Ever since I had seen Willy Wonka making magic with cacao beans in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the secret desire to visit a candy factory lay dormant in my heart. The taste of this anticipated tour lingered long in my imagination and for many years I really thought that you could eat all the chocolates you wanted if you were visiting a chocolate factory. But that's another story. This one is about Bruges the chocolate capital of Europe which easily has more chocolate shops per square inch than any other city in the world. It also has a Chocolate Museum, which, needless to add, is a chocolate lover's heaven!
Long before I set out on a tour of this well preserved medieval town, I was eager to taste the delicious offerings of the umpteen chocolatiers that dot Bruges. Even the mere act of walking into one of these shops, with their alluring array of cocoa treats in the window display, was a feast for the senses.
Dark, milk and white, they were all there in different avatars and picking a favourite in a shop was a delightful confusion. From traditional Belgian pralines, classic chocolate bars and Aztec inspired hot chocolate drinks to a wonderful variety of chocolate dipped treats, I wanted to pick them all. This was clearly no time to bother about calorie counts.
Smug in the knowledge that certain bars of dark chocolate have more antioxidants than two glasses of red wine, I ordered a bar of dark chocolate and the first bite of the confection was immensely satisfying.
Touring chocolate town
Well energised by the chocolate, I began my tour of the picturesque town. With its Gothic structures, cobbled narrow streets, horse carriages, ring of canals and lovely parks, Bruges is a veritable fairy land that Willy Wonka would love to set up his chocolate factory in.
As I strolled lazily towards the Market Square, hordes of people rush past me on bicycles a preferred way of getting around town for both locals as well as tourists.
Away from the buzz
Bruges' market is a vibrant place with its coloured flags and many cafes that are always brimming with people. Bells from the nearby Belfry Tower rang clearly but I wasn't looking forward to huffing and puffing my way up its 366 narrow steps to reach the top. I headed to the beautiful Minnewater or the Lake of Making chocolate at a chocolaterie in Bruges Love instead. But you can't keep your mind off chocolate for too long in Bruges. And very soon, the swans paddling languidly in the lake's clear blue waters reminded me of Brugsch Swaentje (The Bruges Swan), the official city chocolate of Bruges and I quickly made my way back to the Square to haunt the chocolate shops once again. It is said that the exact recipe for this chocolate remains a secret, but some of the ingredients are almond paste, `gruut' (a local type of spiced flour) and `kletskoppen' (a local Bruges biscuit). Ever since the chocolate was created in January 2006, the Brugsch Swaentje has found a proud place in the city's confectionery shops.
Belgium's chocolate origins
The roots of Belgian chocolate lie in the rain forests of South America where the cacao tree was first found to be flourishing and the credit of discovering the delicious flavour and taste of the cacao tree pods goes to the ancient Mayan and Aztec cultures of South America.
You can see Belgium's fascinating chocolate story for yourself at the Musee du Cacao et du Chocolat (Museum of Cacao and Chocolate).
Centuries ago, when the first Spanish explorers returned from South America with these cacao pods, European royalty found an exotic drink. Chocolate was first introduced to Belgium in the 17th Century when Spanish monarchs ruled the country. In fact, Belgian King Leopold II colonised Congo only for an unlimited supply of cacao beans. Today, Belgium pro- duces 1,72,000 tonnes of chocolate per year and has more than 2,000 chocolate shops.
The world famous Belgian praline those delicious chocolate shells filled with marzipan (almond paste) are to die for. There are pralines flavoured with fruits, nuts, spices, flowers, creams, caramel and even cayenne pepper!
Throughout my sojourn I had umpteen chocolate moments, breaking little pieces and savouring them in leisure. I even tasted something called Choctail, which is a tequila and chocolate shot.
Back at the hotel, as I begin calculating my baggage weight, I wonder if I can pack in more pralines from that last minute shopping spree. Maybe I can bribe my way through with a few chocolates.
Tanushree is a freelance writer