By Jim Ferri
Following a river cruise that ended in Amsterdam, I had a few extra days before my flight back home. I decided to conduct an experiment of sorts.
Since travel about Holland and Belgium is easy due to the short distances involved, I decided to go south. In Bruges I planned to spend two days searching for the best chocolates in the city.
Why Bruges? Well, although many know the city for its famous medieval architecture and canals, it’s also a chocolate hot spot with an incredible number of chocolatiers and shops.
For chocoholics, to put it more succinctly, it’s nirvana. For the rest of us, it’s just plain old chocolate heaven. And it’s an especially fun thing to do in the off-season when you don’t have to battle legions of other cocoa lovers at the counter.
My plan and methodology were quite simple: I intended just to walk the streets in the central area of the old city where all the gourmet chocolatiers were located, and for two days taste-test the same, or similar, little gourmet offerings in all the shops I came across.
First a Museum, Then a Problem
To set my plan in motion, I first visited the city’s interesting Chocolate Museum.
There I got answers to a few questions I was certain are on every chocoholic’s mind…is chocolate an aphrodisiac (perhaps, yes); does it cause high cholesterol (no, it reduces it); does it make you fat (dark chocolate doesn’t)…and on and on.
After I left the museum I started my walkabout. Then I realized my search would be harder than I envisioned.
The problem was that I hadn’t taken into account the large number of shops in Bruges that sell gourmet chocolates.
Realizing I needed to separate the cocoa wheat from the cocoa chafe, to use a bad metaphor, I decided instead to visit only those shops that manufactured their own product.
My first stop after leaving the museum was at Dominique Persoone. It was an attractive little store on Simon Stevinplein across from a small carnival on the square.
I went in and asked for three chocolates: one with a cherry liqueur, another with walnuts (it was shaped like a walnut shell on the outside and filled with chocolate with little pieces of walnut) and the third with a biscuit inside (which the saleslady recommended since it was a favorite item at their shop).
The one with the cherry was over the top and the walnut excellent, but the biscuit surprised me. For some reason, I had expected a little cracker inside, but it turned out to be crunchy chocolate instead, interesting but not what I had expected.
Nevertheless, I rated each well above any other chocolates I had ever tasted.
Chocolaterie t’ Begijntje
To Chocolaterie t’ Begijntje I headed, a small chocolate shop by the famous Begijnof, which lured me since I thought said they were associated with the famous Beguine Convent nearby. I was wondering what nuns would put in their little masterpieces until I realized my error. The shop, I later discovered, was a distributor for Café Tasse in Brussels.
Inside I found an interesting array of chocolates and bought a Grand Marnier, a Cointreau, an Irish cream and caramel with nuts as a dessert. Only into the second shop, I realized liqueur-filled chocolates seemed to be becoming a theme in my research.
The Cointreau, as it turned out, was very creamy and delicious, but the Grand Marnier left a lot to be desired, namely the taste of Grand Marnier. I wasn’t enthused about the Irish Cream either, probably because I thought it would taste more like Baileys, although the caramel, on the other hand, was quite good.
I also began to feel quite full from all the super-rich chocolate samples I was buying. There were also quite a number of free samples. Nevertheless, I continued to wander about, searching and tasting.
There were also false starts now and then. On one street I came across Detavernier Patisserie, which seemed popular and appeared to be doing a brisk chocolate business. Once inside, though, I found that its primary business was pastries (well, Jim…it is a pâtisserie) so I decided to pass it by.
Right around the corner on Katelijnestraat I stumbled across Lady Chocolates, which also seemed popular gauging by the number of people going in and out. Looking at the promotional signs in the windows, however, – “Belgian Chocolates – Promo Best Price – Best Buy” – I realized its popularity was based on price and also decided to pass it by.
Ditto for Daya Chocolates (“1 kg Belgium chocolates for €12.80”), as well as Sukerbuyc Chocolaterie, Verheecke, Brown & Sugar, and Moeder Babelutte (despite the lure of its chocolate fountain, and cups of hot chocolate offered there).
All seemed to be targeting the mass market, rather than concentrating their efforts on producing the truly sublime, gourmet chocolate I sought.
Dumon Artisanale Chocolatier
On the second day I discovered heaven…Dumon Artisanale Chocolatier, a little shop tucked away in a tiny 400-year-old brick building on the street directly behind Market Square. It looked more like a cottage than the chocolate nirvana it turned out to be, and if I hadn’t asked for directions, I likely would have passed it by.
Here I found the chocolate for which I’d been searching. The caramel almost made my tongue melt. Its cherry (“be careful, it still has the stone inside”) was bursting with a delicious cherry liqueur. The walnut and all the others I tried were superb.
Dumon has been in business only twenty years, which doesn’t seem like a very long time compared to some of the other shops, but its chocolate was far and away the most incredible chocolate I had ever tasted in Bruges, in Brussels, or in all of Belgium, for that matter.
And it’s a family operation with Mom and sister behind the tiny counter, happy to give you samplings of their delicious little masterpieces. The cheerfulness of the whole place only seemed to enhance the pleasure of everything I tasted.
If you’re looking for Dumon, stand in Market Square with your back to the tower and take the street on the upper left. Look for the little shop on your right at the next corner.
Be sure to try the caramel.