Belgium is home to some of the world’s best chocolate. One bite into a praline, and you’ll know why. Belgium has been making chocolate since the 17th century when Spanish explorers brought back cocoa beans from South America. Despite the cocoa drinking Spanish nobility who ruled Belgium at the time, chocolate didn’t become popular until the mid-1900s when King Leopold II colonized the Congo.
During the mid- to late-1900s, West Africa became a hotbed of cocoa production as it had the ideal growing environment and an abundance of slave labor. After the cocoa beans are dried at the farm, they are shipped to Belgium for processing.
The first “real” chocolate bar was invented by Jean Neuhaus in 1857. In 1912, Neuhaus’s grandson, Jean II, invented the praline, which is called a bonbon in other parts of the world. Pralines are a little slice of heaven. Okay, maybe not. But, they are filled with soft cream and nut pastes.
After staying budget-friendly through Greece, Hungary, Austria, and the Czech Republic, I was ready to splurge on the Brussels Chocolate Walking Tour and Workshop with Viator. The $80 price tag was 100% worth it!
The tour met in front of the Godiva Shop in the Grande Palace. Most Americans believe that Godiva is a gourmet chocolatier, but in Belgium, it’s on par with Hershey’s or Nestle. And, after taste testing real gourmet chocolate across Brussels for the day, I would have to agree.
Our first stop of the day was Corne Port-Royale in the Rue Montagne aux Herbes Potagères. Corne was founded in 1932 by young pâtissier Maurice Corné. It didn’t take long for his business to take off, and soon his brothers and sisters started their own praline businesses. To set himself apart from his family, he named his business Corne Port-Royale. Today, over 50 artisans work daily to make his chocolates from the original recipes using only the finest single-origin cocoa and raw materials.
We strolled into the Corne Port-Royale landmark shop in Galerie de la Reine arcade just as the shopkeeper was turning over the “open” sign. A friendly staff member handed each of us a small lavender dark chocolate square. It was sweet with just a hint of lavender. My taste buds loved it!
After our first taste of gourmet chocolate, our lovely guide had to drag a few of us out of the shop. There was much more to taste! We walked a few streets over to Chocopolis, where again we sampled several delicious chocolate squares. I especially loved the mango passionfruit milk chocolate. Yum!
Chocopolis is an infant compared to other chocolate shops in Brussels. Born in 2006, the shop is unique as it has its own chocolate factory on the first floor. We spent a few minutes watching a video on how cocoa is grown and processed to make chocolate while our guide explained each step for us. Who knew the process of making chocolate required so many intricate steps?
Next up was our chance to make our own chocolate. Don’t ask me where the studio is in Brussels as our guide ambled through back alleyways and streets until we reached a nondescript door where we entered into our own mini Willy Wonka Factory. While taste testing chocolates from some of the world’s best chocolatiers was the clear highlight of the tour, making my own chocolate was a close second.
As we entered the workshop we were directed to a place setting with all the supplies we needed. We were given copious amounts of warm chocolate, nuts, dried fruits, and cookies. The artisan chocolatier gave us an overview of chocolate design as we dived into our own creativity. I think I ate as much chocolate as I made!
After creating our chocolate delights for later, we each tried our hands at making caramel-filled pralines. While I enjoyed using the pastry bag to fill a row of chocolates, I actually hate caramel. I know, I know. I’m weird. Everyone tells me that.
As our chocolates were drying, we continued our journey through the streets of Brussels. En route to our next chocolate shop, our guide brought us to the St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral where numerous kings and queens were married throughout the centuries. The late morning light caused the colors of the stained glass to dance on the floor.
No visit to Brussels is complete without seeing the infamous Mannequin Pis. The statue of a little boy urinating into a fountain has graced the streets of Brussels since 1618. Over the centuries the little boy has been subject to local pranks, theft, and costumes. It’s not uncommon to walk by the boy decked out in full costumes surrounded by loud drunk people. Heck, the little boy has even pissed out milk and beer at times. Who doesn’t want lukewarm beer pissed out of a small statue’s weewee?!
Our next stop was Pierre Marcolini, one of the premier chocolatiers in the world. Pierre Marcolini opened his first chocolate shop in 1995 after being named the World Champion of Pastry. He is known for combining chocolate with unusual fruits and foods, like apple, tea, and even patchouli. I highly recommend the Earl Grey chocolate. Tea and chocolate? Two of my favorite things. Yes, please!
With each stop, the chocolate kept getting better and better. Elisabeth is a small independent boutique with several small shops located throughout the city of Brussels. The shop works with local artisans to deliver only the best artisanal sweets from waffles to candy to truffles. After admiring the colorful chocolate displays, the shopkeeper handed each of us our first truffles to try. It was a wonderful mixture of sweet and bitter that just melted in your mouth. Yum!
As we walked to our last shop of the day, our guide would point out various street art on the buildings. Brussels is a bit of a quirky city. Back in 1991, the city collaborated with the Belgian Comic Strip Center to create street murals of famous comic book heroes. Many of the murals feature The Adventures of Tintin, which was written by Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi.
Our guide saved the best chocolate shop for last. Mary was founded in 1919 by Mary Delluc. Mary, the ever clever businesswoman, had one goal – she wanted to leave a legacy. She opened her shop on Rue Royale knowing that the King traveled on Rue Royale every day. Her reputation grew, and Mary became a household name. And, I can see why. I thought I died and gone to heaven after tasting the Tuffe Champagne Rose. It was that amazing. Of course, I couldn’t leave without buying any truffles.
If you’re a chocolate lover, and you ever find yourself in Brussels, I recommend taste testing chocolate around town either with the Brussels Chocolate Tour or on your own. Either way, you will leave with a belly full of sugary goodness.
“Chocolate is the first luxury. It has so many things wrapped up in it: Deliciousness in the moment, childhood memories, and that grin-inducing feeling of getting a reward for being good.” – Mariska Hargitay