When most people say they’ve had their fill of museums, they perhaps mean that one Phoenician pottery shard has started to look like every other Phoenician pottery shard. Or if they have to look at another still life of dead pheasants, they’ll scream.
When you’re in Bruges and you say that, however, you may be speaking quite literally — after visiting the Chocolate Museum and the Fries Museum, I am stuffed with food (and most of it good)!
Choco-Story could have been, well, cheesy. It is definitely kid-friendly, although the crowd were all adults during my visit. But I went in knowing a little bit about how chocolate is made and came out knowing a lot more about the social history of chocolate. (And regretting the fact that my chocolate houses tour in London was cancelled!)
There were lots of facts I hadn’t known:
Did you know the Aztecs used cocoa beans as money? You couldn’t actually buy cocoa beans, but you could buy other stuff WITH the beans (a fresh egg was worth 3 beans).
Left: Molinillos used to create the foam on top of Mexican hot cocoa (early molecular gastronomy?)
Right: European hot chocolate serving pots allowed a hole for the whisk.
The Spanish who came to Mexico became addicted to chocolate drinks. To the point that the ladies had their servants make it and serve it during mass. This annoyed the Bishop of Chiapas, who forbade the practice. Until someone poisoned his hot chocolate and killed him! (Historical note: The Snopes website debunks this as a legend, although the story has been circulated since the 17th Century.)
Chocolate moved from Mexico to Spain as the aristocrats returned home, bringing their new-found drink with them. It was quite expensive, therefore quite exclusive, so of course it swept through the royal courts of Austria, France and England, as well as Spain. When Anne of Austria married Louis XIII of France, she brought with her a servant (a molina) whose only job was to make and serve the royal hot chocolate.
I was amazed at the variety of accessories used to make and serve chocolate (especially hot chocolate) over the years. Various pots, whisks, cups (including mustache cups), and molds are all represented in the museum, including a chocolate set once owned by Marie Antoinette.
I also learned specifically about Belgian chocolate, and how critical Belgium was in the development and marketing of eating chocolate. Basically, the Belgians invented filled chocolates (which they call “pralines”). In fact, Neuhaus (the chocolate store I happened to stop at yesterday) not only was one of the first stores to sell filled chocolates, they invented the box they sell them in!
One of the things I can’t help but wonder about is how the intensive and counter-intuitive chocolate-making process evolved. You basically take something inedible, separate it into its various parts, ferment some of those parts, dry them, separate the result into its different components, then recombine the components with added ingredients to make chocolate!
Left: a cocoa pod… the dark mass in the center is separated and fermented, then dried to become cocoa beans. The beans are then roasted and winnowed to separate out the nib (the crunchy bit) from the shell. The nibs are then ground into cocoa solids, while some are pressed to separate into cocoa powder and cocoa butter.
Things then get recombined as the cocoa solids are ground with sugar, cocoa butter and lecithin and heated in a process called conching, which produces chocolate liquor.
The chocolate liquor is then tempered (worked when melted to produce smaller, more delicate crystals) and molded into the final forms for eating.
But however chocolate has come to us, I’m glad it did. And as the first chocolate in Europe was sold in pharmacies, it seems only appropriate for me to close with the health benefits of chocolate, as detailed by Choco-Story:
- Does chocolate cause cavities? No! In fact, it contains three substances that have anti-cavity properties (tannins, fluorides and phosphates). So it’s actually prevents cavities!
- Is chocolate an aphrodisiac? Well, sort of! The chemicals in chocolate (including caffeine and serotonin) reduce stress and anxiety and counteract fatigue. All of which is good for romance…
- Does chocolate help cause acne? Acne is caused by excess sebum in the skin, so nope, chocolate has no relationship to acne!
- Does chocolate cause high cholesterol? After much complicated chemistry stuff, the museum concludes chocolate contains 28% saturated fatty acids (bad) and 69% oleic acid (which reduces cholesterol levels). So, it’s actually good for you!
- Does chocolate make you fat? Well, here the museum hedges a little – “If you are slim you can, for example, eat dark chocolate and you will not gain weight. If you are overweight, slim down first, then you can reintroduce chocolate into your diet. If you consume it in moderation, you will not get fat.”
So there you go, feel free to enjoy that chocolate guilt-free!
Now for the most important info — do you get free samples at the chocolate museum? But of course! As you watch the final demonstration (making and filling the famous Belgian pralines), they pass around the basic chocolate tablets, and as you leave, you get a sample of the pralines made in the last session. But they also sell an admission ticket that includes a self-guided chocolate walking tour of the city, where more samples were definitely included!
(And I’ll write a separate article on the Fries Museum… stay tuned!)
PS – One more piece of chocolate trivia — Leo Hendrik Baeckeland invented the first chocolate molds, which were made out of what became known as Bakelite!