Belgium invented the praline in 1912 and soon became known for making the best chocolates in the world. But 100 years on, the supremacy of local chocolatiers is under threat from international competition.
The smell of warm, melted cocoa is wafting around the kitchen as Ryan Stevenson meticulously pipes a rich, buttery filling into dozens of delicate chocolate shells.
Tall and slim with a ginger beard, the 36-year-old grew up in Toowoomba, Australia.
Since moving to Brussels in 2005, he has twice won the title of Belgian Chocolate Master. In 2009, he took the Best Praline prize as a finalist in the World Chocolate Masters competition.
“I am not actually a chocolatier by trade, I trained as a pastry chef,” he says, with a grin.
So how did he end up becoming one of Belgium’s most sought-after chocolatiers?
“It’s a long story,” he says.
“I originally studied to become an actuary, a statistician who works out insurance premiums. But I found it boring and couldn’t imagine working in an office all day.”
He soon realized he preferred his part-time job in a bakery to university, and sought out experience in hotels and patisseries in Munich and London, before finally arriving in Brussels. He found himself a Belgian wife and started working at his father-in-law’s cake shop Le Saint Aulaye as well as entering cookery contests.
“I started with pastries, but here there is such a strong culture of chocolate that whenever I needed to do a competition, it was always chocolate-based. It is a good product to work with – I mean, everyone loves a Belgian chocolate!”
Despite abandoning his background in mathematics, he says his analytical mind helps him develop new recipes and understand the technical processes of making good chocolate – for example, melting the mixture at the right temperature and keeping out air bubbles.
After many long nights practicing his craft, he won his first Belgian Chocolate Master Award in 2008. But he claims the second time he won the prize was most rewarding “because by then the Belgians knew it wasn’t a beginner’s luck”.
“It was actually a very good feeling being Australian and winning here in Brussels,” he says, smiling.
“I think it’s because I took all the expertise of the Belgians and I beat them at their own game.”
Ryan Stevenson isn’t the only foreigner making a big impact on the Belgian chocolate scene.
Yasushi Sasaki, from Japan, runs a popular patisserie in Woluwe-Saint-Pierre, a quiet residential part of Brussels.
He is often described as someone who crafts chocolate with the precision of a sushi chef. The label seems fitting the moment you step inside the store’s simple exterior. Its glowing glass counters are packed with colorful sweet treats that resemble works of art.
“Belgian chocolatiers should absolutely be worried about international competition from people like me,” he argues.
“We can do things just as good as them and put our own spin on things as well. I agree that we could pose a threat.”
Popular amongst Belgium’s food blogging community, he reached the finals of the World Chocolate Masters in 2005, losing out to Pol Deschepper, the last Belgian to win the competition. Frank Haasnoot, from the Netherlands, picked up the most recent biennial prize in 2011.
“I am very happy that international chefs from other countries are proud of using Belgian chocolate and choosing this product to excel in their careers,” says Pascale Meulemeester, of Barry Callebaut, the Belgian chocolate giant that runs the contest.
But surely there is resentment amongst Belgian chocolatiers, who are missing out on the limelight?
“I suppose there is competition, although really it is a healthy, friendly rivalry. International chefs working within and outside Belgium all help export our ideas and products to other countries, which is a good thing.”
She believes that Belgium’s history of confectionery will ensure its chefs continue to remain amongst the best in the world.
“When you have this as a business in your country for 100 years, you see a consistency and quality in execution. That brings Belgians an advantage and that is something that is not to be underestimated.”
The country’s love of chocolate goes back to the 19th Century, when cocoa was shipped home from Congo, which had become its new African colony.
The Belgian chocolate industry became world famous following the invention of the praline, a chocolate shell with a soft centre. The man who came up with the idea, Jean Neuhaus, is often referred to as Belgium’s most famous chocolatier, although he was born in Switzerland.
Jean Neuhaus has become one of the country’s most famous global brands along with Callebaut, Cote d’Or and Leonidas. But one of Belgium’s most famous companies, Godiva, was bought by the Turkish business Yildiz in 2007. Current internationally renowned chocolatiers include Pierre Marcolini, Dominique Persoone and Jean Galler.
“Belgium’s recipe for success so far comes from training within the industry, good ingredients and unique tastes,” says Pascale Meulemeester.
Strict rules mean that any chocolates labelled as Belgian must be produced within the country.
“French chocolate is typically darker, less sweet and has more subtle flavors going on. Switzerland’s signature chocolate is milk.
“Belgium has taken all of these influences but also developed our chocolate-making technique and the artisan industry,” he says.
Belgian food critics are also quick to defend one of their country’s key food industries.
“Just because one [non-Belgian] chef happens to win a few prizes, sponsored by a chocolate brand, I don’t think Belgian chocolatiers should start to quake in their boots,” says Veerle de Pooter, a magazine writer who has also worked as a chef for the country’s federal government.
“I’ll start worrying when customers actually start preferring non-Belgian chocolate.”
That seems a long way off. There are around 2,000 chocolate shops in Belgium and annual exports are close to two billion euros according to CAOBISO, an association representing the chocolate, biscuit and confectionery industries of Europe. Only Germany sells more chocolate abroad.
“We must not forget that Belgian chefs have also travelled elsewhere for inspiration – for example, a decade ago a lot of them were going to the Catalan region of Spain, not for chocolate but for other foods,” says Willem Asaert, a food writer for publications across Belgium, Holland and France.
“So it’s okay for international chocolatiers to come here to get ideas, learn the trade and develop their own signature. This won’t be the end of the Belgian chocolate industry. On the contrary, it’s just the proof that we are the best area in the world when it comes to chocolate.”
The next World Chocolate Masters is set to take place in November 2013, in Paris, with entrants representing 20 different countries.
Ryan Stevenson won’t be competing this time. Having twice been selected as Belgian Chocolate Master, he is ineligible to compete any more in the World Chocolate Masters.
Instead, he is one of the judges. He says he has made peace with the fact that he will never be crowned World Chocolate Master.
“It’s okay, it’s part of life. I was the first guy in Belgian to get the national prize twice so I’ve got to be pleased with that.”
Ryan Stevenson’s focus now is on developing his own chocolate line, but there is still one last contest he has set his sights on, Coupe du Monde de la Patisserie in Lyon, France. The competition sees national teams made up of a chocolatier, pastry chef and ice cream maker given 10 hours to prepare a range of desserts.
“I know I’ve got one last win within me, but we’ll just have to see how the time goes with my business.”
One thing is for sure, he has no plans to return home to his native Australia.
“Where I come from it’s too warm, the chocolate melts straight away!”