In this article I would like to take you on a journey of discovery into the world of cocoa. The stops on this journey are a real pleasure: You will learn how the cocoa fruit becomes melt-in-the-mouth chocolate, why we develop the delicious chocolate creams at Grashoff with Belgian chocolatiers - and what is so special about Belgian chocolate. I wish you a good trip.
A culinary cocoa starter on the palate
Sometimes one is caught with a box of the finest sweets that has been miraculously opened as if by magic and the contents find their way to the willing palate. Then your eyes close and happy hormones flood your senses. Who does not know that! The same happens to the fans of our extensive selection of different chocolate creams made from Belgian chocolate. The history of Belgian chocolate, which is able to trigger these associations in us today, is not that old.
First points of contact with the cocoa bean in Guatemala
Like a slightly foaming cocoa tea - bitter, spicy and takes some getting used to for Europeans
As the owner of a delicatessen founded in 1872 with an attached manufactory for culinary delicacies, you are also a "food scout" in your own right. So my family traveled to Guatemala in 2014 and got to know this drink there by accident. From my point of view, it was more like a whipped, slightly foaming cocoa tea, for the preparation of which the cocoa beans were crushed in a mortar. It presented itself as bitter and piquant at the same time – the latter because ground chili peppers had also been added for seasoning. All in all it took some getting used to for a European palate.
"But how did it become our beloved Belgian chocolate?"
To get to the bottom of this, we need to go back in time a few years on our journey.
How did the cocoa bean get to Europe?
On his first voyage across the Atlantic, Christopher Columbus discovered the Caribbean islands and thus America in 1492. On his fourth and final voyage in 1502, he traveled further south across the Caribbean islands to Latin America, setting foot on the American mainland for the first time on August 14, 1502. On the way there, on July 30, 1502, he discovered the island of Guanaja, which today belongs to Honduras. The chroniclers reported that on this day he encountered a fully laden Maya trading canoe. He had it boarded and its crew and cargo brought to his caravel. The European sailors observed that whenever a cocoa bean fell down, several Maya immediately bent down to pick it up. Why they did this and what the cocoa beans were all about remained hidden from Columbus for lack of an interpreter. He is said to have never tasted the cocoa drink himself.
Once discovered, the cacao drink became popular with the seafarers and colonists of the New World.
The navigator and conqueror Hernán Cortés began conquering the Aztec Empire in the Yucatán in 1517 and exported cocoa beans to Europe
There, the cocoa beans were initially used exactly as the Maya and Aztecs did (and as it was offered to my family in 2014): first ground in a mortar, then mixed with other spices and finally infused with hot water. But this cocoa did not taste good to the local palate. As a result, confectioners of the nobility and royalty embraced and experimented with these valuable new beans.
Less spices and more sugar for the cocoa drink
Over time, spices have been minimized and sugar added instead. This softened the bitter substances and the attractive taste of "sweet-tart" was created. The palates of high society delighted in this new taste and drank more and more of the new "hot chocolate".
Today we like to add spices to chocolate again, our extensive range of chocolate creams also includes spices from gingerbread and speculoos, Sicilian blood orange oil, chilli extract and much more.
Cocoa is coming to Belgium: from a bitter-sour drink to sweet and creamy chocolate
The first cocoa beans reached what is now Belgium around 1635. At that time it was still administered by the Spanish branch of the Habsburg dynasty. In addition to the now sweetened chocolate drink, a coarse-grain chocolate was also developed that could be melted in hot water or milk to form a drink. But even without liquid, the mixture of ground cocoa and sugar was very tempting, albeit difficult to make. The two ingredients were very difficult to mix together. In 1826 the Swiss Philippe Suchard invented the "mélangeur", a machine for mixing sugar and cocoa powder. In December 1879, the Swiss Rudolf Lindt succeeded in making the decisive technological step towards the chocolate we know and love today with his invention of the conche.
Conching: The irresistible melted chocolate was born!
Two things are hidden behind the conche process: On the one hand, it was now possible to use an extensive rolling process to roll the cocoa beans and the sugar so finely that the previously coarse-grained structure of both became so fine that you could no longer feel them as solid components on the tongue recognized: the irresistible "chocolate melt" was born! Secondly, a miracle happened: the long rolling process created heat, which allowed the aromas of the respective cocoa varieties to fully develop. This was previously unknown and made it possible to work out the aromas of the respective regions of origin in such a way that the variety known today could arise. The very good reputation of Swiss chocolate, especially the chocolate bar, is based on the invention of the conche.
Today there are chocolates from different countries of origin that are sweetened to different degrees in order to best represent the aroma of the respective cocoa beans. For a long time now, these have not only come from Latin America, but from many countries with a tropical climate such as Ecuador, Ghana, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Brazil, the Ivory Coast or the small island of Sao Tomé & Príncipe. The chocolates all taste very different and sometimes have very large price differences. As always, the finest cocoa beans with their complex aroma are rare and correspondingly expensive.
But what about Belgium? There are no cocoa plants growing there. No, Belgium is about the praline!
Now comes the Belgian chocolate: It's all about the praline
The inventor of the praline is a German cook who was in the service of César de Choiseul, Comte de Plessis-Praslin and named his work of art after his master: Plessis-Praslin = pralin(e). The confection was invented in two different presentation forms: either nuts and fruit dipped in caramel syrup or pieces of marzipan dipped in chocolate. And now it's finally happening: The decisive further development of this idea can be attributed to a Belgian chocolatier and only became reality a little over a century ago in 1912: Monsieur Jean Neuhaus and his "Confiserie et Chocolaterie Neuhaus-Perrin" in Brussels. He developed the process of lining metal molds with the finest conched chocolate. He filled the hollow molds created in this way with finesse and combinations with ingredients such as nuts, various chocolate components such as mousse, crèmes, grated chocolate, marzipan, other nut pastes and the like, all in different layers within the same praline. He finished his little works of art with a piece of chocolate and knocked them out of the mold. Such a treat had never existed before! Only the finest ingredients were artistically processed into the finest praline. This unusual and high-quality chocolate variant established the very good reputation of Belgian chocolatier art today.
This is where the secret lies and what is so special about Belgian chocolate: to process the finest raw materials creatively with the highest level of craftsmanship into small masterpieces - only the Belgians did that back then!
We develop our chocolate creams with Belgian chocolatiers
For these reasons, when we developed the first recipes for our "Chocolats" in 2006, it was clear from the outset that we would use chocolate cream of Belgian origin as the basis for our creations. That's still like that. As with the pralines back then, our once small idea has quickly grown into a range of over 25 different variants. And sometimes it gets us too. Whenever we are completely immersed in ourselves. Then a glass of our delicious chocolate opens as if by itself and the crème miraculously finds its way to our willing palates. Then our eyes close and happy hormones flood our senses.