The nectar of the Aztecs

The taste of ... Belgium. Choosing chocolate for Easter? Go for the best, writes Nikki Spencer
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The beverage "tchocolath" was discovered centuries ago among the Aztecs by the Spaniard Hernando Cortes, but it did not immediately appeal because of its bitter taste. (Apparently the Spanish did not take kindly to the hot peppers the Aztecs added). The conquistadors learnt, however, to change the spicy drink into a smooth nectar by adding sugar, cinnamon, and honey or vanilla.

Chocolate arrived in Europe in about AD1520 where, after some initial opposition from the church (it was condemned as satanic in 1616), it found favour with the nobility. It was drunk in water-based liquid form for many years until milk and sugar were added in 1847, when the first bars of chocolate were also produced. Pralines, the filled chocolates for which the Belgians are now so famous, came soon afterwards, when the Swiss chocolate- maker Jean Neuhaus arrived in Brussels in 1857.

Visitors to Belgium today can not only tour the largest chocolate factory in the world (Callebaut, in Weize, just outside Brussels); they can also trace the history of chocolate at the Musee du Cacao et du Chocolat (766 Chaussee d'Alsemberg, 1180 Brussels).

The reason the Belgians give for their success in the chocolate world is government legislation. In 1870, Belgium's strict health department defined chocolate as being a blend of cocoa beans and sugar. Only products which respected this particular definition could be sold as chocolate, and severe controls were strictly applied. The chocolate makers were therefore obliged to abandon cheap products and seek success in high quality.

While these rich chocolates have always been popular in Belgium, they only really started to take off in the UK about 15 years ago, when exclusive brands became available in upmarket stores such as Harrods and Selfridges. It's a sign of the popularity of Belgian chocolates that most supermarkets have now produced their own version, though these have been adapted for the British palate.

Chocolate with a difference

l Increasingly, chocolate is not just for puddings. Asparagus with white chocolate sauce, confit of duck with dark chocolate and cherry sauce, and fillet of halibut poached in a white chocolate cream sauce, are on the menu at Belgo's two London restaurants from 8 to 14 April. Two chocolate- filled courses cost pounds 12. If you need pudding after that, three courses cost pounds 15. Belgo Centraal, 50 Earlham Street, London WC2 (0171-813 2233); Belgo Noord, 72 Chalk Farm Road, London NW1 (0171-267 0718)

l Forget hot chocolate; what about something stronger? As well as the usual selection of eggs and cakes (and giant-sized hot cross buns), this Easter Asda has Cain Chocolate Ale, brewed with real chocolate, at pounds 1.49 for 500ml.

l How about basil-flavoured chocolate? The shop that is a temple for chocolate worshippers in London, Rococo, 321 King's Road, London SW3 (0171- 352 5857) is doing a roaring trade in what it calls Artisan Bars - 75g bars of dark chocolate flavoured with chilli peppers, pink peppercorns, Earl Grey tea, etc (pounds 2.50 each).