For most people there's a definite before and after when it comes to sampling what is, for many, the best chocolate in the world. Between the bitter xocolatl that formed a part of pre-Columbian Aztec and Mayan ceremonies, and the smooth and fragrant sweets on display in the windows of the fine chocolate shops of Belgium, there is a world of difference.
If you were already a fan before trying these Belgian delights, once you've made a rigorous 'study' of the workshops and products of the country's master confectioners, you'll be, not just be an expert, but also a much more informed and demanding consumer.
In Brussels, Antwerp, Louvain, Bruges, in fact, in just about every town and village in the country, it's quite normal for one of the family to take a daily trip to their favourite confectionery shop, select each individual chocolate - known here as pralines - and carry home their booty to consume in perfect condition. A true chocolate fan will not only think about flavour, but will also take into account brightness and sheen, texture and aroma, as well as how crisp it is as you bite into it, and how delicately it melts on the tongue. And in order to score high on all these points, chocolate has to be fresh.
A visit to the Chocolate Museum in Brussels will give you all the background you need and you'll then be ready to explore the city, fully appreciative of the delights awaiting, laid out like jewels, in the windows of high class confectioners.
With nearly 1,500 outlets spread across the world, the Leonidas brand is internationally famous. Some experts think their chocolates too sugary, but their prices - up to five times cheaper than those of the top-end speciality products - are, without doubt, a sweetener. To make your own comparison, just visit their shop at 34 Rue au Beurre, close to the capital's famous Grand Place, and then head to number 44 in the same street where you'll find the prestigious confectioner's Galler, with its exquisitely displayed trays of balzane, carre, fôret, manon and other delights.
Then there's Neuhaus in the Saint-Hubert Galleries - a real chocolate box of a shop where you can get your daily fix. In Place Stephanie, you'll find Godiva, another of the large international chocalatiers, with their windows full of caraques and orangettes, a range of dark chocolate, and their special seasonal gift boxes for Halloween, Christmas, Valentines and Easter, including some limited editions for collectors.
The chocolates of Planete Chocolat in Rue Lombard are even more artistic, and every weekend there's the chance to attend live demonstrations (reservation required). Wittamer in Place Sablon, has been a family business for four generations: there's even a coffee shop where you can sample the specialities of this traditional master confectioner.
Mary, in the Rue Royale, has supplied the Royal Family since 1942, although the most expensive chocolates of all are supplied by the award-winning house of Marcolini, who have seven stores in Brussels, as well as in shops in Antwerp, Liege and Knokke.
Outside the capital, it would be a sin to miss the chocolates fresh from the Sukerbuyc workshop at number 5 Katelijnestraat, Bruges; in Leuven, don't miss Raets Putseys on Bondgenotenlaan, or Tartuffe, the tiny, coquettish store on Louis Melsensstraat, whose traditional granny's kitchen serves up the most delicious truffles. In Antwerp, Goossens, at number 6, Isabellalei, and Del Rey on Appelman are two atelliers wrapped in the unmistakable and irresistible aroma that sets you salivating before you even cross the threshold.
Tips and suggestions:
Through search engines such as Rumbo or Expedia you can compare the best prices from different companies for possible travel dates. Brussels Airlines fly from Heathrow, Gatwick, East Midlands and other local UK airports, and Ryanair serves Glasgow and Edinburgh. Many travel agents have special offers which include fares, airport transfers and hotels.
If you can't wait to get there and sample fine Belgian chocolate in situ, many of the confectioners offer shipments worldwide via their websites, where you will also find details of their local outlets.
Del Rey, Galler, Godiva, Goossens, Leonidas, Marcolini, Neuhaus, Planete Chocolat, Sukerbuyc, Wittamer.
Tourism in Belgium, Flanders and Brussels. Tel 93 508 59 90.