For the love of chocolate: We visit the home of the €1,400 Easter egg
Our self-confessed chocoholic travels to Belgium for a delicious masterclass at the luxury Godiva atelier - home to the €1,400 Easter egg
My childhood dream has finally come true: I'm standing in the middle of a chocolate factory, surrounded by tonnes of the finest Belgian chocolates, with my mouth watering as delicious aromas waft under my nose. Willy Wonka isn't here, but I've won the golden ticket, so to speak, and with it a trip to the Godiva chocolate atelier in the middle of Brussels.
I'm choosing to ignore my less-than-glamorous appearance - my hair is tucked up in a cap, I'm wearing scrubs and plastic covers over my shoes, and gloves cover the hands that have already been scrubbed with medicated soap. A green light signals that I'm clean enough so there is no risk of contamination of any of the products.
I'm at the atelier's Innovation Centre, watching chef chocolatier Ilse Wilmots instructing on how to coat a chocolate toffee and pipe a design on top. The room is filled with the tantalising scent of cashew nuts being caramelised, and happily I get to sample plenty of chocolates and ingredients, as Ilse and her colleagues explain the techniques they use in creating and perfecting their products.
It's somewhat liberating to be in an environment where chocolate is being celebrated in all its delicious, decadent glory. These days, the war on sugar means that we're afraid to admit to loving chocolate, which has become the thing we all try to deny ourselves. Baywatch babe Pamela Anderson famously claimed that chocolate was better than sex, but she still managed to rock that red swimsuit. And a square of dark chocolate a day tends to be the advice given by health professionals, but give me a break - who eats just one square?
Not the Irish anyway, because global figures by Forbes show that we really, really love chocolate, and only the Swiss and the Germans eat more of the delicious, sweet stuff than we do. We consume 16.3 pounds of it per head every year, which is the equivalent of 145 Mars bars or 164 Dairy Milks each, and the chocolate market in Ireland is valued at an impressive €621m. Don't know about you, but I certainly enjoyed every mouthful.
Tomorrow is Easter Sunday, a day that chocolate is celebrated rather than scourged. As a nation, we will chomp our way through the holiday by munching on chocolate eggs by Cadbury, Nestlé, Mars, Caffrey's and Rowntree Mackintosh, not to mention the luxury brands like Lily O'Brien's, Lindt, Butlers and, of course, Godiva. According to recycling organisation, Repak, we consumed eight eggs per household in 2015 - or a whopping 17.5 million eggs in total.
For my part, I'm a dedicated chocoholic and am also an equal opportunities one. I have seldom met a chocolate bar I didn't get on famously with, although my current favourites are Double Decker, Star Bar and Cadbury's Marvellous Creations. Hot chocolate is my favourite hot drink, and Eddie Rocket's chocolate malts really float my boat - so you can imagine my delight when I was the only Irish person invited to celebrate Godiva's 90th birthday at its Belgian atelier. Clearly, I am willing to suffer for my art…
Chocolate can be traced back to Mesoamerica in 1900 BC. The Aztecs believed that cacao seeds were a gift from the God of wisdom, Quetzalcoatl, and they had so much value they were used as a form of currency. Chocolate reached Europe in the 1500s and became popular, first as a drink and later in solid form, over the next 100 years. Today, Switzerland and Belgium - where the soft centred praline was invented in 1912 - are the world leaders in luxury chocolates. Godiva, named after Lady Godiva, is one of Belgium's most famous brands. Founded in 1926 by the Draps family, it has captured the discerning chocolate-lovers' imagination over the past 90 years.
The atelier is situated in a side street off the city of Brussels. From the outside it looks fairly ordinary, and as my group was ushered in the door into a meeting room for our introductory talk, we were most pleased to see boxes of chocolates on every table.
Once we sampled some and were scrubbed up, we entered the chocolate hub. While there wasn't a river of chocolate flowing through the place, and there were no Oompa Loompas singing and dancing, we still experienced a touch of magic.
As you'd expect from a company supplying 80 countries, much of the work is done by machine, but there were plenty of artisan touches. We watched as five women expertly hand-painted feathers on the signature Blanc Café chocolate, a delicious coffee-infused chocolate ganache in a smooth white chocolate shell. It was originally designed for the film première of Gone with the Wind, and was inspired by the feather in the hat of heroine Scarlett O'Hara. Next came a masterclass with the five chef chocolatiers, who demonstrated chocolate-coating techniques to us and hand-decorated individual chocolates. They explained that the shape and texture and even colour of each chocolate has a bearing on how we perceive its taste. Because we eat with all of our senses, external circumstances make a difference to your chocolate experience. For example, if you were given a white chocolate filled with strawberry ganache to taste, followed then by a pink one with the same filling, you would perceive the latter to have a deeper strawberry flavour, even though they were the same.
Godiva takes chocolate-making very seriously, sourcing cocoa beans direct from farmers in Africa, parts of Asia and Central and South America. It is constantly innovating, by developing new products, flavours and shapes, which is probably the key to the company's longevity.
The classic Belgian chocolate range now comprises hand-crafted praline chocolates, truffles, ganaches, chocolates, hot chocolate and coffee. Godiva owns and operates more than 450 boutiques and shops worldwide, including a concession at Brown Thomas in Dublin.
Then, it was time to get stuck in, and I watched keenly as Ilse skilfully dipped a salted toffee caramel in chocolate and then piped a cute design on it. It was a bit like the old TV programme The Generation Game when I attempted the same thing - the fiddly sweet kept slipping off my chocolate fork and into the vat of chocolate, and the design was more of a splurty squiggle… It still tasted delicious though!
According to Ilse (46) who has been with Godiva for 25 years and developed its famous mousse meringue collection, they regularly work on the development of new products with chefs from Japan, China and the Middle East, an alliance that has introduced them to new ingredients. "I was surprised that ingredients like black tea, ginger and some spices worked so well with chocolate," she says. "You have to try new things. I don't usually like flowers in chocolate, but I really love the new raspberry and rose Egérie Noir chocolate that we have developed for our 90th birthday."
She's right on that one - the new chocolate is absolutely stunning. Created by one of Godiva's expert chef chocolatiers, Jean Apostolou, it's a rich, dark Belgian chocolate sweet, filled with smooth raspberry ganache, and delicately balanced with essence of rose petals. It literally melts in your mouth. Later that evening, I was one of the 140 lucky guests from all over the world invited to Godiva's 90th birthday party at the city's Albert Hall, where we were guided through a multi-sensory, immersive experience.
We visited lots of over-sized pods to experience chocolates from Godiva's new Gold Anniversary Collection through each of our five senses. We sampled the chocs on their own and then in the dark, with coloured light beaming on us, wearing headphones, etc, to see how the experience was enhanced. In each case, the second bite tasted slightly different to the first, depending on the effect that was being applied, which was a great lesson for me in neuroscience.
In addition, Ilse and her fellow chef chocolatiers demonstrated their culinary artistry through live, interactive demonstrations. There was an 'Aroma Organ' set up containing all the different ingredients Godiva blends together to make its collections, such as fruit, nuts, herbs and spices, and we were invited to have a sniff of each one.
The pièce de résistance was Godiva's amazing 2016 Atelier Giant Easter Eggs, created by Jean Apostolou. The 10 stunning hand-crafted eggs, weighing over 14kg and retailing at €1,400, are made from the finest white, milk and dark chocolate. The delicate patterning on them is inspired by Belgian lace, and at 66cm, they are enough to last you until next Easter.
Needless to say, I arrived home from Brussels several pounds heavier - and that was just the 16-piece Signature Truffle Set (€31.50), 24-piece Gold Collection (€38.50) and six-piece Coeur Iconique (€14) stuffed in my suitcase. I couldn't afford a giant egg, but it would defeat even me, a supreme chocoholic, anyway, so tomorrow, you'll find me breaking open the regular 175g Easter egg and dreaming that I was back in chocolate paradise.
Godiva chocolates are available from Brown Thomas, Grafton Street, Dublin
Can chocolate be good for you?
Chocolate gets bad press at times on the health front, but we could do a lot worse. A Harvard study found that those who ate modest amounts of chocolate up to three times a month lived almost a year longer than those who didn't eat any, possibly because cocoa contains antioxidants. If you're worried about your own consumption as you crack open an egg for breakfast tomorrow, do so safe in the knowledge that chocolate releases feel-good endorphins that can reduce anxiety. These are the same calming, endorphins that are released during sex. It's also an old wives' tale that chocolate gives you spots. In fact, it's high in magnesium and reduces water retention.
What chocolate should I choose?
Godiva's chef chocolatier Ilse Wilmots recommends choosing something a bit different - such as chocolates with unusual flavours - when you're giving chocolate as a gift.
Her favourite chocolates are between 72pc and 85pc cocoa, which is very strong in flavour, but she says that if you're having a cup of tea or coffee with it, 50pc will be fine. "If chocolate melts too quickly, a lot of time there is too much fat in it," she advises. "You have to taste the cocoa and not any fatty taste."
Chocolate is a complete package and a sensory one, Ilse says, so the shape or design of the chocolate has a bearing on how it will taste.
When it comes to Easter, she is a fan of Godiva Mini Chocolate Easter Eggs (€26), which contain a variety of fillings, including raspberry cream, hazelnut praline, lemon ganache and speculoos mousse.