CONTRIBUTED BY HEATHER LIDOWSKI
Living in Germany gives me easy access to some treats that I only get to indulge in occasionally when in the U.S. I count Belgium chocolates amongst those treats. Back in the states, I may be lucky to get a box in my stocking at Christmastime or as part of an anniversary gift. In Germany, though, I can drive about three hours northwest of the Kaiserslautern area and find myself in Brussels, Belgium, one of the centers of artisanal chocolate makers. Not one to pass up on the chance to indulge, I made my way to the Musée du Cacao et du Chocolat (Museum of Cocoa and Chocolate) during a recent trip to Brussels.
The museum is located on Rue de la tête d’Or, a side street off Grand Place, which is Brussel’s city center and a must-see tourist destination. Visitors to Brussels can easily watch chocolatiers in shops across the city craft sweet delicacies, but the museum goes beyond demonstrating how Belgium chocolates are made to explain the history of cocoa cultivation and trade. Many visitors may already know that European travelers to Central and South America were introduced to cocoa plants by indigenous civilizations such as the Aztecs. The museum’s displays build upon visitors’ basic understanding of how chocolate was introduced to Europe to reveal just how complicated the cocoa trade was and is.
Displays inside the museum explain that the cocoa tree can be harvested twice a year. Farmers collect cocoa beans and dry them for several days until the cocoa solids and butter can be separated from the pod. There are three sorts of cocoa that then get transformed into the bars, truffles, and other treats that many of us crave. Criollo, from Central America, is prized for its delicate flavor. From West Africa, Brasil, and Ecuador, the forestero cocoa is more bitter than the other two cocoa varieties. Trinitario is rich in cocoa butter and is mainly harvested in Trinidad and Tobago. To help visitors understand the flavor profiles of the different cocoa types, the museum offers samples so that the chocolates can be compared side-by-side. I’m not so sure I could taste the hints of raisin and fig that the Peru chocolate was supposed to contain versus the aroma of coffee and olive in the Costa Rica, but I still enjoyed trying both.
In addition to displays about the cultivation and trade of cocoa, the museum explains how chocolate was embraced by Europe. Once Europeans accepted the cocoa flavors shared by the Central American cultures, they quickly embraced chocolate as a delicacy enjoyed in its solid state and also as an ingredient in drinks. It was so favored by Europeans that eighteenth century Swedish botanist Charles Linné is credited with coming up with its scientific name of Theobroma Cacao, which is a combination of “Food of Gods” and the Aztec word cacahautl. Chocolate’s popularity quickly grew as people indulged in a food of the Gods and was mass-marketed by the nineteenth century. A lovely display of chocolate boxes shows how tin cans originally designed for holding sardines eventually transformed into candy boxes decorated by color lithography developed in England. The pre-packaged chocolates could be easily purchased by shoppers in local department stores and corner shops rather than through specialty grocers who packaged the chocolates individually.
After touring the upper levels of the museum with their explanations of cocoa’s history, cultivation, introduction to Europe, and thriving market, visitors can return to the ground floor where a chocolatier works in kitchen for all to see. He explains in French, and some English, how large chocolate bars are melted to a certain temperature so that it can be crafted into individual treats. He demonstrates filling molds for solid chocolates and how to create chocolate shells that can be filled and sealed. At the end of the demonstration and question period, visitors are invited to sample some of the chocolates he created. You can select from the solid pieces or pick one that you have to bite into to discover the flavors hidden inside. On the way out, you can try dipping a cookie into a machine that maintains chocolate’s melting temperature. I certainly didn’t leave the museum until dipping a cookie (or maybe two), and I didn’t even have to wait until a holiday to satisfy a Belgium chocolate craving.
The Musée du Cacao et du Chocolat is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM. According to its website, http://www.choco-story-brussels.be, it is closed the second and third weeks of January. Tickets are 6 Euros for adults, 3.50 Euros for children over six, and children under six are free. Students and pensioners can purchase tickets at the reduced price of 5 Euros. Group rates are available and can be arranged by calling +32 2 514 2048. The museum is located at Rue de la tête d’Or 9-11, 1000 Bruxelles.
Tuesday – Sunday: 1000-1700
Closed the second and third week of January
Children over 6 years: €3.50
Children under 6 years: Free
Rue de la tête d’Or 9-11
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