“Your hand and mouth agreed many years ago that, as far as chocolate is concerned, there is no need to involve your brain.” —Dave Barry
“Your suitcase is too heavy. Please open your bag.”
“Excuse me?” I asked, blinking at the Belgian ticket agent.
“Please open your bag.” He repeated.
That is exactly what I thought he’d said but I’d hoped I’d misheard. In the ten days I’d been in Belgium I only picked up on enough French to order breakfast or find a restroom. Belgium is a multi-lingual nation making it fairly easy for an English only tourist like myself to navigate. Like many of his countrymen, the agents English was good, probably excellent but as his impatience seemed to grow so did his accent.
“Please open your bag.” He hefted my bag on a table off to the side of the line. I reluctantly unzipped my suitcase revealing tidy stacks of chocolate bars, pralines, truffles, chocolate bunnies, long marshmallow ropes and jewelry like boxes delicately wrapped in tissue paper holding some of the finest confections the entire world. He dug through the bag examining the candy contents.
“You like chocolate?” He asked.
“Uh, yes. Yes I do.” I said sheepishly.
“Your suitcase is over capacity by 18 kilograms.”
“Oh that’s not so bad?” I started to sweat.
“That’s 40 American pounds!” He made it sound like a metric ton. “Your suitcase is over capacity. You will need to redistribute your chocolate or buy another seat on the plane.”
If you’ve ever watched those intervention shows on television like My 600 lb life you know that there is always a moment when the addict realizes they have a serious problem. When their lives have become so out of control they finally see they need to reassess every thing and admit they have a serious problem. That day in the Brussels airport ticket line was not that day. The real day came ten days earlier when I stepped off the plane from American and landed on European soil for the first time in March 2013.
I knew very little about Belgium before I’d arrived. I knew Brussels was the capital of the European Union and that waffles were huge. Of course, I knew Belgium was known for it’s fine chocolate but I didn’t in the slightest understand what that meant. Before Belgium I thought the finest chocolate in the world was made in America by Italian immigrants in San Fransisco.
But, oh was I wrong.
In the Spring of 2013, I traveled with a group of college forensic students to Belgium for an international tournament in Antwerp. We arrived a week before the tournament to tour the country. I’d never been to Europe and though I’d dreamed of going for years, I’d always anticipated my first trip would be with my husband and family and take place in Paris or Rome. But as a coach, professor and chaperone I had the opportunity to travel at a deep discount which made the offer impossible to pass up.
Because I was in Europe without anyone I knew very well I had the opportunity to wander streets and experience things for myself. This was a revelation for me. I’d been a wife and mother for nearly twenty years at the time. I’d forgotten what it was like to buy a meal only for myself.
As I wander through the streets of Brussels with excited students running ahead popping in and out of chocolate shops, I slipped inside a Neuhaus chocolate shop. It was as if I’d walked into Tiffany’s. Three beautiful women in finely tailored french skirts offered samples of chocolates on small silver trays. At first I was a little embarrassed and felt like I was a little out of place.
“Please try one.” A beautiful blonde offered a truffle. These were expensive chocolates, fine confections. Each truffle was close to 3 or 4 Euros. But she seemed eager, not pushy, to share. Like really share. I took the truffle and placed it in my mouth. “Oh. My. Wow!” It was incredible! I’d never tasted a chocolate so smooth and creamy before. “Do you like?” She beamed. “Yes, very much.” I nodded with my hand over my mouth. “Then try another.” She handed me a mint truffle than an orange flavored praline. I wanted to cry. I felt like I was so experienced when it came to food. I felt like such a foodie, but this chocolate was a revelation. And Neuhaus is a factory chocolate! Before the end of the trip I would learn about cottage industry chocolate and taste some of the finest chocolate in the entire world made by a family that likes to describe their chocolates to the buyer as if you are purchasing fine wine.
The women were so gracious and begged me to try one of each. I explained I wasn’t too familiar with the nuances of cocoa solids percentiles. I knew I liked my chocolate on the darker side and truffles were delicious but walking into the shop was like stepping out of darkness into the Renaissance. So I asked questions and I began to learn about all things chocolate.
Because I was alone, I could go where I wanted, taste what I wanted to taste and buy as much chocolate as I could carry.
Chocolate isn’t just an industry in Belgium. It’s an art form. Chocolatiers create glorious multi-tiered displays in jewel like palettes greens, pinks, blues and gold. Pralines, entirely different than the candy coated nuts we eat in the states, are hard shelled chocolates encasing creamy chocolate filled centers that swim in your mouth. It’s exquisite. The chocolate isn’t just better in Belgium, it’s divine. And I learned this wandering the streets of Brussels and Brugge and Antwerp. Godiva, Neuhaus, Leonidas even the grocery store chocolate Cote d’Or Noir was better than anything I’d ever experienced before. And I believe experience is the right word. You don’t eat Belgium chocolate. You experience it. And taste, buy and experience I did!
As cliche as it may sound I fell in love not only with chocolate in Belgium but I also fell in love with eating sweets for pleasure. Most of my life when I ate something sweet it was followed by guilt and even shame with the feeling that “I shouldn’t have done that”. But in Belgium, one chocolate was enough. When a food is really finely crafted, it doesn’t leave you hungry for more instead you feel satisfied. Nurtured.
Though I bought pounds of chocolate in Belgium, I surprisingly didn’t eat pounds of it while I was there. There was no need. I bought so much to bring home because I knew there was a good chance it would be a long time before I’d be able to return and I wanted to be able to eat fine chocolates when the mood struck. I wanted to fill my life with more experiences that left me feeling satisfied and nurtured. I didn’t want to eat to fill my stomach, I wanted to fill my soul too. That didn’t come with eating pounds of food. For me it comes with crafting a meal well. Keeping it simple and using good quality ingredients and then eating it as if it deserves a place on a silver platter. It can be as simple as an apple or as refined as a chocolate filled Dumon praline. Eat food not just to eat. Eat to experience. Though it may require you to buy a seat for your suitcase.