BRUSSELS, Belgium — In a shop just a few steps from this city's famed Grand Place, there's barely time to breathe as Svenja Schmitz serves a steady stream of customers.
They're mostly locals with whom Schmitz converses in French or Flemish. But she easily switches to other languages, including English and German, as tourists stop by for a taste of history.
It was in this very shop that Jean Neuhaus Jr. created the first filled chocolates. In Europe, they're commonly called pralines. In America, they're sometimes known as bonbons.
Neuhaus' father had opened the business as a pharmacy in 1857. His namesake son stumbled across the idea for pralines while still filling prescriptions.
"The idea was to give a better taste to the pills, so he put a layer of chocolate on it," explained Caroline Vindevogel, a company spokeswoman.
Neuhaus (Galerie de la Reine 25 and other locations, neuhaus.be/en/home.aspx) continues to make its chocolates by hand but in the suburbs instead of at the original shop. The century-old craft is now emulated by about 800 chocolate-makers in Belgium. An estimated 500 of them are in Brussels, where, in addition to gorging on samples at the scores of shops, visitors can take educational tours and even try their hand at making luxurious candies.
One of the most intimate and informative experiences takes place at Chocolats Gerbaud (Rue Ravenstein 2D, chocolatsgerbaud.be), where the owner, Laurent Gerbaud, personally leads tastings of his various creations before taking guests into the small workshop to invent their own masterpieces.
Visitors to his shop near the city center grasp Gerbaud's philosophy as they read a prominently placed sign in French and English.
"Our chocolates contain no added sugar, no butter, no alcohol, no preservatives, no artificial flavors, no additives but plenty of love," it states.
Gerbaud is proud to use some of the world's rarest cacao beans, grown in Ecuador and Madagascar.
"What I do is very different from the other chocolatiers," he noted with pride, adding that many of his ingredients are inspired by what he experienced while living in China. His fillings feature an unusual array of fruits, such as apricots, figs and pears, plus a variety of nuts.
"Relax your shoulder. Add a bit more chocolate. Voila!" he said while guiding a visitor through the process of making chocolates by hand. Participants in his classes wear large, white aprons to protect their clothes from the rich, liquid chocolate that inevitably splatters as it is poured into molds. The fingers holding the forms are quickly coated with the gooey excess.
"It's a good idea to lick them afterward," Gerbaud encouraged.
In another part of the city, chocolatier Francois-Jean Decarpentrie also offers classes and tours at Zaabar (Chaussee de Charleroi 125, zaabar.com).
The name's an anagram for bazaar.
"The idea and name of Zaabar came from my regular travels to Istanbul, where you have the biggest spice market in the world," he explained.
Indeed, spices are core ingredients in Decarpentrie's line of chocolates, which some might consider bizarre. He uses 25 spices, including chili, cinnamon and coriander.
"Less traditional is our basic identity," he pointed out as students watched an employee blend the unique ingredients on a large marble slab just inside the front door. It's a scene visible to people on the street through the floor-to-ceiling glass walls.
To chocolate devotees such as Gerbaud and Decarpentrie, fine chocolate is similar to fine wine. Each product has its own unique flavors, based in great part on the quality of the cacao beans (for chocolate) or the grapes (for wine). Winemakers and chocolatiers even use the same terminology for various flavors.
A good praline should remain on the palate long after it's swallowed.
"The best way to eat chocolate is to suck it like a bonbon and to let it melt slowly on the tongue, because then you will have all the aroma," noted Olivier Borgerhoff, owner of Mary, the country's largest artisanal chocolate-maker.
Mary (Galerie de la Reine 36 and other locations, marychoc.com), which opened in 1919, is the exclusive supplier of chocolate to Belgium's royal family. King Albert II gets weekly deliveries from Mary; royals are regulars at the company's shop kitty-corner from Neuhaus in Galerie de la Reine, an upscale, covered mall featuring several high-end chocolatiers.
Prices for pralines range from about $30 a pound at Neuhaus to about $37.50 across the way at Mary. That said, Olivier Borgerhoff cautioned against equating price with quality.
"Do not fall into snobbish tasting," he warned. "Always judge it as good or not good. Don't look at the price. It's not relevant, because it's not the price that makes it good. You sometimes have a very cheap product that's fantastic."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun