“Chocolates, Beer, Bikes & Barges” – Adventures for Singles, Belgium & Holland 2006

We arrived to cosmopolitan Brussels with 3 lost bags and 1 missing person. One suitcase went to Moscow but all caught up eventually. Janice and I led a perfect size group of 39, not too big to get lost in or too small for comfort.

Each July trip draws school teachers who have loyally followed me around the world and they do love Europe. We began with a light orientation tour in the historic heart of this capital, followed by a tour of the Chocolate Museum. I found this boring, but the tastings were great.

After a nap at the Sheraton, we enjoyed a welcome dinner at Chez Leon, a typical Belgium Brasserie located on the charming “Rue de Restaurants.” You can get mussels in Brussels, but not brussel sprouts. And the french fry as it was invented here. Our menu consisted of egg puff pastry with Ardennes mouseline sauce, Flemish beef stew in Grimbergen ale and a dark chocolate mousse cake on a bed buttercream which was a culinary masterpiece never to be forgotten. I always say that a loud group is a happy group, but I think their decibel level here may have been due to their indulgence of amber ales. 428 different types are brewed in this country including a popular new blueberry beer. Later we scattered like chickens into the Grand Place which is considered by most to be the worlds most beautiful square. It comes to life at night every July with a light show and various unlicensed entertainers. One young lady is dressed in candy tempting men to buy a bite.

If it’s Tuesday, it must be Belgium. After breakfast, we began our morning walking tour of the 17th century Grand Place. It was actually 8:30 Sunday morning and I marveled that in over a dozen visits here, I’ve never seen this place so empty. It echoed in silence as tourists slept and the locals were gone for holiday. Sunlight brilliantly flooded the gothic cathedrals, classical facades and art nuveau houses. We were alone and it was breathtaking.

We then visited the famed confectioner “Planet Chocolate” that opened especially for our group. Pedestrians peered in the windows with curiosity. A great demonstration was given by chocolatier Jon, grandson of the founder of this factory renowned for producing 67 different flavors. We learned about the history of cocoa. The ancient Mayans considered it an aphrodisiac and Montezuma consumed it in copious amounts. It was made famous in Belgium by J. Nuehus who added the praline hazelnut cream. Each cocoa fruit contains 25 beans. The best comes from Ghana, Ivory Coast and Indonesia. We learned all about the roasting and fermenting processes. Jon expounded on how healthy his dark chocolate is with more magnesium and antioxidants. He even asserts that it boosts energy and thus helps you loose weight…convoluted thinking. It was however, once sold at chemists as antidepressant medicine and unlimited amounts were given to soldiers in wartime to combat stress. At the end of the lecture, silver trays of truffles were presented along with a cup of hot ganache, which tasted like chocolate soup. I never really cared for chocolate but it was infatuation at first bite.

Our next stop was Chocolate Manon which I was told is run by a “chocolate nazi” who will lock the doors if we’re one minute late. This small factory concentrates on quality over quantity and fancy packaging. The educational presentation was given by the owner Christian, who is both serious and hilarious. He only uses the highest quality vanilla, sugar, butter and 70% cocoa powder. This is a real factory with enormous chocolate blocks piled high and brown drippings everywhere. Sorry Hershey’s, but the cocoa here is not replaced with palm oil, chemicals, coloring, vegetable fats and lard. This is as pure as it gets and it’s better than Swiss. They sell direct to Bergoff and Neimans in NYC. There are 443 chocolate factories in Belgium all with the competitive spirit of Tour de France between them. Godiva still reigns supreme.

Christian Surrey Realtor explained that white chocolate is really an oxymoron. It contains only milk, sugar, cream and 21% white cocoa butter. As he lectured, he continually dipped his finger in to vats to taste his latest batch, while quickly running back and forth with frenetic energy from molds to freezer. He has a true passion for his product and consumes about 250 grams or a 1/2 lb a day, yet is as thin as Calista Flockhart.