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Bean to bar: Where to learn to make chocolate in Brussels
Belgium is not only home to some of the world’s finest chocolate, it’s one of the best places to join a workshop and make your own.
From professional classes to fun workshops, chocoholics can discover tricks of the trade from the country’s top chocolatiers. Laurent Gerbaud’s mission is to “open people’s eyes and palate”, via an appreciation course in which you taste 12 different chocolates. It’s coupled with a lesson in making mendiants - slim chocolate slabs topped with a selection of nuts and dried fruit. Gerbaud runs the workshops from his Rue Ravenstein shop, cafe and atelier in the centre of Brussels, where his ebullient and hands-on management style ensure the class has none of the elitism of some of his Sablon competitors.
Gerbaud starts by demonstrating how to fill the chocolate moulds and I attempt to follow suit. Balancing a 12-hole mould in one hand, I gingerly fill it from the fountain of molten chocolate and scrape the surplus off with a spatula. Only a smidgen needs to be licked off my hand before we decorate each one from an assortment of savoury and sweet toppings. “You can judge someone’s personality from how they do this messy, minimalistic, perfectionist…” says Gerbaud with a laugh as I attack the task in shambolic fashion. There’s only a few minutes to customise the mendiants before the chocolate sets.
As our efforts firm in the fridge, it’s time to turn to the tasting plate. To start, I’m instructed to snap a small chocolate disc in half. It contains 70% cocoa, generally a benchmark for quality, but it’s disappointing, lacking depth of flavour and with a bitterness due to over-roasting. I move on to two other examples, sophisticated and exotic in flavour, and more expensive because of lower production, Gerbaud explains.
The next is his house blend with the logo stamped underneath - the word ‘chocolate’ written in Chinese. It’s a testament to Gerbaud’s love affair with China; he speaks the language and frequently visits the country. The house chocolate has evolved since he started out 16 years ago. “Over time, my own palate has become more discriminating.”
The next chocolate is pivotal, he says, as it combines salty and sweet flavours thanks to crunchy pistachios. He veers off into a reverie of chocolate pairings and turns out to be a beer buff as he sings the praises of Moeder Lambic and local Brussels brews from Brasserie de la Senne and Cantillon. Chocolate also turns out to be a fabulous match with aspérule, a key ingredient in Maitrank, the bitter aromatic wine from the Arlon region of Wallonia. “It’s excellent with my confit grapefruit chocolate,” he says.
For the next tasting, I’m given precise instructions to pick off a small dried cranberry – a fine Iranian jewel – and pop it into my mouth and wait a few minutes for the saliva to rehydrate the fruit and release its sharp acidic flavour, before biting into the chocolate. The contrast between sour and sweet is surprising and addictive. A range of Gerbaud’s dried and confit specialities follow – apricot, fig, orange and ginger – then a dense, smooth ganache with a subtle mango, lime and coriander flavour. “It’s won a prize,” Gerbaud says proudly.
For the penultimate offering, I pop a spherical chocolate straight into my mouth. It has a liquid centre, a delicious fusion of hazelnut, cashew, cocoa nibs and chocolate mellowed by the addition of a little milk. It’s not without regret that I return to the first chocolate disc. It failed to please the first time around, and after the depth and complex flavouring of all that followed, its taste is even more jarring. The lesson is clear: you get what you pay for, and it’s not only about cocoa percentages, as origin, production and lower sugar all play a role. While this product is priced at €4 a kilo for professionals, Gerbaud’s house chocolate is €16 a kilo. He blends it on site to control the quality.
Gerbaud loves working with chocolate despite the fragility that makes it difficult to store and transport. When not overseeing production, sales and marketing, he sells his wares at Boitsfort market every Sunday, meets fellow gourmands for chocolate pairings, attends fairs and serves as a chocolate ambassador abroad. And the workshops? “I may have done this a hundred times, but it’s still fun,” he says.
Workshops for individuals every Saturday, €35pp. Group bookings and teambuilding events via Itinéraires tours. In English or French; translators available for other languages.
Other chocolate addresses in Brussels:
Taste the products and have a go at making your own confectionery at this artisan factory at Chaussée de Charleroi, near Place Stéphanie in Brussels. The speciality is spice, with flavours from exotic places. Company events and birthday also catered for. Suitable for children seven and up.
There are workshops at this artisan chocolate maker in Rue du Lombard, near the Grand Place. Plus demonstrations, tours and teambuilding events.
Learn about the history of chocolate, taste samples and watch demonstrations at this museum dedicated to the sweet stuff in central Brussels. Guided tours are available.
This article first appeared in The Bulletin Best of Belgium 2016