BRUGES, Belgium - Many claim this picturesque canal-threaded city is the chocolate capital of a country obsessed with bonbons. And the thrill of wandering its ancient cobblestoned streets is to discover, bite by sweet bite, the many true artisans along with the larger companies.
Famous names such as Godiva, Neuhaus, Galler, Guylian, and Leonidas are prominently situated along main shopping thoroughfares like Steenstraat. But with an astounding array of 52 chocolate shops scattered across the medieval center of the tourist-rich historic district, there are plenty of unique addresses to sample.
There are chocolate shops specializing in marzipan (Verheecke), and others focusing on caramel-filled pralines (Dumon). Numerous shops craft the city's signature praline, the "Brugsch Swaentje" ("Brugge swan"), a bird-shaped chocolate made with almond paste, "kletskoppen" (a local cookie of crunchy lace), and "gruut," an herbal spice used in the Middle Ages for bittering to flavor beer - Belgium's other great obsession.
There is even a museum called Choco-Story in the 15th-century Maison de Croon dedicated to Belgian chocolate and its storied history. The country now boasts about 300 chocolate companies and more than 2,100 shops in an area slightly smaller than Maryland.
One of the most traditional shops is Chocolaterie Sweertvaegher, whose production facility we visited in Spiere-Helkijn, a short drive into the West Flanders countryside.
As we pulled into the 18th-century farmhouse courtyard of the atelier, apron-clad Sheila Vanden Heede was already eagerly beckoning us in.
"It's almost Easter, so we're busy making eggs!" says Vanden Heede, leading us into a brightly lit production room, where the aroma of glossy molten chocolate churning in huge vats perfumed the air with a heady sweetness.
Sweertvaegher, which has only four retail outlets plus Internet sales (with shipping to the United States), is one of Belgium's smaller chocolate artisans. Founded in 1933, it is also one of the most old-school, using no preservatives and less sugar than more industrial producers.
Here, you'll find such specialties as "butter truffles" (their free-form cocoa-dusted chocolate shells filled with whipped sweetened butter), crinkly little chocolate cups called "snobinettes," and especially the "galets," marvelous little sliders of chocolate buttercream sandwiched between two disks of snappy chocolate.
"When you bite into it, it says: 'crack!' " Vanden Heede says, chomping down on a galet. We eagerly follow her lead. "That is what a good chocolate has to be."
The galets are at once creamy and intense, with a slow-melting richness that lingers long after they're gone: "If you can't still taste a chocolate in your mouth more than 10 seconds after you eat it, then I don't like it," she says.
The conveyor belt of a large machine whirs to life as we pass, and molds holding the hollows of delicate chocolate shells roll inside, where they're filled with perfect squirts of buttercream before the bottoms get layered on. Just beyond, Vanden Heede shows us tray after tray of elegant dark-chocolate eggshells - variously textured like woven baskets, pine cones, or tortoise shells - soon to be filled with rich praline cream, then hand-wrapped with foil.
"It's easier to make higher-quality chocolates when you're small," says Jan Verougstraete, Sweertvaegher's master chocolatier and owner. He whisks a batch of mocha buttercream by hand, then pipes it into snobinette cups with remarkable speed and precision.
Even so, he says, "a large company like Leonidas makes our entire year's worth of production in a single hour."
The shelf life of Sweertvaegher's products is only a couple of weeks.
Bruges' chocolatiers, however, are hardly stuck in the past. And few embody the cutting edge with quite the verve of Dominique Persoone, a former chef who for the last 20 years at the Chocolate Line has been startling traditionalists - and delighting thrill-seekers - with chocolates that incorporate everything from wasabi and shishito pepper to fried onions, Coca-Cola, the juice of fresh-mown grass, and even oysters, blended raw with white chocolate and vodka, then served on ice in mollusklike "shells" molded from dark chocolate.
"A lot of people in the beginning wanted to put me in the madhouse, but now I have my own TV show," says Persoone. "My philosophy has always been that chocolate is rock-and-roll."
Persoone has credentials in that regard, having invented as a birthday present for Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones a snortable cocoa (with mint and ginger) and a special tiny spoon to sniff it up: "The chocolate turns around in your nose and your brains, and you have the taste of chocolate in your head, but you don't eat it. It's very strange."
None of these wacky ideas, of course, would matter much to Bruges' demanding public if Persoone's chocolates weren't impeccably crafted from single-origin chocolate. (Many are so fragile, in fact, that the Chocolate Line is one of the few chocolatiers that do not ship overseas, except for its sniffable cocoa.) Perhaps a true measure that his presence has become less of a novelty is the fact that Persoone is now president of Bruges' Chocolate Guild, a job he describes as being as much "peacemaker" among the city's many craftsmen as candyman eminence grise: "Sometimes I feel like the Kofi Annan of chocolates."
One of the newest chocolatiers to make a splash in Bruges is another chef, Bart Desmidt, whose seaside restaurant, Bartholomeus in Heist-aan-Zee, holds a Michelin star. If Persoone's chocolates turn heads with shock value, Desmidt's creations at his year-old chocolate shop, ByB, succeed through a stunning display of modern minimalism. His little storefront on Sint Amandsstraat has the crisp all-white look of a cosmetics boutique, with just a color chart of numbered squares against the wall detailing the different flavors.
The chocolates are inspired by a rustic tradition - a historic fisherman's caramel called a "Babelutte" (Babeluttes by Bartholomeus is the shop's full name.) But they are crafted into contemporary rectangular pralines of dark, milk, or white chocolate, and stacked into sliding drawers like indistinguishable little chocolate gold bricks. The shapes may be identical, but they belie the vivid varieties of flavored caramels inside, whether it's sea-salted caramel, star anise-tinged honey, or vibrant fruit fillings - tart passion fruit and basil; strawberry, lemon, and pepper - that ring in the mouth with resonant freshness. They are fascinating and sublime, each one a surprise.
It is Desmidt's latest creation, though, that most catches our eye: pieces of white- and dark-chocolate "foam" are stacked high on an illuminated pedestal. They look like hunks of coral or primal lava, but are, in fact, seasoned chocolate that's been aerated through a siphon into a bubblelike consistency, then set. And they are astoundingly light, almost evaporating between my lips. But first comes a delicate little "crack," followed by an ethereal chain of shifting flavors as the white chocolate melts away into the oil of steeped Bergamot lemons, then another wave of creamy richness settles in.
They couldn't be more different in style from the classic Sweertvaegher galets and Easter eggs we began our day with. But the Belgian character - exacting, elegant, intense, distinctive - was unmistakable.
Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or email@example.com.