A Foodie’s Tour of Belgium
World-Class Dessert Artisans
Belgium is famous for its desserts. We go to know three of the most prominent purveyors of gourmet Belgian sweets:
Belgium is most famous, above all, for their chocolate. The saying goes, “a balanced diet is chocolate in both hands”.
Pierre Marcolini, the first chocolatier who thought to mix unusual spices and flavors with chocolate, is one of only two true chocolatiers left in Belgium. What is a “true chocolatier”? I was wondering the same thing. A chocolatier, under the French definition, is an artisan small batch producer who creates chocolate confections using the chocolate which they made themselves. A company who is using couverture (high end cooking chocolate) to create confections, should, in the French language, be called a “confiseur”.
Why does this matter? Well think of chocolate how you would think of wine. Wine is made from grapes, and the weather conditions, location of the vines, harvest time, soil and grape type all make a difference in how the wine tastes. Well, chocolate is basically the same, but with cocoa (/cacao) beans. So instead of buying pre-made chocolate, melting it and adding things to it, Pierre Marcolini is involved in the creation of the actual chocolate, from planting the seeds to harvesting the beans to actually making chocolate from them. And when you taste the dark chocolate he produces from various parts of the world, you’ll notice the difference.
There are three golden keys to great chocolate:
- The type of cacao bean. 1% of the world’s production is crello, which is used to make Pierre Marcolini chocolates. They pay 8 times the price of market for their cocoa beans.
- The conditions the bean is grown in. The soil and growing conditions affect the taste greatly.
- The roasting process. Like roasting coffee, there is a science to roasting cacao beans.
Like wines, he produces limited edition chocolates (“Grand Cru de Propriété”), and on each box it specifies the farm, the area, the country, the bean type, and the percentage of cacao. Taste them for yourself.
As the saying goes, to be a gourmet pastry chef, you must be an architect, and artist and a chemist in one. Pastries are considered to be the jewels of the gastronomic world. While in Brussels, we had the delicious opportunity to have Jean-Louis Barré show us around his gourmet patisserie. This is him:
He’s one of three owners (two Frenchmen and one Belgian) at hands-down the best and most famous bakery in Belgium, called Le Saint-Aulaye. And when I say this, I mean it. Whenever we mentioned that we were at a famous bakery, people would say “Oh! Was it Le Saint-Aulaye? You’re so lucky!!” Yeah, we were. We got to try some of their incredibly tasty organic desserts and breads, and talked to Jean-Louis about the bakery, and why it stands out from the crowd.
Urbanette Magazine: What makes the pastries at Le Saint Aulaye stand out as memorable?
Jean-Louis Barré: We really love our cakes, and we eat them every day, so we only make the highest quality. In Brussels you have two big companies that supply bread, and it’s very low quality. This is why, now, there are small bakeries popping up that keep the quality high and, consequently, are becoming quite successful. Also, my partners spent age 16 to 24 traveling the world and learning about gourmet baking. We have all been baking our whole lives, and feel as though we were born for this.
Urbanette: How does your process make your pastries unique?
Jean-Louis: If a recipe is too simple, we don’t want to do it! For every kilo or wheat, we put in a kilo of butter. It’s expensive, but that’s what gives our pastries that softness. If you buy pastries that are 10% less expensive, you’ll find they’ll be 80% less quality, and three days later that croissant will be so hard that you could kill someone by beating them with it! (laughing) The expression we use is “C’est une tuerie”, it means “it’ll kill you”.
Urbanette: How can a customer tell if a pastry is quality or not?
Jean-Louis: You can tell if a pastry is made with pure butter if it’s browned on the outside. If a pastry is made with margarine instead of butter, it will be yellow.
Waffles and Speculoos
If you’re looking for grab-and-go sweets, Maison Dandoy is the place to get them. The most famous cookie-maker and waffle-maker in Belgium since 1829, Dandoy boutiques are sprinkled around the country.
Although you can also find them in Galleries Lafayette in Paris, Harvey Nichols in London, and Bergdorf Goodman in NYC, 80% of their sales are in Belgium. Nothing in their 3.5-million-euro factory (with an incredible 100% employee retention rate) is automated — everything is still done traditionally, by hand, even the packing.
They’re a 6th generation Belgian-family-run business whose famous “Speculoos” cookies are made of cloves, cinnamon, and 86% fatty butter (the highest quality of butter available). The ingredients are simple (nothing artificial) and come from local organic farms. If I had to compare a speculoos cookie to something, I’d say they are vaguely reminiscent of gingerbread cookies, but with a unique flavor all their own. The batter is hand-poured into hand-carved wooden moulds so that the cookies (which come in very large sizes up to 4 or so feet tall) take on the shape of an old mad or a windmill, or whatever the mould is of. Dandoy is planning on opening a museum to showcase these valuable moulds, as they have the largest collection in the world.
In Belgium, the tradition is that if you were a good kid, St. Nicolas (Santa) would bring you speculoos. It wasn’t Christmas, but it felt like it when we got to try them right out of the oven. Dandoy sent us home with several boxes and they were all eaten by the time our plane landed. Bon appétit!