Belgian chocolate (French: chocolat belge, Dutch: Belgische chocolade) is chocolate produced in Belgium. A major industry since the 19th century, today it forms an important part of the nation's economy and culture.
The raw materials used in chocolate production do not originate in Belgium; most cocoa is produced in Africa, Central America, and South America. Nonetheless, the country has an association with the product that dates to the early 17th century. The industry expanded massively in the 19th century, gaining an international reputation and, together with the Swiss, became one of the commodity's most important producers in Europe. Although the industry has been regulated by law since 1894, there is no universal standard for the chocolate to be labelled "Belgian". The most commonly accepted standard dictates that the actual production of the chocolate must take place inside Belgium.
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 had become 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. Contrary to popular belief, however, Belgium's colonies did not play an important role in the foundation of the Belgian chocolate industry. By the 1900s, chocolate was increasingly affordable for the Belgian working class. According to one study, Belgium first started to export more chocolate than it imported in the 1960s, with exports of “Belgian chocolates” growing exponentially since 1980.
The praline is an invention of the Belgian chocolate industry, as is the ballotin, a kind of packaging associated with high-quality chocolate that was designed by Louise Agostini, the wife of Jean Neuhaus Jr., in 1915.
Production and standards
The composition of Belgian chocolate has been regulated by law since 1894 when, in order to prevent adulteration of the chocolate with low-quality fats from other sources, a minimum level of 35 percent pure cocoa was imposed. Attempts to introduce industry standardisation have met with little success. An attempt by the European Economic Community (EEC) to introducing minimum standards of the amount of cocoa butter substitutes across Europe led to prolonged negotiation but the legislation finally enacted, in 2003, was viewed as excessively lenient in Belgium. In 2007, a voluntary quality standard (to which about 90 percent of the country's chocolate makers adhere) was introduced by the European Union which set certain criteria for a product to be considered "Belgian chocolate". Under this "Belgian Chocolate Code", refining, mixing and concheing must be done inside Belgium.
Controversy about what can legitimately be called "Belgian chocolate" has been fueled by some traditional Belgian chocolatiers being purchased by non-Belgian companies and even moving production out of Belgium. Ignace Van Doorselaere, chief executive of chocolatier Neuhaus, insists that “In our dictionary, Belgian means place of manufacturing, headquarters and ownership,”  but without an EU protected food status designation, those chocolatiers who remain 100% Belgian find the "Belgian chocolate" brand hard to protect.
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, although they almost always consist of 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.
Belgian brands and chocolatiers
This section needs additional citations for verification. (November 2017)
- The Belgian
- The Belgian Chocolate Makers
- Benoît Nihant
- Chocolatier M (Knokke)
- Corné Port-Royal
- Côte d'Or
- Jean-Philippe Darcis
- General Chocolate
- Grand Belgian Specialties
- Pierre Marcolini
- Mong Koo (Mong - Koo)
- Olivier Molitor
- Planète Chocolat
- Veliche Gourmet
- Beer in Belgium
- Belgian cuisine
- Choco-Story – a museum in Bruges dedicated to chocolate
- Swiss chocolate
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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...
- "Our Story". Bouchard Chocolate. Bouchard NV. Retrieved 30 May 2017.[permanent dead link]
- Moss, Sarah; Badenoch, Alexander (2009). Chocolate: A Global History (1st ed.). London: Reaktion Books. ISBN 978-1-86189-524-0.
- Garonne, Maria; et al. (2016). "From Pralines to Multinationals: The Economic History of Belgian Chocolates". In Squicciarini, Mara P.; Swinnen, Johan (eds.). The Economics of Chocolate. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-872644-9.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Chocolate of Belgium.|
- The Insider's Guide to Belgian Chocolate at Travel Hoppers