Belgium's love affair with chocolate dates from 1857 when Jean Neuhaus left his native Switzerland to set up shop in Brussels. His grandson, also known as Jean Neuhaus, created the first filled chocolate, which he named 'praline', and his wife invented the type of box, or ballotin, in which Belgian chocolate is still sold. Chocolate-making really took off in the late nineteenth century, aided by Belgium's acquisition of the Congo which gave easy access to African cocoa fields. Now, under Belgium chocolates there are many Internationally-known brands which include Neuhaus and Godiva at the luxury end and Leonidas and Guylian in the cheaper price bracket.
Consequently, Belgium's chocolate industry is as varied as it is big. With a population of around 10million, Belgium produces 172,000 tons of chocolate a year and has more than 2,000 shops. Moreover it supports 290 chocolate-makers, 140 of which have fewer than five employees and seem to customers more like somebody's quaint front room than world-renowned businesses. Passion Chocolate is the prime example of such small-scale operations. "Most of the exports are going to the US and the most spectacular growth is in the internet sales," Mary's owner, Michel Boey, says. "We began selling via the internet in 2001 and, from zero; exports are now about 15 per cent of our sales." For big factory producers like Guylian, the figures are even higher.
"Chocolate is a little bit of magic for the Belgian."
Over a thousand years ago...