Belgian chocolate (French: chocolat belge, Dutch: Belgische chocolade) refers to chocolate produced in Belgium. While cacao beans and other ingredients such as sugar can originate from outside of Belgium, for chocolate to be considered "Belgian", the actual production of the chocolate must take place in the country. Belgian chocolate is internationally known, and dates from as early as the 17th century. It also forms an important part of the Belgian economy and culture.
Belgium's association with chocolate goes back as far as 1635 when the country was under Spanish occupation shortly after chocolate had been brought to Europe from Mesoamerica. By the mid 18th century, chocolate was extremely popular in upper and middle class circles, particularly in the form of hot chocolate. Among them was Charles-Alexander of Lorraine, the Austrian governor of the territory. From the early 20th century, the country was able to import large quantities of cocoa from its African colony, the Belgian Congo. The praline is an invention of the Belgian chocolate industry.
The composition of Belgian chocolate has been regulated by law since 1884. In order to prevent adulteration of the chocolate with low-quality fats from other sources, a minimum level of 35% pure cocoa was imposed. Adherence to traditional manufacturing techniques also serves to increase the quality of Belgian chocolate. In particular, artificial, vegetable-based or palm-oil-based fats, which raise the melting point are banned from products labelled "Belgian chocolate". Many firms produce chocolates by hand, which is laborious and explains the prevalence of small, independent chocolate outlets, which are popular with tourists. Famous chocolate companies strictly follow traditional (and sometimes secret) recipes for their products.
Pralines made in Belgium are usually soft-centred confections with a chocolate casing. They are distinct from the nut and sugar sweets popular in France and the United States which are sometimes known by the same name. They were first introduced by Jean Neuhaus II in 1912.
There have always been many forms and shapes: nearly always containing a chocolate shell with a softer filling. Confusion can arise over the use of the word praline in Belgium as it may refer to filled chocolates in general or sometimes to traditional "praliné"-filled chocolates popular in Europe (praliné refers to caramelised hazelnuts or almonds ground into a paste). Belgian pralines are not limited to the traditional praliné filling and often include nuts, marzipan, salted caramel, coffee, liquors, cream liqueur, cherry or a chocolate blend that contrasts with the outer shell. They are often sold in stylised boxes in the form of a gift box. The largest manufacturers are Neuhaus, Godiva, Leonidas, and Guylian.
Most commonly in the form of a flaky or smooth chocolate ball or traditionally a truffle-shaped lump, Belgian chocolate truffles are sometimes in encrusted form containing wafers or coated in a high-quality cocoa powder. They contain a soft ganache which is traditionally a semi-emulsion of liquid and therefore has a couple of days shelf-life at low temperatures and/or requires refrigeration. Special truffles sometimes have a fruit, nut or coffee ganache. Rarely they feature a fruit-based liqueur or cream liqueur but remain distinguishable from pralines by their shape and texture in most cases — crossover 'praline-truffles' also exist.
Eggs, animals and figurines
Hand-finished and luxury examples of eggs, animals, figurines and Valentine's Day hearts are made by many smaller Belgian chocolatiers, as elsewhere, accounting for a relatively small market share however in peak demand at Valentine's Day, Easter, Sinterklaas and Christmas.
Chocolate plays an important part in the Belgian economy, and there are over 2,000 chocolatiers in the country, both small and large. Today, chocolate is very popular in Belgium, with 172,000 tonnes produced each year, and widely exported. Côte d'Or is probably the largest commercial brand, with their products available in virtually every grocery store in the country. The largest manufacturers of wider varieties of chocolates are mentioned at Pralines. Belgian pralines (fondants) shaped like sea shells, fish, diamonds and individualist creations topped with are sold in town centre shops, market stands and many village shops across Belgium.
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- Savage, Maddy (31 December 2012). "Is Belgium still the capital of chocolate?". BBC. Retrieved 14 February 2013.
- Mercier, Jacques (2008). The Temptation of Chocolate. Brussels: Lannoo. p. 87. ISBN 2873865334.
- Mercier, Jacques (2008). The Temptation of Chocolate. Brussels: Lannoo. p. 101. ISBN 2873865334.
- Mercier, Jacques (2008). The Temptation of Chocolate. Brussels: Lannoo. p. 94. ISBN 2873865334.
- Amy M. Thomas (22 December 2011). "Brussels: The Chocolate Trail". New York Times. Retrieved 25 December 2011.
Ever since the Brussels chocolatier Jean Neuhaus invented the praline 100 years ago, the city has been at the forefront of the chocolate business. ... They are breaking away from traditional pralines—which Belgians classify as any chocolate shell filled with a soft fondant center...
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- The Insider's Guide to Belgian Chocolate at Travel Hoppers