Tag Archives: chocolate

Finding the Beat of Brussels

29 Mar

Grand Place. (Photograph by Marianne Janssens, Flickr)

I marched into Parking Garage #58 with confidence, punched the 10 key to the highest floor, and zoomed up. When I exited, the lot was desolate, with some late winter snow and ice remaining. What a pleasant surprise to discover one of the best views in the city: St. Catherine’s Square, a melange of Art Nouveau, gleaming corporate buildings, and a few layered church spires in all their glory. And it was free.

There’s no way I would have found this spot on my own and I have my Brussels Greeter, Martine, to thank for it.

Watch the world go by at a cafe. (Photograph by Sofie Coreynen, Visitflanders/Flickr)

Watch the world go by at a cafe. (Photograph by Sofie Coreynen, Visitflanders/Flickr)

The greeter program is free and connects locals with people who want an insider look at a city. At times, the perceived symbols of a country can be written about so ad nauseam in travel literature that I find myself bored with them before I even arrive. Not so for tiny Belgium. That’s probably because most of the nation’s icons are edible: from the decadent waffles and sinful toppings I just had to sample to the moules frites I washed down with a crisp cold beer. And everyone knows about the chocolate.

But, I was grateful to Martine for that glimpse of another side of Brussels from lofty new heights.

Brussels is far from undiscovered, but it can feel underrated. It is an easily walkable city, with evenly spaced cobblestones, and the ambiance of a merging and blended Europe. But outside the bustling Grand Place, I was comfortable as a tourist, with room to roam. Streets like Rue Lebeau curve around; you feel embraced by the city but not smothered by it. Your independence is respected but if you wish to chat, the locals are most happy to oblige.

The museums in Brussels are worth a week alone and, being an admirer of René Magritte (I have a copy of “La Clairvoyance” in my apartment back in New York), the Magritte Museum quickly became one of my favorites. His modus operandi – a jumble of text, photos, and objects that don’t seem to belong together — left me pleasantly puzzled and mildly amused. (For instance, why is Magritte’s painting of a blue sky with perfect, fluffy white clouds called “The Curse”?!)

The bookshop at the Belgian Comic Strip Center. (Photograph by Johan Martens, Visitflanders/ Flickr)

The bookshop at the Belgian Comic Strip Center. (Photograph by Johan Martens, Visitflanders/ Flickr)

At the Royal Museums of Fine Arts, which encompass ancient and modern art in one location, I was floored by the enormous Rubens room, and could almost feel the pulse of the peasants milling about in the Bruegels. On another side of town, don’t miss the Belgian Comic Strip Center, worth a stop to pay to Tintin and The Smurfs.

Locals are definitely bon vivants — people who live well and have refined taste. The Grand Sablon area hits a sophisticated note as a center for chocolate and home decor, ranging from kitschy to gilded and elegant. Surrounding the Sablon are streets worth savoring like Rue Ernest Allard and Rue des Minimes. I ducked into Claire Fontaine, a tiny gourmet shop, for spices and takeaway sandwiches. Top dining choices in the area are Restaurant JB, LOLA, and Aux Vieux Saint Martin, all teeming with locals.

Closer to the Grand Place is Galeries Royales St Hubert, a vibrant 19th-century shopping stroll that set the standard for similar arcades in London, Milan, and St. Petersburg. Here, you’ll find shops like Ganterie Italienne selling buttery leather gloves in a space where nothing has changed for decades, from the wood floors to the antique register. Nearby is La Taverne du Passage, an old-school choice for dinner, with big bowls of mussels and great wine.

Other shopping streets in Brussels include Boulevard de Waterloo, which is more like Fifth Avenue in New York, and Avenue Louise, strewn with international chains like Zara and Longchamp. But the most delightful neighborhoods to while away a day are near St. Catherine, where an old fish market has been replaced by delicious seafood restaurants. Ramble around the Dansaert, chock-full of unique, trendy shops and excellent eateries.

The Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert. (Photograph by James Stringer, Flickr)

The Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert. (Photograph by James Stringer, Flickr)

After all that walking, you’ll crave a good night’s sleep. There’s a huge range of accommodations, and rates are especially good on weekends due to all the business travelers departing en masse. I loved staying at The Dominican Hotel a former abbey that pays homage to its history by piping Gregorian chant into the elevators. The soaring public spaces and relaxing outdoor garden practically force guests to unwind while the thoroughly modern lounge pulsates with a diverse mix of people each night.

Or, for a completely different vibe, there is always Hotel Welcome, where each of the 17 rooms has an international theme like Silk Road or Egypt, and the gregarious owner, Michael, couldn’t be more friendly.

In places like New York, London, and Paris, locals (I’m guilty, too) feel the need to shout from the rooftops about how great their city is, perhaps to justify sky-high rents and expensive dining. You’ll find a refreshing change of pace in Brussels. They instinctively know they are fortunate enough to live the “good life” daily in a city that feels more like an inviting village than an anonymous urban expanse. Everything is close by and not too congested, rents are decent compared to other capitals, and there’s a decidedly peaceful vibe that works its way into your stride.

The only complaints I heard from locals revolved around traffic and lack of parking — and that, in my estimate, is about as good as you can get.

Finding the Beat of Brussels Annie Fitzsimmons , Art Nouveau , Aux Vieux Saint Martin , beer , Belgian Comic Strip Center , belgium , brussels , Brussels Greeters , chocolate , Claire Fontaine , Dansaert , frites , Galeries Royales St Hubert , Grand Place , Grand Sablon , Hotel Welcome , La Taverne du Passage , LOLA , Magritte Museum , Parking Garage #58 , Rene Magritte , Restaurant JB , Royal Museums of Fine Arts , Saint Catherine , The Dominican , Urban Insider , waffles

Asian-Inspired Chocolate in Brussels

23 Mar

Chocolatiers at work at Laurent Gerbaud in Brussels (Photograph by Annie Fitzsimmons)

When we travel, we can become someone else, and in Brussels, I fancied myself a chocolate designer. I’d open a small corner shop just off the Grand Place, where it’s less chaotic and I could create beautiful pieces of art that also happen to be delicious. It would be more of a chocolate salon, a place where marble counters and elaborate displays showcase impossible-to-resist treats.

Of course, I have zero talent in chocolate design, but daydreaming about my boutique comes easily in Brussels, where there are more than 500 chocolatiers — the equivalent of about one for every 2,000 people.

And the Belgians actually eat the stuff, at one of the highest rates in the world for pounds consumed each year. When flying home, visitors can stock up (or replenish what they already devoured), as the city’s airport sells more chocolate than any other in the world.

A look inside the Neuhaus Chocolate shop in Brussels (Photograph by Marianne Janssens, Flickr)

A look inside the Neuhaus Chocolate shop in Brussels (Photograph by Marianne Janssens, Flickr)

While doing some proper background research on the Brussels chocolate scene, I found myself drawn to the houses of Marcolini, Galler, and Neuhaus. Wittamer, owned and operated by the same family since 1910, has a rich history in the Grand Sablon and a cheery second-floor cafe — the perfect place to duck in from the cold.

But I discovered very different flavors at Laurent Gerbaud, who owns a a sleek shop away from the tourist’s epicenter of chocolate, the Grand Sablon. There is no marble or gilded anything here; it’s more like a Zen chocolate zone with a coffee counter. And there’s a reason for that: Gerbaud has been making a name for himself by creating confections inspired by extended stays in Asia for more than three years now. (Just look at his signature — the Chinese symbol for chocolate, embossed with “LG,” his initials.)

At his shop, you’ll discover chocolate-coated fruit and truffles with flavors like Japanese citrus, black pepper, sweet chili, and ginger, alongside more traditional squares festooned with pecans and dried cranberries.

I found myself completely satisfied with a bite or two of Gerbaud’s chocolate, when three packs of peanut M&Ms can somehow feel inadequate. “My tastes really changed thanks to China, as there were no sugar or sweets then,” says Gerbaud, who is preparing for a month of chocolate-related travel in London and Asia. “Back in Belgium, there was too much fat, sugar, and alcohol.”

Stripes of candied orange peel are coated in dark chocolate at Laurent Gerbaud. (Photograph courtesy Laurent Gerbaud)

Stripes of candied orange peel are coated in dark chocolate at Laurent Gerbaud. (Photograph courtesy Laurent Gerbaud)

While the health benefits of chocolate can be overdramatized, you won’t find any added sugar, butter, or alcohol in Gerbaud’s creations. He explains that with a 75 percent cacao bar, you already have 25 percent sugar, which is plenty. “Fifteen years ago, you could only find 55 percent cacao, and now tastes have shifted to darker blends,” he says.

Selecting just the right cocoa beans for aroma and taste is crucial to the process, something Gerbaud likens to selecting the right grapes for wine. His exclusive dark chocolate is made from beans from Madagascar and Ecuador and produced in Italy.

Gerbaud has to laugh at chocolatiers who present new collections of chocolate each season as though they’re fashion designers, believing instead that fantastic new products take time and inspiration. When I ask him how he decides on new flavors, he says: “I always think, do I want a second one or not? I work on product, not the next or new thing that the press wants. I do only what I like.”

You won’t find in Gerbaud’s shop is flowers mixed with chocolate (he says “lavender and rose are too much like toilet water”), but you will always find milk chocolate with pistachio (“the symbol of addiction”).

The best selection to take home with you? A small mixed bag of treats called “A little bit of everything.” But savor it slowly, or you may be the one frantically buying up chocolate before your flight home.

Asian-Inspired Chocolate in Brussels Annie Fitzsimmons , belgium , brussels , chocolate , chocolatier , Galler , House of Wittamer , Laurent Gerbaud , Marcolini , Neuhaus , Urban Insider , Wittamer

The Radar: Travel Lately

13 Mar

Big Bend National Park in southwestern Texas. (Photograph by Melanie Huff, My Shot)

The Radar – the best of the travel blogosphere – is a regular feature on Intelligent Travel every Wednesday.

Here’s this week’s:

  • National Geographic’s Digital Nomad, Andrew Evans, is busy exploring his home state of Texas — a journey that includes a stop at Big Bend National Park in the Chihuahuan Desert. @WheresAndrew
  • London is a beloved travel hotspot for a reason: because of all it has to offer. It’s romantic, historic, cosmopolitan, fashion-forward, and — wait for it — kid friendly! @TheVacationGals
  • Landloper Matt Long shares a surprising, thoughtful list of 20 things he thinks every smart traveler should know – including knowing three good jokes and how to swim. @LandLopers 
  • Are you a chocoholic? Learn more about the fascinating history of chocolate – from its earliest roots in Mexico to its present-day status as a worldwide cultural obsession. @1step2theleft
  • Can volunteering abroad change your life? It did for this blogger, who “never thought [she] could live without the comforts of home” until she helped build a dam in rural Thailand. @BootsnAll

The Radar: Travel Lately Big Bend National Park , Boots n’ All , chocolate , Digital Nomad , Evans , Landlopers , London , Matt Long , ngtradar , Texas , The Radar , The Vacation Gals , Travel Lately , volunteering , Wild About Travel

Reader Recs: World’s Best Chocolatiers

6 Mar

A few of the boutique sweets on offer at Moonstruck in Portland, Oregon. (Photograph courtesy Moonstruck Chocolate)

The best thing about the digital age is dialogue. We’re not here to tell you what we think you need to know; we’re here to start a conversation — to ask you for your input, to learn from your experiences and expertise, and to share that local insight with the world.

Some of the best conversations spring up around controversial topics — and a recent post about the world’s best chocolatiers has provided a jumping-off point for just that.

Without further ado, here are some of the best chocolate producers the world over from our Intelligent Travel readers:

Wong in Hong Kong says: “[Brussels-based chocolatier] Pierre Marcolini should be on the list and not Godiva!” George Ammerlaan in the Netherlands agrees: “In Belgium, Godiva is seen as just one of many good chocolatiers. The really good ones include masters like Pierre Marcolini and the House of Wittamer.” Luc in Minneapolis recommends Leonidas, “a very well-known Belgian confectioner,” and Callebaut (a Belgian giant that merged with Cacao Barry to form Barry-Callebaut), which he says makes “excellent dipping chocolate.”

A 10-pack of Brooklyn-based Mast Brothers chocolate bars. (Photograph courtesy Mast Brothers Chocolate)

A 10-pack of Brooklyn-based Mast Brothers chocolate bars. (Photograph courtesy Mast Brothers Chocolate)

Bertil in Paris writes: “As America is certainly the most innovative country right now in the chocolate world, there is also much to say about world class chocolate makers like Amano [in Orem, Utah], Askinosie [in Springfield, Missouri], [San Francisco-based] DandelionMast Brothers [in Brooklyn, New York], Patric [in Columbia, Missouri], [Denver, Colorado-based] RitualRogue [in Three Rivers, Massachusetts], and many others that are showing a new way about craft and quality.”

Pat from Vancouver, Canada says: “Thomas Haas…has brought his chocolates from Germany to New York to Vancouver – to die for!” The Baldwin family in Brantford, Ontario recommends another Canadian chocolatier to go gaga over: Rogers’ Chocolates in Victoria, B.C. “You are able to see the offerings [on their website],” they wrote, “but be warned: cover your keyboard to protect it from drool.“

Kiwi Teresa recommends Makana Chocolates in KeriKeri, New Zealand. “Having tasted many fine chocolates from northern Europe, I’d say they were right up there,” she says. While we’re on the topic of New Zealand, several readers touted the chocolate cred of Patagonia Chocolate in Queenstown.

Mary Lojek recommends checking out Concertos in Chocolate in Boulder, Colorado and Christophe in Charleston, South Carolina. “I love these small passionate chocolate makers,” she said.

Delectable goodies on display at one of Paul A. Young's retail stores. (Photograph courtesy Paul A. Young)

Delectable goodies on display at one of Paul A. Young’s retail stores. (Photograph courtesy Paul A. Young)

Roxanne Browning, a chocolate sommelier in New York who says she knows “a bit about the leaders” writes: “You forgot the most recognized chocolatier by most in the chocolate business, Paul A. Young” in London.

John Richardson suggests the Original Hawaiian Chocolate Company, “one of the only chocolate companies to grow, harvest, process, and produce their own chocolate.”

Keith in San Diego, California writes: “The best chocolate that I‘ve tried is from Bissinger’s in St. Louis [Missouri]. They started in the 1600s in France and Mr. Bissinger came to the U.S. in 1845.” Speaking of Missouri, three readers put Christopher Elbow Artisanal Chocolates in Kansas City at the top of their lists. According to one of them, Daryl Roberts, they also “make the best ice cream in the world.”

Miguel recommends Chocolates El Rey, a Venezuelan chocolate brand made from Venezuelan cocoa (“Yes, I’m Venezuelan,” he joked by way of revealing the potential for bias.), citing their San Joaquin Private Reserve as a good place to start (you can order online). While elsewhere in the Central American world, IXCACAO (formerly Cyrila Chocolates) invited readers to come to Belize to experience 100% Maya chocolate.

Two readers — Dave and JoAnne — are stuck on Moonstruck Chocolate in Portland, Oregon. Portland’s sister city in the Pacific Northwest, Seattle, received rave reviews as well. Sharon Eskridge in Rancho Mirage, California asks: “How could you miss Fran’s Chocolates in Seattle? She has an exceptional product and produces the best dark chocolate I have ever tasted.“

Carmen Farré Fiol from Cerdanyola del Vallès recommends “a small shop in Barcelona” called Farga.

Judy, who describes herself as “a military person who has had the good fortune to try chocolates around the world,” writes: “Until you have tried Zoe’s Chocolates, you are truly missing out.” She reports that while she buys hers at their shop in Frederick, Maryland, they accept orders online. “Try their pinot noir and apple pie chocolates — two of my favorites,” she said.

A box of chocolate, Sarris style. (Photograph courtesy Sarris Candies)

A box of chocolate, Sarris style. (Photograph courtesy Sarris Candies)

“Simply incredible.” That’s how one reader in Canada described Debauve et Gallais in Paris. “They may also be the oldest continuously operating chocolatier having been established in 1800.”

Kathleen in California says that when visiting San Francisco, “it won’t be a great loss to skip Ghirardelli, though the waterfront tour and sundaes are fun with kids.” Instead, she says, “try See’s and Guittard chocolates.” A reader named Leslie recommends TCHO, Dandelion Chocolate, and Recchiuti Confections in The City By the Bay. “All three are bean to bar,” she said. “Simply fabulous.”

Chris in Washington, D.C. writes: “Bernachon in Lyon, France should be on this list. A small bean-to-bar producer, family-owned for generations and very traditional, with an elegant and hospitable retail store and cafe. Impeccably smooth texture, glossy sheen, and crisp break, with fresh flavors that really pop from top-quality ingredients throughout.” New Yorker Mark Zaleski’s vote goes to Chocolatier Joël Durand, which, he reports, has a “small shop in in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence but now ships.”

Ahmet Aydogan in San Francisco writes: “Missing from the list are international award-winners such as Amedei [in Tuscany, Italy] and [French chocolatier] Michel Cluizel.”

Lin says that after traveling the world, her No. 1 choice for chocolate is Lauensteiner Confiserie in Ludwigsstadt, Germany. “I can not travel to Germany and not come home with 10 boxes for family and friends,” she said. ”And going to the factory and staying at the nearby castle make the perfect trip.” Lin also reports that the chocolate is sold in the Munich airport, so do as she does and “stock up when changing planes.”

Pennsylvania might be synonymous with Hershey when it comes to chocolate, but there are plenty of other gems in the state. Patricia Kita suggests Sarris Candies in Pennsylvania’s capital city, Harrisburg, while another reader recommends Éclat Chocolate, just outside Philadelphia in West Chester. Melissa, a resident of another Philly suburb, encouraged readers to come to her hometown of Lititz to try some Wilbur Buds: “They are so much better than Hershey’s Kisses.”

Reader Recs: World’s Best Chocolatiers Amano , Amedei , Askinosie , Bernachon , Bissinger’s , Callebaut , chocolate , Chocolates El Rey , chocolatier , Christophe Chocolate , Christopher Elbow , Concertos in Chocolate , Dandelion Chocolate , Debauve et Gallais , Eclat Chocolate , Farga , Fran’s Chocolates , Guittard , House of Wittamer , IXCACAO , Joel Durand , Lauensteiner Confiserie , Leonidas , Makana Chocolates , Mast Brotehrs , Michel Cluizel , Moonstruck Chocolate , Original Hawaiian Chocolate Company , Patagonia Chocolate , Patric Chocolate , Paul A. Young , Pierre Marcolini , Recchiuti Confections , Ritual Chocolate , Rogers’ Chocolates , Rogue chocolate , Sarris , See’s , TCHO , Thomas Haas , Wilbur Buds , Zoe’s Chocolates