India Today - - DESTINATION -

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.

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