Revenge is sweet: How Belgian truffle brands are
fighting off the artisan upstarts

Charlotte McDonald-Gibson investigates how the big traditional European chocolatiers are coping in a world where geographical markers like "Belgian" or "Swiss" are being replaced by "artisan" and "organic" as the stamps of quality on chocolate boxes.

When spending the day at a Belgian chocolate factory, some facts are best kept to yourself. Having Swiss heritage is one of them, especially when the head chef is using words like "predictable", "monotone" and "unsurprising" to describe his rivals in the luxury-chocolate business. Unable to contain my national pride, I blurt out that I am actually related to this race of boring chocolate-makers. There is a brief stunned silence, then laughter as chef Thierry Muret insists there was "nothing wrong with being predictable" in the world of elite confectionery.

I am at the Godiva HQ in Brussels, to learn how they craft truffles – and find out how the big traditional European chocolatiers are coping in a world where geographical markers like "Belgian" or "Swiss" are being replaced by "artisan" and "organic" as the stamps of quality consumers look for on their chocolate boxes.

"People are much more educated," says Catherine Willemart, Godiva's marketing manager. It was only a few years ago that customers were asking what the difference was between white and dark chocolate, she tells me. Nowadays, chocolate lovers happily debate the merits of Venezuelan over Congolese beans and try to outdo each other on how high they can handle their cocoa percentages. And consumers are no longer confined to coffee and orange flavouring their bars: chilli, green tea, bergamot and even bacon are all ingredients we've been happy to try out.

This boom in artisan makers experimenting with daring flavour combinations has proved both an inspiration and a challenge to the centuries-old Belgian chocolate industry. Godiva's first attempts to innovate came in 2003 when ingredients including dill, curry and popping candy found their way into the 87-year-old firm's chocolates. "Some customers loved it, but some were like 'What are you doing?'" says Catherine.

Thierry, who is Godiva's top chocolatier, finds the up-and-coming artisan producers inspirational, but is exasperated by the fad for ever higher cocoa percentages. He feels chocolate should be an indulgent treat rather than an endurance test: "It's not medicine, it's food, it needs to be enjoyable."

That sense of pleasure and fun permeates the Godiva factory, which Thierry describes as "a chef's playground". Even the sterile corridors carry the scent of molten chocolate, while trays lining the factory aisles are packed with intriguing experiments in shape and form. On the day I visit there are rows of delicate, white-chocolate pumpkin-shaped casings, painted orange and ready to be filled with a spicy centre in preparation for Halloween.

But my challenge is to create the more classic truffle, a staple of luxury chocolate houses around the world, and first I need to know what exactly constitutes a truffle, as it varies from country to country. For the French, where the truffle originates, it is a chocolate and cream mix known as ganache encased in hard chocolate. In Switzerland, more milk is used in the filling, while the centre of the Belgian truffle is traditionally a chocolate and butter mix.

The truffle is not to be confused with the Belgian praline, a catch-all term here for any hard casing with a soft centre. That in turn should not be mixed up with praliné, the tasty mix of nuts and chocolate. The truffle, meanwhile, is easy to identify because of its rough round form, which evolved as a tribute to its similarly shaped fungal namesake.

First comes a basic lesson in chocolate, with Thierry presenting aluminium bowls filled with the unappetising-looking powders and oils that will eventually become something delicious. Cocoa beans from Africa and South America arrive at the factory fermented and dried. They are then ground down to a chocolate liquor, a dark liquid that looks utterly delicious. Despite warnings from Thierry that it tastes "like 10 espressos in one cup" I dive in with a spoon. He's right: with no sugar or dairy added, the astringent bitterness is eye-watering.

Some of this chocolate liquor is reserved, while the rest is pressed and separated into cocoa powder and cocoa butter. The various combinations of these ingredients – powder, butter, and liquor – determine what kind of chocolate you end up with. Milk chocolate uses all three with milk powder and sugar added. Dark chocolate has no milk powder. In white chocolate, only the cocoa butter is used.

It is milk chocolate I am using to coat my truffles and, enacting a moment every schoolchild dreams of, Thierry hoists aloft a container of the molten chocolate and pours in on to the marble counter, forming a huge chocolate puddle so glossy you can almost see your reflection.

It is now ready for tempering, whereby the melted chocolate is moved around using spatulas until it reaches the ideal temperature – around 31C. If a little chocolate left on a spoon sets in around three to five minutes, you've got a good temperature, he says.

Next up is the ganache filling: Thierry recommends a 70 per cent chocolate, 30 per cent butter mix, and uses a blender to create the perfect consistency. Other recipes use a combination of cream, butter, chocolate and extra sugar. The more adventurous can add their chilli, booze, or popping candy at this point.

A piping bag is then loaded with the ganache, and I'm let loose to try to create the perfect truffle shape. The first few attempts bear a worrying resemblance to animal droppings, but I finally create a few which could possibly pass for a sphere and they are popped in the fridge.

When they have set, the melted chocolate returns and the fun begins. Each truffle filling is dunked into the bowl so it coats all the way round. It is then plucked out with a small fondue fork, gently shaken to remove dripping chocolate, then rolled in cocoa powder, chocolate flakes, or ground nuts.

My finished products bear a passing resemblance to the chocolates that end up nestled in luxury packaging on sale everywhere from Brussels to Beijing. Sticking to the classic recipe was a shrewd move, says Catherine. "If you go too wild, you lose customers. We want to push them – but not too much."

So there are a few subtle changes to recipes and marketing patter to chime with the foodie buzz words. In a new range launching in September, one can find artisan salt, wild-flower honey, Tahitian vanilla and of course, 80 per cent Ugandan cocoa.

As well as increasingly sophisticated tastes in Europe, another factor is the growing market for chocolates in the Middle East and Asia, where there is a preference for darker varieties and some flavours more familiar to local palates. Sales of Belgian chocolate products in Asia have doubled in three years and continue to rise, while they are stagnant in Belgium.

The culinary exchange works both ways. Artisan Belgian chocolatier Laurent Gerbaud, found inspiration on a trip to China. "I lost the taste for sugar and sweet," he says, "but when I came back to Belgium they found (my chocolates) very strange and there was not enough sugar for them."

He thinks Belgium's chocolate firms lag behind the innovative small makers in France, and traditional chocolate producers are also facing competition from once unlikely countries such as the US, Spain and Britain. Indeed, while on a trip to visit relatives near Zurich, my mother took out a bag of artisan British-made chocolate buttons: my Swiss grandmother declared them some of the best she had ever tasted.

WHERE TO BUY BELGIAN

Maya

Belgian chocolatier Fabienne de Mulder creates Strawberry-black pepper and passion fruit delights at her shop in Inverness. £17.30 for a box of 20; mayachocolates.co.uk

Leonidas

At locations across London and available online, Leonidas is known for its signature hazelnut and almond praline. £42 per kg; leonidasbelgianchocolates.co.uk

Sandrine

This shop in East Sheen is supplied by a family firm in Belgium, with violet creams and chocolate-covered stem ginger among visitors' favourites. £24.50 for 20 truffles; sandrine.co.uk

Neuhaus

Jean Neuhaus invented the praline in 1912, and the firm he built is now an international leader in luxury chocolate. £13 for 22-piece assortment. Neuhauschocolates.com

Godiva

Best-known for its gold ballotin (or simply 'box of chocolates'), Godiva sells everything from luxury hampers to chocolate spread. £35 for 350g ballotin; godiva.com

By Liam O'Brien

News
The current recommendation from Britain's Chief Medical Officer, is that people refrain from drinking on at least two days a week
food + drinkTheory is that hangovers are caused by methanol poisoning
Life and Style
techConcept would see planes coated in layer of micro-sensors and able to sense wear and tear
News
scienceExcitement from alien hunters at 'evidence' of extraterrestrial life
Life and Style
Customers can get their caffeine fix on the move
food + drink
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
News
newsRyan Crighton goes in search of the capo dei capi
Extras
indybest

Arts and Entertainment
Actors front row from left, Jared Leto, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Ellen DeGeneres, Bradley Cooper, Peter Nyongío Jr., and, second row, from left, Channing Tatum, Julia Roberts, Kevin Spacey, Brad Pitt, Lupita Nyongío and Angelina Jolie as they pose for a
film
Sport
sport
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Voices
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
Life and Style
Horst P Horst mid-fashion shoot in New York, 1949
fashionFar-reaching retrospective to celebrate Horst P Horst's six decades of creativity
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
i100
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Life and Style
news

As Voltaire once said, “Ice cream is exquisite. What a pity it isn’t illegal”

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Recruitment Consultant (Graduate Trainee), Finchley Central

    £17K OTE £30K: Charter Selection: Highly successful and innovative specialist...

    SQL DBA/ C# Developer - T-SQL, C#.Net

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    Day In a Page

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition