One of my favorite cities in Belgium is the quaint Bruges, known as “Venice of the North.” I first visited Bruges in the 1990s and was charmed by the little chocolatiers and lace makers. This UNESCO World Heritage site was the destination of a group of 24 chocolate lovers from Marina, whom I accompanied on a town tour and chocolate demonstration. We were docked in Zeebrugge, which in itself is a beautiful town (referred to as “Bruges on the Sea”). We left for Bruges on a quiet Sunday morning, and the shop doors were just opening when we arrived. Our guide walked us through the cobblestone streets, stopping to explain the many sites and statues. When we came upon the market square (known as “Markt”), the town seemed to open up and welcome us with horse-drawn buggies and street performers galore.
I was intrigued by the row of buildings referred to as the “trade houses,” where the leagues of workers such as lace makers or farriers would maintain their unions and membership. I wondered which one belonged to the Chefs!!!!
We wandered around a corner to a local beer merchant. There are literally thousands of types of beers in Belgium, and better yet, each one has a particular glass that the beer is to be served in.
As tempting as it was to stop and have a beer, we were determined chocoholics, so off we marched to the Chocolate Museum (yes…there is such a divine place) for our demonstration – and tasting!
We were seated in a classroom and greeted by a Chocolate Master.
He began his lecture with the harvest of the cocoa plants, which he explained were as unique in flavor as a Pinot Noir grape would be if grown for wine in Oregon versus Burgundy.
We refer to this concept as “terroir,” which means “of the place,” when we teach wine and food pairing in the culinary center, and it was nice to see the concept applied here to chocolate. For example, the master stated that cacao grown and harvested in Chiapas would be quite different from cacao harvested in Caracas. He went on to show us the ingredients used in Belgian chocolate and his view as to why this is the “most superior chocolate on the planet.”
He explained that because the climate is mild in Belgium and never gets too hot, the chocolate can be made using only lecithin as the binding agent, thus avoiding the added fat that causes an oily feeling in the roof of one’s mouth when tasting chocolate made outside of Belgium. The “melt in your mouth” joy of Belgian chocolate, he maintained, is due to the lack of stabilizers such as fat that are required to keep the chocolate from melting in other climates. So being the inquisitive Marina travelers that we are, we needed a taste test to prove the theory of this Chocolate Master. (After all, he looked way too skinny to be a Chocolate Master….) Out came a beautiful tray of chocolates, and we took our tasting job quite seriously (some more seriously than others). Yes, after all this we were convinced that Belgian chocolate is indeed the best on the planet. (We’d say anything just to get another sample!)
Our guide gave us some free time to stroll through the lovely town. I, of course, stopped for a bite of lunch. As usual, I followed my nose and snooped at the dishes of outdoor cafes, and found a charming Indian restaurant in Simon Stevin square. The food was awesome (grilled lamb, naan and perfectly cooked root vegetables), and the owner spent time with me, dragging out cookbooks and exchanging stories about our favorite Indian chefs and restaurants around the world. I am reminded of a quote from Epicurious, “It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely, honorably and justly.” To that I would add “and without fabulous food!!!” Chocolate and Indian food, both prepared with love – I would be hard-pressed to imagine what could make for a better day in Bruges.