I had been a resident of Belgium for approximately four hours when an entirely wonderful thing happened to me.
I was standing in Brussels’ most romantic square, gazing through the window of the country’s most prestigious chocolate shop, completely entranced by a master chocolatier hard at work inside, when he lifted his head, saw what I can only presume must have been a look of intense fascination on my face, and started to laugh. In a sequence that could have been lifted straight from a schmaltzy movie, he beckoned to me to come inside, and handed me the exquisite truffle he had just been working on. It was a beautiful moment.
The shop was Pierre Marcolini, and the truffle was so good that I had no choice but to try one of the delicate and elegantly crafted little cakes from the patisserie collection as well. It was a creation of such perfection that it was almost too hard to bring myself to eat it. But, designed as it was to seduce the weak-willed with its glossy red velvet icing, chocolate macaroon and almond cream garnish, I somehow managed to polish off the whole thing.
If only the finest, only the best will do, then there is only one place you need to go for chocolate in Brussels. There’s not one, but two branches of Pierre Marcolini situated on the Place du Grand Sablon. Let’s not forget two branches of Wittamer, a Neuhaus and a Godiva.
The Sablon comprises one of my favourite areas of the city for walking and browsing. At the weekend a gorgeous antiques market is held in the shadow of the Eglise Notre Dame, selling everything from second-hand furs to ancient postcard collections. It’s also the best time and place for people watching as the capital’s elite arrive in fancy cars to pick up hundreds of euro’s worth of made-to-order artisan chocolates and patisseries in pink boxes to be served at glitzy lunches and afternoon teas.
Take a seat in the Wittamer café and order yourself one of the most decadent hot chocolates you’ve ever seen. It will arrive with a bowl of whipped cream and a chocolate truffle on the side. If you can afford to splash out, get yourself some macaroons or something chocolatey topped with raspberries and dusted with icing sugar to accompany it. It’ll give you a little taste of what the Belgian well-to-do are serving on their cake stands.
There’s plenty of mediocre chocolate for sale around Belgium, particularly in the touristy streets surrounding the Grand Place, but if you’re a chocolate fiend, or even just buying for one, there’s no point in settling for anything less than the premium product.
Pierre Marcolini is generally regarded as the tippity top chocolatier, and prices reflect that. Truffle design and flavours are avant garde and macaroons are seriously expensive and come in unusual flavours. They also design beautiful chocolate cakes, which have to be seen, and then eaten, to be believed.
Wittamer‘s truffle selection is mind-bogglingly vast and you’ll have a hard time picking out the most delicious. Macaroons are cheaper, more colourful and come in more standard flavours than at Marcolini’s. Handily you can buy boxes of five, which make perfect little gifts, for around six euros. In the Wittamer cafe, the patisserie selection is varied and extravagent and will delight those who love chocolate and those who don’t.
Neuhaus truffles are a little cheaper and the design of the chocolates is relatively modern and edgy. They offer a wide variety of pre-packaged selections, along with lovely little treats such as solid chocolate stirrers, designed to be melted into hot milk, quite possibly at bedtime.
Godiva is probably the most commercialised brand and you will see many shops all over the city. It’s also commonplace to find their selections in the food halls of upmarket department stores in the UK. Back in Brussels, they’ve branched into areas of tourist baiting by serving sugary drinks and chocolate-dipped fruit, as well as, if I remember correctly, their own version of the tourist waffle — which is to be avoided in any form at all costs.
You can buy pretty much all of the above online and from various shops in Britain now, but for the full experience you should visit the Sablon and peek into the shops in person. You never know, if you’re lucky you may even bag yourself a truffle for free!