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Previously in Atlantic Abroad

  • The Tentative Tourist (C. Michael Curtis, Spain, July 30, 1997).

  • The Sausages of Wrath (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, July 16, 1997).

  • Classic Tricks (Matthew Gurewitsch, China, June 25, 1997).

  • Alone on the Brink (William Langewiesche, Chile, June 11, 1997).

  • Globetrotting with the Doozer (Jeffrey Tayler, Greece, May 29, 1997).

  • The Car as Social Barometer (Gregg Easterbrook, Belgium, May 14, 1997).

  • Of Bird Songs and Buddhas (Matthew Gurewitsch, China, April 30, 1997).

  • The Discreet Charm of the (Chilean) Bourgeoisie (William Langewiesche, Chile, April 16, 1997).

  • Beware the Eighth of March (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, April 2, 1997).

    Share your tales of life abroad in the Global Views forum of Post & Riposte.

  • Heaven in a Ballotin
    Brussels -- August 13, 1997

    Wander the streets of Dublin or Bremen, and you can't go a block without encountering a pub selling pints of delicious just-made beer. In Paris you can't go a block without encountering a pâtisserie offering ethereal freshly baked tarts, consumed with coffee in languid seatings clocked by the hour; in Rome, without finding a trattoria that makes its own pasta in the back room. In Brussels one cannot meander a block without encountering traiteurs devoted exclusively to chocolate. Not candy stores -- do not be caught using the word candy in conjunction with Belgian chocolates, which cognoscenti often call collectively "pralines," after the leading flavor. The chocolate stores of Belgium are far beyond anything analogous to candy.

    Belgian chocolate is most often associated with Godiva, the international marketer whose home office is in Brussels. The prepackaged confections that Godiva sells through department stores in the United States are better than anything Hershey or Cadbury offers. But the fresh chocolates sold here in Belgian boutiques, including by Godiva's local operation, make what you buy in those gold-flecked boxes in the United States seem like little more than sawdust-stabilized sugar wads. For any serious chocolate lover Belgium is Asgard, Beulah, Avalon, Olympus: the center of the chocolate universe.

    Appreciation of true Belgian chocolates must start with Mary, the witheringly exclusive chocolate maker just off the Boulevard du Regent in Brussels, and long patronized by Belgian royalty. This store -- which insists on calling itself "Mary," in quotation marks -- is the Cartier of the praline world. Elegantly arranged pyramids of individual chocolates are laid out in cooled display cases. Tasteful original paintings adorn the white walls, lit by track lights as in an art gallery. Clerks are older women and men formally dressed in three-piece suits or fashion attire. They sit behind desks and wait for you to come to them, as if there to consult on chocolates. High Francophone insolence is practiced; the slightest mispronunciation, or betrayal of lack of knowledge of chocolate lore, brings rolled eyes. No such thing as pre-boxed chocolates here. You pick out which types you want and which number, and the clerk, donning gloves, sets them into the box one by one, laboriously; buying a box of chocolates at "Mary" can easily take half an hour. The king, one supposes, sends someone to do this for him. A pound of chocolates sets you back about $25, more than the price per pound of smoked salmon.

    Because "Mary" has only one small shop, no distribution, and no mail-order, getting someone visiting Brussels to bring you back a box of its products is a long-standing arm-twisting exercise among aficionados. George Bush is a "Mary" addict, and had a standing request that any White House official traveling for a European Union meeting not return empty-handed. The first time you taste these chocolates, you understand why. Crème fraîche is a central ingredient, and chocolates containing this delight must be consumed within a week of coming out of the mold; they simply can't be packaged. Velvety fondant, so dark it seems to absorb light, is another standard ingredient, and is unlike anything in the excessively sweet truffles that chocolatiers sell in the United States. Nothing ever gushes out as you bite; the blending is too subtle for that. Tasting a true Belgian chocolate fresh from the display will make you understand the nature of addiction, for it is like biting into black heroin.

    Time and marketing, however, are passing "Mary" by. Godiva has pretty much wrapped up the hotel-lobby and tourist-hangout trade here, with swank boutiques that offer a better and fresher range of chocolates than what the firm sells through department stores, but it still ranks below other Belgian chocolatiers in the hierarchy of taste and cool.

    The Belgian make with the best combination of high quality and number of shops is Neuhaus, a brand on the verge of international recognition. Though its store environment is more casual, Neuhaus, like "Mary," takes chocolate exceedingly seriously. Neuhaus devised the ballotin, or deep rectangular box with flaps, in which all authentic Belgian chocolates are sold in Belgium. (The boxes American department stores call "ballotins" for snob-appeal reasons rarely resemble the real thing.) Neuhaus hands out brochures on how to eat its product: "Settle yourself and relax in a clear and calm location. Select and delicately place a praline into your mouth. Let it melt for a few minutes to release the subtle flavors of the enrobing. Chew three to five times...." Chew? Why didn't I think of that? But on the key question of taste, Neuhaus pralines do very well. Many are based successfully on ganache, a fusion of chocolate, cream, butter, and sugar that is either perfection or terrible. I recommend Neuhaus's black-and-white, a dark chocolate cup filled with hazelnut fresh crème, then covered with white chocolate.

    Coming up fast behind all the Belgian big shots is a new chocolatier called Pierre Marcolini. Remember the name: Marcolini chocolates may be de rigueur in American cuisine circles in three to five years, if only because Pierre, the firm's eponym, is young, handsome, and infinitely promotable. Hailing from Charleroi, a working-class city in Wallonia, the French-speaking southern region of Belgium, Marcolini worked as a cook and pastry chef before founding a small confectionery school in an obscure Brussels suburb. People started driving out from the city to buy his pralines, driving past "Mary" and Neuhaus. No wonder: Marcolini chocolates are simply the best-tasting and best-looking in the world.

    Marcolini's "thé citron," made with Earl Grey, is the most original chocolate in years. His diamant, a blend of ganache and rum in a multifaceted shape that appears to be a gemstone, is produced to such visual precision that it's hard to believe it is made of chocolate. Marcolini's escargot, a caramel seashell, offers about four shades of color; his "pâte d'amande nature," a chocolate-almond crème, has three separate layers of flavor in one bite. And his prices are about half what "Mary" charges. Marcolini has just opened downtown shops, so we'll see if that changes.

    Though Belgian chocolates normally are less sugared than the exclusive chocolate brands of the United States or Switzerland, don't be deceived. From a nutrition standpoint they are depth charges, butter and cream being the dominant ingredients. Maybe it's true, as advocates say, that fresh chocolate causes the body to release endorphins; it's definite that Belgian chocolates nail you to the ground. My advice is buy them in the smallest ballotins, because once you open a box you won't be able to close it.

    Gregg Easterbrook, a contributing editor to The Atlantic Monthly, was named a distinguished fellow of the Fulbright Foundation last year. His most recent piece for The Atlantic was "Blood and Motherly Advice" (February, 1997), about the American military's television network.

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    Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.

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