The First Commandment says “Worship no god but me” (Exodus 20:3). Marketers force us to idolise without merit – it’s their role in life. Experiences such as those that I had on Monday offer an insight and understanding which cannot be learned from books, gleamed from the internet, nor purchased. For I had an opportunity to explore a mutual passion for chocolate with, arguably, the world’s finest chocolate maker. In that hour or so Pierre Marcolini was generous beyond belief, not only with his time but also by allowing a stranger into his “home” to witness how he makes chocolate and to discuss important topics such as the very real differences between chocolatiers and chocolate makers.
Within the UK we have a sanitised view of chocolate and chocolate making – the same names are mentioned ad nauseam. The mainstream media has become lazy and promote those names which are thrust upon them by in-house PR machines. Every year the same stories are peddled, the same topics covered and very little changes – or so we’re led to believe. But outside of this simplistic view of the chocolate exists a world that could be a million miles away, for it offers such a step-change in resplendence and approach. Change is happening at a great pace, and one that we Brits need to keep pace with, for great Belgians are coming to our shores and the British media will have to be less like Belgian comic character Tin Tin when it reports of their return.
Brussels, for me was just a sixty-five minute flight, but changed a lifetime’s perception of chocolatiers and chocolate making. I had worshiped UK-based chocolatiers. I had met them, felt the heat of their aura, but nothing compares with looking into the eyes of a chocolate maker whilst you stand in his factory sharing the same sample of Mexican cacao just before it goes into the roaster – sniffing the ground beans straight from his hands with decades of hard cacao toil etched onto them.
Reading books such as Beckett’s Science of Chocolate and meeting chocolatiers at events is no substitute for sharing an espresso in the office of one of the world’s most revered names whilst appreciating the same philosophy of how great chocolate manages to combine art, science, passion and communication. Each and every bar that I’ve suffered in the preceding years have all been worth toiling through for that very moment.
Chocolate is built upon perception. The perceived view of chocolate from Belgium is that of the cream-laden milk variety, covered praline, garish ganaches and confectionery for tourists who feel compelled to return home with a box of “real Belgium”. Just as England isn’t all cucumber sandwiches and lifting a cup of tea in a bone china cup with one finger pointing to the sky, Belgians can make superb chocolate and make it with a wholesome dedication to quality, finesse, provenance and flavour more widely associated with the major names in France and Italy – and even improve upon them.
Pierre and Emmanuel (the E-Projects Manager – who also acted as translator) wanted me to see the whole process from start to finish. Short of flying out to Venezuela, we went to his warehouse over the street and behind the marketing team’s offices. In there we saw a variety of cacao, not only the Trinitario Sur Del Largo seleccionado from an area in northern Venezuela to the south of Lago Maracaibo which he bought at some horrendous price due to the limited supply, but also Cuban Baracoa, and a Mexican bean.
Pierre said I could take as many photos as I’d liked as it’s the only way to get across the processes he goes through to produce such fantastic chocolate. As you can see, those beans in the warehouse aren’t just for show, Marcolini truly is a bean to bar brand.
And we’re not talking about a large scale operation at this stage, we’re looking at a wonderful piece of equipment with all the rustic edges which make chocolate somehow “feel” better if you get to step this side of the process.
We then walked through and saw the cacao nibs after the beans have been shelled. And these were Ghanian below.
Which were in the process of being milled to produce the liquor.
And then the correct quantities of cocoa butter, sugar and soya lecithin are added and then rolled to reduce the paste from 35 microns to, I believe, 20 microns.
At every stage of the rolling process where it gets passed through two different rolling machines, one with three rollers and the other with four, the texture becomes more refined.
At the second stage it was much smoother.
And then we tried the paste before the conching process.
We then went through to the various departs where different creations were being formed. Here Pierre showed me the flat Easter eggs which were being made for their e-commerce operation which will be able to buy in the UK from next week.
As well as some rocher, which were the best I’ve ever tasted!
We had a chat about ganaches and how most of his contemporaries suggest that the thickness of the chocolate he uses should be thinner. Pierre explained that it’s all about balance and not allowing the filling to dominate the experience.
We then passed through other rooms which I didn’t take any photos of because I was so engrossed in the consumption of various pralines, orangettes, and mini-eggs (these will be on sale on their web shop too and you just HAVE to get the almond ones as they sensational).
And then we came back into the main room where they do the large scale work. The Easter egg you see in the middle was the one I got to take home. These won’t be available in the UK because they’re so delicate. In fact mine got damaged on the way home. But I’ll still enjoy it nonetheless.
We then retired to his office for some more chat and were given some awesome chocolate gifts; one of them was a presentation box of the raw ingredients they use which represents the purity and divinity of their approach. Pierre instructed me not to sell it on eBay. I duly agreed and thought that this was something I’d like to keep as a memento of my visit as I’d surely consume everything else.
And then for our mad dash through the Brussels traffic to his flagship store which can be found at the corner of Rue de Minimes and Plus du Grand Sablon:
The building is impressive and is the focal feature of the location. Other imitators such as Godiva and Neuhaus have placed themselves opposite hoping to distract Pierre’s trade, but alas nothing can compare to the Real McCoy (excuse the name drop).
Inside was chocolate heaven perfectly presented. The patisseries were salivating and upstairs the tablettes were also wonderfully presented.
When I was being shown around, I didn’t want to be anywhere else in the world.
With any visit to somewhere so delightful you always regret leaving. But return to the UK I must. I visited some other chocolate shops as I made my way to the central station. All were comparatively Primark in their nature compared to the gorgeousness of the Pierre Marcolini stores. I left with a whole heap of chocolate, books and recipes, but more importantly a changed perception of what Belgian chocolate can be if you pass by the Godiva, Neuhaus and Leonidas shops and just go straight for the best: Pierre Marcolini.
I expect Pierre will make a greater variety of his chocolates available in the UK this year. I’ve already tried his Palets Fins and Saveurs du Monde and absolutely loved them, if you didn’t want to spend that sort of money, you can wait for the new ranges to go online. But if you wanted a new, fantastic chocolate experience, buy some of the current range.
Excuse me, I’ve got a whole heap of his pralines to try. I might be a while!