Wednesday, May 31, 2017

What makes Belgium’s chocolate so popular? By Martin Banks

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When you think about chocolate, Belgium is probably the first place that comes to mind. If so, you are not alone. In a recent article in the U.S-based Huffington Post - “16 Ways Europeans are Just Better at Life”- the one ranked number eight was Belgian chocolate. Belgium is well known for its chocolate history and its chocolate is, nowadays, a gold standard for the world. High-street brands such as Leonidas, Neuhaus and Godiva are excellent, but even those you find in supermarkets, such as Galler, are very good too. But there are hundreds of other less-known brands and artisan chocolatiers to discover: Dumon, at Torhout, for example. It’s even listed by Gault and Millau, a bible for food lovers. As most Belgians will know, it’s impossible to walk more than a few metres in Brussels alone without bumping into an excellent chocolatier. Chocolate is estimated to be 3,000 years old but what is it exactly that makes Belgian chocolate so famous and, in an ever-competitive market, can it stay ahead of the pack? To find out how the country earned its formidable reputation, first a little history.

Belgian chocolate history

The first trace of chocolate in Belgium dates back to 1635, when records show that some chocolate was bought by the Abbot of Baudeloo in Ghent. Towards the end of the 17th century Emmanuel Soares de Rinero (who was from Portugal or Spain) was issued a license to manufacture chocolate in Brabant. Chocolate making was not considered a profession at the time but more of a sideline for apothecaries and merchants. As in the rest of Europe, chocolate making really took hold in Belgium in the 18th century, when several manufacturing centres sprang up in all the major cities. At that time, chocolate was worth 15 loaves of bread, so naturally only the upper classes could afford chocolate drinks (then the most common form of consuming chocolate). Chocolate appeared in the kitchen in the late 18th century in all kinds of desserts (cream dessert, cakes, biscuits etc). And when the industrialisation process got underway in the 19th century, the price of chocolate began to fall, making it more accessible. For Belgian chocolate, 1912 was a very significant milestone: that year Jean Neuhaus (often referred to as Belgium’s most famous chocolatier although he was actually born in Switzerland) invented the “Praline” (a filled chocolate bonbon and a Belgian specialty) in Brussels. Three years later, his wife invented “the Ballotin”, the typical chocolate box in Belgium.

Leading producer of chocolate

Fast forward to the present and, with over 2,000 chocolate shops throughout the country, the reputation of Belgian chocolate remains as high as ever. Belgium has the world’s biggest chocolate factory at Wieze in East Flanders. Brussels Airport is said to retail the most chocolate of any airport in the world. The country also supplies 20 per cent of the world’s industrial chocolate. There's even a chocolate academy in Wieze, opened in 2014 by Callebaut, the renowned chocolate maker, on the same spot where it started producing its first chocolate over 100 years ago. It offers pastry, confectionery, bakery and culinary workshops. Callebaut is the largest importer of cocoa nibs and processes most of the beans into untempered chocolate for distribution in Belgium. For the uninitiated, untempered chocolate dries slowly, does not harden fully and has a dull blotchy finish.  Tempered chocolate hardens to a glossy and firm finish. It is estimated that the chocolate sector in Belgium represents 10.4% of global turnover. Overall, the Belgian chocolate, praline and confectionery industry comprises 332 companies, supports 11,900 jobs and has an annual turnover of some €5 billion.

The secret behind chocolate quality

Experts say Belgian chocolate enjoys an enviable international reputation thanks in particular to the fine balanced taste created by the quality of the cocoa butter. Since 2003, European Union legislation has allowed the use of up to 5% of vegetable fats, other than cocoa butter (such as palm oil) in chocolate. But this added ingredient is regarded as tantamount to a loss of quality, hence chocolate manufacturers in Belgium continue to use 100% cocoa butter. For each of the past four years, Belgian chocolate has even had its own show, the annual Brussels Chocolate Fair, which brings together chocolate lovers from all over the world for a veritable bean feast of all things chocolate. Naturally, the country also has an assorted array of chocolate museums, one of the best known being the Brussels Museum of Cocoa and Chocolate which tells the Choco-Story. Peggy Van Lierde, its director and daughter of the founder, is proud that over 75,000 people visited the museum last year. However, she says that the role of the port of Antwerp in the story of Belgian chocolate should not be underestimated. “Antwerp is, after Amsterdam, the biggest port that imports cocoa in Europe: around 200,000 tonnes of cocoa is imported per year via the Flemish city.” Asked why Belgian chocolate continues to be so popular, she replies that one reason is because the Belgians like good food and, therefore, “Belgian chocolatiers have to satisfy their customers.” Brussels is not only the self-proclaimed “capital of the EU” but also, as far as most chocolate aficionados are concerned, the “world capital of chocolate.” It is also home to Mary, a chocolatier founded in 1919 by Mary Delluc which, through the years, has been a favourite of the Belgian Royal family. The secret of its success is that it makes small batches of chocolate, so they do not have to be stored (which is when they lose their flavour). But Belgium boasts a new class of chocolatiers like the renowned Pierre Marcolini, who are finding innovative and ever-sophisticated ways to hold on to the country’s chocolate crown. They have broken away from traditional pralines and infusing ganaches with exotic flavours like wasabi and creating such imaginative pairings as blackcurrant and cardamom.  

Research on chocolate

Another example of how Belgium refuses to rest on its chocolate-covered laurels is the work being done at Cacaolab, a spin-off of Ghent University and a unique small-scale experimental chocolate and fillings production facility. Its researchers probe the science of chocolate making, with the potential to dramatically improve quality and shelf life. They partner with industry to create innovative chocolate products and stimulate the export potential of Belgian chocolate. Given the relatively high level of chocolate consumption in Belgium (6 kg per person every year is one of the highest in the world though still less than the British), it is perhaps encouraging to discover that latest research has found that chocolate is actually good for the brain. Chocolate, according to Nature Neuroscience, has also been found to reduce blood pressure and the risk of stroke. Dark chocolate, with 70 per cent cocoa solids, is the healthiest, since it has less sugar. So, forget obesity - who wouldn’t want to devour chocolate to keep their brain working as well as it did 20 years ago, especially if the chocolate is made in Belgium! The Brussels Times

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Chicago weddings among most expensive in U.S. By Lauren Hill

Looking to get hitched? Prepare to fork over the equivalent of a year's worth of in-state tuition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The average cost of a wedding rang in at $35,329 in 2016 — an all-time high — according to an annual study done by wedding planning website The Knot. Chicago couples can expect to pay almost double that. The report surveyed nearly 13,000 brides and grooms across the U.S. Manhattan topped the list at $78,464, followed by Long Island ($67,831) and New Jersey ($62,606). Chicago came in fourth with an average price tag of $60,035, down ever so slightly ($1,230) from 2015. This doesn't surprise Charlene Liang, owner and lead planner of Sweet Chic Events, a Chicago-based wedding planning company. She said venue cost is what makes the Windy City so pricey. "We are lucky to have such a variety of venues in the city, but they are expensive to rent," Liang said. Among the most popular Chicago locations: Ovation, The Ivy Room and The Chicago History Museum, according to Liang. The Chicago suburbs, which The Knot considers a separate category, hasn't made the top 25 since 2014, when it came in just over 33K. Nationally, couples spend the most on venue (averaging $16,107), the reception band ($4,156) and photography ($2,783), according to the report. It lists catering at $71 per person. The couples Liang works with tend to spend the most on venue, food and beverage. When budgeting for venues, Liang recommends the bride and groom get a written proposal of the total venue costs before committing, so there are no surprises. This prevents couples from becoming "venue poor," a term used by wedding planners when the majority of a couple's budget is spent on the event space, leaving little for food, music, dress, etc. "Off-premise" venues are a different ballgame entirely. Imagine a blank slate — ranging from $5,000 to $10,000, according to Liang — that doesn't include staff, tables and chairs, linens, catering or decor. Sweet Chic Events recommends couples start planning with an estimated guest count and their top three priorities — where they want to spend the most money. They should also consider which elements are not important. For most of Liang's clients, that would be transportation or invitations. The Knot report noted that while the amount of money spent on an average wedding has gone up, guest lists seem to have dwindled, implying couples are spending more per attendee and focusing attention on guests' experience. "Couples are also using their wedding day to make their first big statement as a couple," Kellie Gould, editor-in-chief of The Knot said in a press release. "From invitations to the reception band, couples are spending more to put their personal stamp on every detail." For example, 75 percent of couples surveyed said they had at least one "signature element," such as a signature cocktail. And 41 percent had some form of custom entertainment, including photo booths (most popular), games, musical performances and fireworks. Liang suggests saving money by getting married on less popular days or times, like midday Friday. To save on photography, only buy digital versions of the photos, and handle printing on your own. For off-premise venues, consider ordering liquor in bulk from companies like Binny's. But there are some penny-pinching ideas Liang says aren't worth the potential hassle. For one: having a friend or family member officiate the wedding, instead of getting a professional. The move may seem sentimental but can go downhill fast. To avoid disaster, make sure your loved one is well-prepared ahead of time. Some couples are opting to use an iPhone or music streaming app in lieu of a DJ or live band. But don't be surprised if some awkward silences ensue. "DJs are trained to know the rhythm of the room and how to get people to dance," Liang said. "We're trying to help the couple save but trying to get the professionals when needed." Couples can work with wedding planners or fly solo when it comes to budgeting out their big day. As for after? Let's just say, the 60K Chicago price tag does not include a honeymoon. Chicago Tribune

Monday, May 8, 2017

Your Song Baby !!

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Elton at 60

Yale Drama Series Prize Announces 2017 Winner By Andrew R. Chow

This year’s Yale Drama Series Prize has been awarded to Jacqueline Goldfinger for her play “Bottle Fly.” She will receive $10,000, and her play will receive a staged reading in London. “Bottle Fly” is a multigenerational family drama set in the Florida Everglades. “Its voice is passionate and straight-from-the-heart; the world it shows us is earthy, cruel and hilarious,” Nicholas Wright, the playwright who selected the winner, wrote in a statement. This is the award’s 11th year, and it is sponsored by the David Charles Horn Foundation. “Bottle Fly” will be published by the Yale University Press, and a staged reading will take place in November, at the National Theater Studio. The runners-up were Andrew Rosendorf, for “Cottontail,” and Carla Grauls, for “Natives.” One of last year’s runners-up, “The Wolves” by Sarah DeLappe, went on to become a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Another one of Ms. Goldfinger’s plays, “The Arsonists,” was developed at the Kennedy Center in Washington and is currently running in Philadelphia. International New York Times

Snow for Munich