Bruges: Sweet Heart of the Chocolate Universe
Choco-Story museum is a can't-miss destination for chocophiles
By Anne Garber & John T.D. Keyes
But as any self-respecting chocoholic knows, Belgium is the place to be, and more specifically the ancient city of Bruges (also known as "Brugge"), which is to chocolate what wine is to Bordeaux or pizza is to Naples.
This small Belgian city is an hour's drive on excellent highways from Brussels, and a northern suburb, Zeebrugge, is a terminus for the cross-channel ferries, so if you're visiting London you could easily pop over for the day for a sweet treat. We were driving between business meetings in the German city of Cologne and Paris, so we made Bruges an overnight stop, after a pleasant four-hour drive from Cologne.
What is 'Choco-Story'?
That's saying a lot in a country famous for its chocolate. Belgian law dictates that any merchandise bearing the name chocolate contain at least 35 per cent pure cocoa. In 1924, a refinement in the law stated that dark chocolate must contain 45 per cent cocoa and 50 per cent sugar.
Belcolade, founded in 1988 and based in nearby Erembodegem, is the only producer of authentic Belgian chocolate that is still Belgian-owned.
Inspired by two company-owned chocolate museums, the one in Hershey, PA., and the Imhoff-Stollwerk museum in Cologne, the Van Belles acquired a large, three-storey medieval building, called the Huis de Crone. In the 1500s it was a wine tavern, in the 1700s it was a pie bakery, and in the 1900s it accommodated a furniture workshop.
The Van Belles meticulously restored and modernized the structure, which features tall ceilings and vaulted cellars. The intention, Eddie says, is "to have the museum function as a knowledge centre where the real Belgian chocolate enthusiast will feel at home."
While Eddie pursues company business around the world, Cedric is the day- to-day curator of Choco-Story and is usually roaming the galleries to answer questions. The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. except for a few days during the Christmas holidays; entrance fees are a paltry 5 Euros for adults and 3 Euros for children ages six to 12.
The story of chocolate is told through the galleries laid out logically and attractively over the three floors. The first floor is devoted to the early history of chocolate, harkening back to the days of the Maya (the first to cultivate cocoa, between 250 BC to 900 AD) and the Aztecs, who mixed cocoa, water and spices into a bitter beverage that had a ceremonial role. This floor's rooms feature many authentic artifacts, including a Quetzalcoatl deity, pottery and knives.
The second floor focuses on the properties of chocolate and the process by which the cocoa bean is transformed into everyone's favorite delicacy.
The displays take on a more botanical and scientific bent. Eventually we enter the Industrial Age, when improved production processes led to the huge surge in chocolate consumption in the 19th century. Home cooks will be fascinated by the array of metal, bakelite and plastic moulds.
Thus far the museum has been remarkably free of self-congratulatory branding and corporate chest-thumping. There's no sense of a hard sell, or even a subliminal one, to buy Belcolade chocolate.
Yeah, chocolate is good for you
It contains proteins, minerals, fiber and vitamins and an alkaloid called theobromine, which is thought to have a beneficial effect on the heart and a curative effect on melancholy. No wonder a dark chocolate bar always makes us feel better.
For the foot-weary, there's an attic room with seats where a short film about chocolate plays on a constant loop, and the computer-savvy will enjoy surfing through a 200-page interactive chocolate presentation on two computer terminals. The official tour wraps up with a display of chocolate tins featuring images of the Belgian royal family over the years.
Finally, there's the tasting centre on the ground floor, as we head toward the exit. Here, a chef shows how chocolate is treated to give it a shiny appearance and a crunchy texture, and how the product is molded.
After this short demonstration, the chef offers each guest a piece. By this time, we don’t mind browsing in the small gift shop, where museum souvenirs can be purchased at reasonable prices. All in all, we spent a couple of hours at Choco-Story, learned a great deal and whetted our appetite for a tour of the city's 40-plus shops.
Bruges is an eminently stroll-able city. As soon as we arrived that morning, we parked the car in one of the city's large, clean and supervised underground garages and only went back to the car to drop off purchases.
44 shops featuring Belgian chocolate
This may seem like overkill, but each one adds some variation on the theme, so a tour of these shops is akin, say, to strolling the galleries on Canyon Road in Santa Fe, except the theme is chocolate instead of art.
We spent the next few hours, until dusk, checking out the stores and their wares. This is not hard to do. One street, Katelijnestraat, has eight shops in the space of about 100 yards, five on one side of the road, three on the other.
This spring, from April 27 to 30, Bruges is stepping things up a notch with "Choco-Late," the first of what the Van Belles hope will be an annual chocolate festival, involving the museum, the 44 shops, the bakers, the pastry makers and various civic venues and competitions.
For more information, visit www.choco-story.be or www.bruge.be
|Back to ChocolateAtlas.com|
|Visit other F&B Travel
www.CocktailAtlas.com www.CoffeeAtlas.com www.TeaAtlas.com