Click on the title of this post and you will see the website of a 100 year old Belgian chocolate maker named G. Bastin, which is a few blocks from the University of Antwerp neighborhood where we live.
On Tuesday morning, our family accompanied a group of 15 JMU students as we toured their factory, and it was a delicious morning! We went through the showroom to a back room where we watched a preliminary video about the cocoa bean growers in Ghana whose beans are processed and shipped all over the world. Our tour guide, Raymond, told us that different companies' chocolates have a distinctive taste because they select from over 1200 possible varieties, depending on type of bean, how it's roasted and processed, and combinations of beans that give a unique flavor. They have been using the same combination of flavors in their chocolate for fifty years, and don't plan to change. They feel that their market chooses them, and they want to remain faithful to the niche they've created.
Next, we got into an elevator that smelled strongly of chocolate. We went down to the chocolate dungeon, ha ha ha, and got a two-hour demonstration of chocolate making. There was a vat of melted chocolate being constantly stirred, there was a conveyor belt that could carry fillings under a chocolate spout to be covered in delicious dark, milk, or white chocolate. There was a machine that automatically filled shell molds to make the filled chocolates that Belgium is famous for. On racks by the wall were empty chocolate eggs the size of honeydew melons, waiting to be filled and decorated for Easter.
We watched as one of the founder's grandsons made "Antwerp hands" (see references to the Brabo Fountain earlier in the blog) with a filling flavored with a secret recipe liqueur called Elixir d'Anvers (Elixir of Antwerp). We got to try writing with warm dark chocolate, and the college students even helped JieJie and MeiMei try their hand at writing their names in chocolate. JieJie can actually write her name, so when she finished, she got a round of applause that put a twinkle in her eyes.
Then we got a marzipan lesson. We had already been told by the Chateau Blanc chocolate guy that what most Americans think is marzipan is either partly or sometimes entirely coconut, not almonds at all. What we learned at G. Bastin is that there are different grades of marzipan. They use a 50/50 marzipan, meaning half almond paste, half sugar. They said the sugar content can go up to 70% (ew!). I have to admit, the marzipan decorations on our Valentines' Day cake from Goossens were much more flavorful than I was expecting. You really can taste the difference.
After these demonstrations, Raymond stopped talkign chocolate and started talking business (our students are all business majors). He made a crucial point: if you mechanize your business, insist that the machine work with the product, and not vice versa. Apparently, they had ordered some machines custom made some years ago, and the machines didn't make chocolates of the quality the company expected. The machine company suggested a recipe change. The Bastins suggested a machine change, and the new equipment arrived a few months later. 'Nuff said!
After the business lesson, it was time to eat! We got to try the Antwerp hands, the chocolate covered marzipan, and the chocolate writing, which had set by that time. Finally we got to have something to drink--you know how chocolate makes you thirsty--and there was more chocolate to have with the water or milk or orange juice. It was all so good, and we ate so much!
On the way out, we each got a pretty box of 20 or so pralines (the word for Belgian filled chocolates) to take home. We are slowly working our way through our two boxes, savoring every nibble.