Eating chocolate until your mouth bulges is not a problem in Belgium, where unctuous concoctions made—or so it seems—of cocoa, sugar and cream in almost equal parts, are part of the food cycle. Nonetheless, you really shouldn’t. Eat chocolate until your mouth bulges.
“Take a small bite,” says chocolatier Laurent Gerbaud presiding over a plate of his delicately portioned pralines, chocolate-coated fruits and crusted chocolate slivers, “and don’t chew. Let it dissolve.”
As one of a handful of small, artisanal chocolatiers boxed in by Belgian giants such as Godiva, Neuhaus and yes, Pierre Marcolini, Laurent Gerbaud’s ethic is that of qualitative manageability. At his premises opposite the BOZAR at Brussels’ rue Ravenstein 2d, what you see is what you get: a cozy, glass-fronted degustation space with tables made of massive walnut and solidly built chairs, a sales counter and some product-bearing shelves through which the dark-red packaging and white lettering of Gerbaud’s chocolate boxes run like the design on a Turkmen carpet.
(chocolatsgerbaud.be). And only seven employees.
So I take my first bite into a flake of chocolate-enrobed ginger. A cautious tide of salty sweetness ripples over my tongue, gently snagged by a gingery zest. My taste buds spring to attention, jostling for superlatives. Gerbaud smiles. He’s seen this before.
Combining fruits, nuts and spices with chocolate is a specialty he developed some two decades ago when he spent a couple of years in Shanghai. Initially, he had high hopes of alerting his Chinese friends to the delights of dark chocolate but despite polite acknowledgement of his skills, potential customers remained obdurately non-committal. H
e found out what any customer at a Chinese restaurant realizes when perusing the dessert section of the menu: the West’s obsession with chocolate is not something that travels well to hot and humid climates. For two years, he went through culturally induced sugar detox—and began experimenting with unusual combinations of sweet and spicy. Back in Belgium, he established himself as an independent chocolatier in 2001, moving to the Ravenstein premises in 2009.
The ginger flake, for which he won an International Chocolate Award (internationalchocolateawards.com) is one of many prize-winning creations. Another is the ganache cru, a pure ganache. This is where Gerbaud’s experience in creating his own signature variety of dark chocolate unfolds all its sumptuous depth, drawing on the blended flavours of raw chocolate from Madagascar, Peru and Ecuador where cocoa beans from indigenous varieties of cacao trees are harvested and go through the process of fermentation (to remove natural bitterness) and drying before being shipped to wholesale suppliers such as Domori in Italy. Additional cocoa butter and sugar cane (refined sugar is anathema) are added to the ground and roasted beans to produce the pressed chocolate chips, slices or bars that are bought and subsequently blended on site by chocolatiers such as Gerbaud. He’s working on a new blend, he says, with raw chocolate from Vietnam. A project to be developed in the spring and summer months, when European fine chocolate sales go into hibernation.
Gerbaud has a family history in the creation of fine food: his maternal grandparents were patissiers. But he also has degrees in law and medieval history—an almost Faustian combination. Standing by his chocolate tempering machine on a foggy December morning watching the rotators blend chocolates from steamy equatorial lands, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine Gerbaud wrapped in an alchemist’s cape, dispelling the foul December weather with a practiced flick of the spatula that levels the glossy lava flooding the mould.
Ah – the uses of enchantment. To tempt or to temper? My fingers hover over the pistachio praline, and then retreat. I think I’ll save that. For the way home.