We read that our next destination, the medieval city of Bruges in northern Belgium was known in years past for its textile industry, but that today it is best known as a place to find excellent beer and chocolate. While Aaron drooled at the shops with hundreds of amazing beers in the windows, Mali and I followed the chocolate-scented trail from chocolatier to chocolatier.
We had recently found out that our friend Stephane, back in Redmond, boycotted chocolate candy during the Halloween season which in-turn peaked our curiosity about chocolate production and the politics and social mores behind it. As we were in the so-called chocolate capital of Europe, Belgium, we felt even more obliged to inform ourselves.
Mali’s research online at www.foodispower.org discovered that 73% of cocoa is grown in West Africa (mostly Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, and Cameroon) while 13% is grown in the Americas (Brazil, Ecuador, Colombia and Peru) and 14% in Asia and Oceania (Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea). The chocolate making process starts with harvesting the pods then drying the pods and seeds before shipping to companies. Based on her research, we found out that harvesting the pods is high risk work often done by children. The workers are known to be beaten if they do not work quickly enough and their wages top out at about $2 a day. The shipments of pods and beans are received by the company which then roast, grind, add cocoa butter, sugar and milk, then package for consumption.
According to www.foodispower.org/chocolate-list/, Hershey’s is one of the companies known to own plantations in Africa and they do not disclose their ethics. As a lifelong Hershey candy bar lover, this is disappointing news. In the future, we’ll be looking for the Fair Trade stamp on our chocolate bar packaging.
Our first stop in Bruges was to The Chocolate Line, a chocolatier renown for it’s out-of-the-box flavors such as passionfruit-lime-vodka, milk chocolate with almond praline and crispy bacon with quinoa, and ganache with Japanese sake’ leading to their moniker “Shock-O-Latier”. What we learned was that although this particular chocolatier is located in a building at least 500 years old, their approach in the chocolate industry is forward thinking with their own organic cacao farms in the Yucatan, Mexico, fair labor laws and trade practices, and the installation of 180,000 bees on the roof of their factory in response to the threatened bee population.
As we wandered through the cobblestone streets, the chocolatiers were interspersed with shop windows filled with lace, touristy Belgian souvenirs, Christmas decor, and fancy clothing. Each chocolate display was unique with each chocolatier outdoing the other with fantastic creations such as hand tools (hammers, nuts and bolts, wrenches), body parts, and the ubiquitous St. Niklaus (Santa Claus).
Our next stop was the family run Old Chocolate Shop. By three in the afternoon, the cold drizzly November day was seeping in and a hot chocolate in the upstairs tea room was in order. A flight of uber narrow stair steps matched the narrowness of the spiral staircase that lead to the wood-wainscoted flowery tea room from antiquity above the shop. We quickly chose a two-person seat looking out of a stained glass window onto the street below and ordered two hot chocolates.
Little did we know that a taste experience unlike any we’d experienced before would arrive at our table. Our waiter brought two gargantuan bowl-sized mugs filled with hot milk and a mini-whisk along with a plate with a chocolate cup the size of our fists filled with chocolate chips (milk chocolate for Mali and dark chocolate with chili peppers for me). We followed the waiter’s instructions to drop the chocolate cup into the hot milk, stir, and drink. We have never had richer or more delicious hot chocolate.
Although we had planned to visit several other shops, our day was done. We flew home on our bikes, dazed and confused from our chocolate indulgence and passed out in a sugar coma for the rest of the evening. Worth it? Absolutely.
-by Tammy, researched by Mali, photos by both