How did a small northern European country become world-famous for a food native to the New World? We explore the magic behind Belgian Chocolate.
Belgian chocolate is famous around the world, and deeply embedded in the culture and economy of Belgium. But how did this New World bean, native to the Americas, become such an iconic part of European culture?
Origins of Belgian Chocolate
Chocolate production in Belgium goes back to the 17th century, when the country was occupied by Spain. Columbus had brought cacao beans to Spain, but they were little more than a curiosity, until Spanish friars began mixing it with sugar, honey, and vanilla to counteract the natural bitterness of chocolate. Served warm and sweet, the beverage quickly became a favorite of the Spanish upper classes, and the chocolate trade was born. Over time, as chocolate became more widely cultivated, Belgium was able to import large quantities of chocolate, making it more accessible for the working classes.
It wasn’t until the late 1800s that attempts were made to regulate and protect Belgian chocolate, requiring a minimum of 35% pure cocoa.
Belgian Chocolate Today
The thriving chocolate trade in Belgium changed the world as we know it today. As a result of the chocolate trade:
- West African countries produce more than 60% of the world’s chocolate, more than is produced in its countries of origin.
- Belgium produces over half a million tons of chocolate every year, from its more than 2,000 chocolatiers, large and small
- Belgium exports billions of euros worth of chocolate every year, mostly to the EU member states, dominated by France, the Netherlands, and Germany, with a growing market in the UK.
- The value of the Belgian chocolate trade has been increasing steadily since the 1960s.
The Belgian Chocolate Controversy
Unlike French wine or Italian cheeses, there is no legal definition or binding standard to what makes a chocolate “Belgian”. Early attempts at regulation were met with internal resistance, as manufacturers were unwilling to finance a trademark initiative. In the 80s and 90s, this led to a brand dilution, since chocolate makers around the world were allowed to call their products “Belgian”. Modern attempts to set a standard are now resisted by industry giants like Cote d’Or and Godiva, which, despite their Belgian origins, are now owned by large food companies (Kraft Foods and Yildiz Holding, respectively), and have most of their production abroad, but want to retain their Belgian nomenclature.
In fact, of all the Belgian chocolate giants, only Leonidas and Puratos remain owned and operated in Belgium, and the Belgian Chocolate Code, which requires “Belgian” chocolates to be mixed, refined, and conched in Belgium, remains a voluntary standard.
Belgian chocolatiers have a long process toward setting a protected standard and geographic labeling requirement, but the rewards could be rich: such a standard would prevent other countries from using the term when making and marketing chocolate, and it would earn special consideration in EU trade deals which require other countries to recognize and protect Belgian chocolate standards.
Belgian truffles, pralines, and chocolate figures are a tradition developed over centuries of practice in small, luxury chocolatiers, and they are rightfully proud of their hand-crafted traditions and exceptional chocolates. Seeking out authentic Belgian chocolate is well worth the reward.