium. I didn't realize that Brussels was the capital of Europe for instance. I did know that the new EU President is Belgian, but that's thanks to watching the news. I also didn't know that pralines are chocolate. I did equate them with New Orleans like you mentioned.

My grandfather's cousin in Berlin, Germany used to send us artisanale chocolates when we were little. Many of them were hollow and by the time they reached us, most were broken, but I do remember the flavor. Not sweet, but almost pure chocolate.

I've gotten where I only like dark chocolate and most American sweets with chocolate are too sweet for me anymore. I could get spoiled living in Belgium, that's for sure.

Sasha said...

Oh chocolate... <3
Now I really want to go to Belgium.

Junglefrog said...

Love that post!! Ofcourse being Belgium's neighbour I knew all those things too, but yes, chocolate is always first on my mind; probably also because our friends from Belgium always bring a box when they visit!! We do have a couple of really good chocolate shops here in Amsterdam, one of which is unlimited delicious. Fabulous bonbons (ok, nothing can beat the Belgiums ofcourse!)

Barbara said...

Yummy, yummy, drool, drool. And I learned something at the same time!
We have a couple chocolate shops here that I adore...but nothing like Belgium.

Hungry Dog said...

What a delightful store! Lucky you to live there. Someday I will have to visit Belgium, as reading your blog makes me so excited to explore and eat there!

Cardamom truffles. Holy cow. I want some.

Mardi @eatlivetravelwrite said...

Errr yes. Excuse me whilst I wipe the drool off my keyboard!!! YUM. Miss Belgian chocolates....

The Gypsy Chef said...

I only have one question...How do I become his apprentice? Yum. I think it could be the ultimate job.
I made Chinese 5 spice truffles the other day and they were delicious. I would love to try all of his flavors. Cardamom orange....I think yes!
The last time I passed through Brussels it was in a taxi, at 6 AM en route to the train station. We wanted to stay, but couldn't find a hotel. Everyone was in town for the chocolates, maybe?
Your pictures are beautiful and his chocolates look sublime. I bet the town you are in is beautiful this time of year.
Thanks for the wonderful chocolate post! Pam

Anonymous said...

I like this post ... because I love chocolate, too! Once you have dark chocolate, and artisinal chocolate at that, you just can't go back. I went to a great chocolatier in Asheville, NC, in October who put things like lavender, cardamom, honey, key limes, and cumin in her truffles - fantastic! They were almost as good as Fauchon chocolates from Paris....

So, what are your top 5 flavors?

Belgium is sounding better and better (well, you had me at F1, let's be honest...). I've looked at job postings there with NATO, but I've hesitated to pack up and move - but you make it sound like a truly delightful place to live! Yes?

Maggie B said...

Hi Kate,
Like Bob my husband would think beer when thinking about Belgium. I remember a drink I once had in Brussels called "halve & halve"? It was beer mixed with something else? Champagne?
I'm not a chocoholic (so shoot me!) Begium for me is mussels, fries & mayonnaise!
Have a great week.

ParisMaddy said...

Mmm. Great posting about chocolate and your adorable chocolate artist! I didn't really like chocolate until I tasted chocolate from Belgium. Most of the standard American chocolate bars are just too waxy or sugary in comparison.

I'm always on the eternal quest for the best hot chocolate.

P.S. My daughter is in Bruges for Christmas and sent me a picture of her standing in front of a chocolate shop with a banner that says, "The place to be to drink the best hot chocolate." Are you near Bruges?

Kate at Serendipity said...

Thanks for your comments. I'm sure Christophe is blushing now!

Bob, LOL about the beer! I don't drink it, but I notice that in the supermarket there's a whole aisle devoted to it--including cherry and raspberry beer. I'm not sure about those...

Sam, I know what you mean. Dark, dark, dark chocolate for me. When really dark, a little bit is enough.

Simone, you have some awesome chocolate shops in Amsterdam! I love your city.

Hungry Dog, there used to be a super chocolate shop in SF. Near North Beach, I'm thinking. They had some awesome truffles. Poop, I can't remember the name--XX? XOXO?

Mardi, you used to live here--you KNOW they're good.

Pam, Christophe only makes two kinds of truffles. Plain and truffled. He's concentrated mostly on pralines till now, but maybe we can convince him to expand his line. Orange cardamom indeed! However, the ganache he puts in the lavender and cardamom pralines is almost the same thing he would use for truffles.

Nightowlchef, Asheville also has some wonderful shops. It would be wonderful if you were to move here!

Maggie--moules, frites, mayonnaise? Tu connais bien la Belgiuqe, toi! You're right, there's more to Belgium than chocolate!

Maddy, Bruges is about 2 1/2 hours by train. I'm at the other end of the country--but it's a small country. I hope your daughter is having a great time.

Grace said...

i won't even pretend--it's all about the chocolate for me! there are certainly worse things with which a place can be associated! your upcoming chocolate-making post may be dangerous--i may quit my job and try to become a chocolatier. :)

~~louise~~ said...

What a fun post. You, lucky lucky girl! Gee, when I think Belgium, I link waffles. Chocolate Waffles?

Those pralines look out of this world!

Thanks for sharing, Kate:)

Kitchen Butterfly said...

World's best fries - Belgium. Firm Family Fave....and their chocolate too...thanks for giving me more reasons to venture past my dutch borders!