Brussels - As an engine whirred, a cocoa stream poured from a spout into a vat, like an industrial version of a chocolate fountain.
Laurent Gerbaud, 45, a tall, jovial man with a mop of curly hair and thick tortoise eyeglass frames, resembled a hip mad-professor type as he described how the molding machine before us regulated the temperature of his liquid candies-in-waiting.
We four students, wearing disposable smocks, listened from our stations around a wooden table set with plates holding artful arrangements of dark bonbons in various shapes and sizes. A thick, rich aroma, too intense to be entirely pleasant, filled the room. With a door ajar to a busy sidewalk, we could hear lively French conversations outside.
Chocolate envy had brought me to Brussels on this Saturday morning in July. When I learned that my chocolatier friends from Maine were embarking on a professional research tour in Belgium, two hours from my home in the Netherlands, I signed up for my own little educational outing - a workshop in the nucleus of the country's famed chocolate industry.
In more than a dozen shops around the city, visitors can sample the sweets - with freebies galore. While chocolate tours and demos are a dime a baker's dozen, I discovered only a few places that regularly offer tastings and workshops. (Additional offerings can be found in other Belgian cities, especially Bruges, Gent and Antwerp.) I chose Gerbaud because of his artisanal approach. He's among the new wave of Belgian chocolatiers who have arrived on the scene in the past 15 years, decades after the advent of still-popular legacy brands such as Godiva and Mary. Gerbaud made his mark by introducing salty and fruity toppings, with more cocoa and less sugar. He continues to set the bar high, selling his handiwork from a bright, contemporary shop and cafe in the centre of Brussels.
“We'll make some chocolate, but also do some tastings to experience both low- and high-quality chocolate,” he told us. “My goal is that, after this hour and a half, you won't eat cheap chocolate anymore.”
No argument there, I thought, as we jumped right into the making.
“First, you should be relaxed in your shoulders and hips, and don't forget to breathe,” he said, slacking his shoulders and wiggling his torso as he took a mold resembling an ice-cube tray in his left hand and filled it under the chocolate faucet. With his right hand holding a straight spatula, he scraped off the excess. The molds allowed us to make 16 thin, rectangular pieces, each measuring about 1.5-by-1.75 inches.
Gerbaud did the hard parts: the tempering, which gives the chocolate a glossy, firm finish, and the selection of ingredients - in this case, his signature blend of beans from Madagascar, Ecuador and Peru, processed by Italian producer Domori. Gerbaud uses couverture, a chocolate with a high percentage of cocoa and rich in cocoa butter.
This being a primer, we merely filled our molds and plopped nuts and dried fruit bits atop the still-liquid chocolate to create mendiants, the flat, traditional French candies. My classmates were a youngish Belgian couple and a friend of Gerbaud's who hopes to market his sweets in her native India. We all got a bit messy filling our molds, the reward being that we could lick off the mistakes.
“You only have three minutes before the chocolate hardens, so don't try to write your name,” Gerbaud advised as we chose from toppings including pistachios, cashews, raisins, dried cranberries and quinces, crystallised ginger and cocoa nibs. I went for the “American excess” look. But in the end, all of our candies had similar looks.
While they hardened in the fridge, we moved on to the tasting, sampling the dozen or so chocolates on each of our plates, which included solids and some filled with nuts, fruit or ganache. I longed for a checklist, because after piece four, my memory blurred in a rush of caffeine (and sugar, with significantly more appearing in the cheaper samples).
During the tasting, we peppered Gerbaud with questions, learning that his love of sweets came from a family of bakers on his mother's side. In college, he studied law and medieval history while dabbling in chocolate. A fascination with China took him there for several years.
“I was in love with the people and culture of China, but I was disappointed that they don't eat sweets much at all,” said Gerbaud, whose logo spells “chocolate” in Chinese characters. “They give chocolate as gifts, but keep passing the same box around,” he added with a laugh. “I learned a lot about mixing flavours in China. Like, they'd dip fries in a milkshake at McDonald's. In Shanghai, I started making chocolate desserts at home and selling them to expats. It was completely rock-and-roll.”
Gerbaud returned to Brussels in 2001, initially selling at a local market. Since opening his shop in 2009, he has seen a move toward higher-quality chocolate - with more cocoa butter and less sugar.
“When I moved back, 55 percent was the highest cocoa you could find in Belgium. It evolved to 62, then 72 to 75,” he said.
Most recently, he developed recipes for La Chocolatière, an innovative Belgian home-use tempering machine that is expected to be available in the United States later this year for about $120.
We started and ended the tasting with a piece of low-end bulk chocolate. It tasted noticeably worse the second time around, now that our palate had sharpened, Gerbaud explained. He then asked us to describe what we tasted.
We budding experts detected charcoal, plastic and cardboard, with a greasy finish, which Gerbaud said was mostly due to problems from transporting, storing and packaging the “spongelike” beans.
In Gerbaud's dreams, that would be our final taste - ever - of cheap chocolate. To get us started, we left with a bag of our own mendiants and a lovely chocolate buzz.
If you go...
What to do
Laurent Gerbaud Chocolatier
Rue Ravenstein 2D
Demonstrations and workshops are offered every Saturday from 11:30am to 1pm The fee of $38.50 (about R500) includes chocolates.
Chaussée de Charleroi 125
The shop offers demonstrations and workshops every Saturday from 2:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. The fee of $27.50 includes chocolates.
Chocolate workshops last about 75 minutes on Saturdays and Sundays. The schedule varies, so check online ahead of time. The fee of about $55 includes chocolates.
Demonstrations and workshops last about 90 minutes. The schedule varies, so check ahead online. The fee of about $39 per person includes chocolates, for a group of five to nine participants.