NEVER ENOUGH, MAY JUST BE A RESTAURANT IN BRUSSLES, BUT IT COULD WELL BE THE TAGLINE FOR FLANDERS TOURISM. CHUMKI BHARADWAJ ON A CHOCOLATE TRAIL.
What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died? That she was beautiful and brilliant? That she loved Mozart and Bach, the Beatles, and me?
Love Story, 1970
I am feeling a little like Oliver Barrett IV, Ryan O’neal in the epic tear jerker Love Story, when he sappily tries to condense a momentous love, cut short by life’s crushing realities. Shaken and stirred.
What can you say about a place that breathes chocolate, smells of oven-fresh waffles and looks picture-book pretty? That you wish heaven would be like this when the day of reckoning arrived. Or, that my association could have en- dured a lifetime of sweet nothings.
The medieval Gothic city of Brugges reminds of a first love: ethereal to the eye; eternal in memory. Dotted with romantic canals and lively roadside cafes, Venice of the North may be an easy moniker, but its real charm lies in the quiet reassurance of nostalgia that the city churns almost as prolifically as its chocolate. Let’s not forget, Brugges is the chocolate capital of the world. Fittingly, all the clichés about love and romance don’t just spring to mind but prey on it.
History portends, that at the end of the Middle Ages, a few Bruges families were searching for new horizons to drive trade. They imported cane sugar from Madeira and
when Spanish explorers brought back cocoa in the 16th
century, it was quickly mixed with cane sugar. Voila, Brugges’ fate as the core of the chocolate world was sealed. Centuries later, Bruges is still the Mecca of the brown gold and this remains a big tourist draw.
Naturally, the haunting aroma of chocolate wafting through the cobbled streets and colourful market squares is a year-round phenomenon, I am told. Countless confectioners churn out hundreds of kilograms of the city’s most famous chocolate, the ‘Brugsch Swaentje’ (Bruges Swan). To bring home the message, the city even boasts a chocolate museum: Choco-story.
If you haven’t got a sugar rush so far, try a meal at one of the many restaurants where chocolate is rather ingeniously worked into a lot of the recipes. For some dark delight, sink your teeth into baked St Jacob’s scallops with wood mushrooms, crustacean jus with a hint of chocolate and coffee or hot chocolate lobsters and nutty venison in pepper and chocolate crust at De Karmeliet: Michelin-starred Chef, Geert Van Heckes’ (three Michelin stars) famous restaurant in the heart of Brugges.
If your sweet tooth is still aching for more. Indulge every desire at the world famous
Brugges chocolate festival, Choco-laté, held at the Belfort bell tower (November 11-13). The depravity lasts for three days with a surfeit of chocolate sculpture contests, a ‘chocolate walk’, where you learn how the praline saw the light of day and how refined gastronomic creations are crafted; all the while, munching on brioches smeared with chocolate paste and take swigs of fabulous spiced cocoa. Continue with a browse through charming gingerbread houses and concept stores. This is a genuine chocolate pilgrimage, if there ever was one.
Further, there are also chocolate workshops for those who intend getting their
hands messy. Here, leading chefs and chocolatiers share recipes and techniques for combining gastronomy and chocolates. With more than 50 passionate chocolatiers, the city poses as a genuine chocolate laboratory. Apart from the world-famous Belgian brands, a number of creative Bruges Willy Wonkas offer the connoisseurs true delights with boundary-pushing confections that awe and inspire.
Leading the ingenuity club is Michelin-starred Dominique Persoone, whose cosy chocolate shop (The Chocolate Line) on Simon Stevinplein in Brugges is a lover’s manna that reeks as much of wizardry as it does of the cocoa comforter. Here you can expect the exotic or feast on the unexpected. Everything from fried onions to lemongrass to asparagus and even anchovies (yes, that’s right) has been put to novel use in his outlandish creations. Some of them may prove a bit of an acquired taste but the rest are quite enjoyable as long as you use palate cleansers between various tastings.
Imagine if you will, the sensory explosion that would result from a caramel of cabernet sauvignon of vinegar and the praline of pine seeds or the caramel of rice vinegar and soya sauce and the praline of sesame seeds and popping candy. Or, my ultimate favourite: the caramel of beetroot jelly and wild mushrooms with a hazelnut praline. With a colour palette that explores chartreuse green to cerulean blue to daffodil yellow, you devour with your eyes much before the tongue becomes an impatient participant.
Impassioned as one needs to be on the call of duty, the Tequila Choc-tail is a deal breaker. A curious cross between a tequila shot and a chocolate, this delicacy has a small pipette sticking out of it, which is cleverly filled with tequila. Stuck on the side of the chocolate is a pinch of salt which has to be licked, before the tequila can finally be consumed; post which, of course, you can wolf down the chocolate.
The deep-set eyes in his classic egg-shaped Belgian head twinkle as Persoone brandishes a recent bliss: chocolate lipstick. It looks like a genuine lipstick but is made of real chocolate. When you enjoy the classic Belgian dessert, Dame Blanche, with it: “It’s more fun if you put the chocolate on your lips and then eat the ice cream afterwards,” he declares, or put it to creative use as a carnal crunch; desire drives the course, of course.
However, the chocolate lipstick is not his pièce de résistance. It is his patented chocolate shooter that defines true genius.
When Persoone was asked to prepare dessert for a party that the Rolling Stones would be attending, he came up with a nifty device to sniff chocolate. It catapults chocolate (a heady mixture of cocoa and ginger or cocoa and raspberry) up your nose-like snuff or cocaine. He holds the weapon just below my nostrils and instructs me to breathe in on the count of three, at which point he fires the chocolate powder up my nose. “It’s perfect for weight watchers who get their chocolate fix without the accompanying nasty calories”, he claims.
For all those who believe that the finest things in life are illegal, immoral or fattening, Persoone offers a commendable rebuttal. The only problem: the lure of chocolate, like that of love defies reason or logic.