'I l ne faut pas croquer," he tells me. Don't bite. " Vous voulez le lécher, sucer. Lentement." You want to lick it, suck it. Slowly.
We're in the upper room of a gorgeous old three-storey house, renovated into black, white and glass planes, on the Place du Grand Sablon. We're talking chocolate, this very committed salesman and I, in a way that makes me think that all those women who say they like chocolate better than sex should come to Brussels, where they won't have to choose.
The chocolate in question is Pierre Marcolini's Grand Cru, a small, square ganache made from Venezuelan, Javanese and Madagascar cocoa beans. The upper room is the praline department of Pierre Marcolini's flagship shop in the city that gave us not only ganache, but chocolates in boxes and those spiced chocolates - pepper, salt, cardamom - that are popping up everywhere now.
That latter innovation came from Marcolini himself, I'm told, whose shop I'm now standing in front of, several of his tile-like boxes under my arm. Those who like layers of imagery will also like the fact the medieval crossbowman used to practise here on the Place du Grand Sablon. The Cupid associations, with all that chocolate in the background, are perfect for Valentine's Day.
Every chocolate shop I'm visiting on this trip has offered me one free chocolate to let me know what I'm about to get, or what I'll be missing if I don't. The effect is not dissimilar to walking through Amsterdam's red light district, where you're offered glimpses through windows of the pleasures inside.
But the great thing about Brussels, and what makes it the best Valentine's city in the world, is that it's not just about chocolates. Forget what Paula Abdul said. More couples are the result of complementary attractions than opposite ones. Though you may not like the exact same things, the things you do like can often go very well together - like reading and crossword puzzles, surfing and tanning, or chocolate and beer.
And though Brussels is far and away the world's best chocolate city, it's also in the running for the best beer city too. There are a thousand beers available here; and, like the chocolates, the best of them are made within a few kilometres of where you'll be drinking them.
When you step out of Marcolini, turn left, walk about 60 paces, and you'll be at Café Leffe, where you can get one of the eponymous blond beauties to set off those ginger chocolates you just picked up. And like those little chocolates, the beer is served in small portions, in this case 330-millilitre goblets. Just enough to get a taste, but not too much to prevent you from getting a lot more tastes at a lot more places. A tipsy Valentine is perfectly acceptable; desirable even. A stumbling one, not so much.
The city is full of places to drink beer, so be guided by the chocolate. There are four must-visit chocolate destinations, if you bypass the stuff you can get back home such as Godiva, Leonidas and Guylian. So, walk northwest from Café Leffe and into the Grand Place, the town square (if you're interested, you can visit the first Godiva shop, which is still here). Stop and look for a moment. This is the square Victor Hugo thought the most beautiful in Europe.
Then head to Les Brasseurs de la Grand-Place, a brew pub with blonds, ambers, triples and darks, as well as five Trappistes, barrel beers and a couple of the self-fermented, sparkling beers known as gueuze lambic that are as close as beer gets to champagne. I recommend a goblet of the Brussels apple beer before heading across the square to Galler.
Like the other shops I visited this trip, Galler has decided to bypass North America in favour of the Middle East and Japan. It's a small shop, famous for its langues de chat and ganache-filled chocolate bars. I get my free sample there, and though I don't get the pillow talk I got at Marcolini, I do notice the woman behind the counter looking at me while
I'm tasting it, amicably but intently watching my eyes to gauge my pleasure. This is a town that takes its chocolate not only seriously but sensuously.
Northwest of the Grand Place are the Galeries Royales St. Hubert, a mid-19th-century glass-ceilinged arcade where Hugo and Alexandre Dumas used to hang out, and where you'll find our final two chocolate stops. Corné Port-Royal, founded in 1932, makes one of the two best champagne truffles I've ever had (the other was from Teuscher in Zurich). There's even a champagne bar a couple of storefronts down that will serve you a flute to go with it.
Across the arcade is Neuhaus, which has been there since 1857. It's here that ganache was invented, and where Mme. Neuhaus came up with the idea of boxes for chocolates.
Continue north through the Galeries and out the other side and you'll find A la Mort Subite, the bar that developed the most famous of all the lambics. A long, narrow bar with its original 1928 art nouveau-ish decor intact, its house favourite, the kriek, has a slight raspberry flavour that goes well with almost any chocolate. You and your companion will both want to take a morceau out now, and coat your mouths with it before you take that first sip of the Mort Subite. And remember, don't bite. Lick it first, suck it. Slowly.
Special to The Globe and Mail
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The cost of romance
You could always order these chocolates for your Valentine, of course - though if you do want to go all out and experience the chocolate city first-hand, just consider the extra expense a sort of Valentine's Day surcharge. Your sweet is worth it, right?
- Pierre Marcolini Rue des Minimes, 1 Place du Grand Sablon; 32-2-514-12-06; www.marcolini.be. Box of 25 pieces (delivered): $130 With airfare for two from Vancouver: $2,675.72
- Galler 44 rue au Beurre; 32-2-502-02-66; www.galler.com. La boîte ronde (delivered): $105 With airfare for two from Calgary: $2,761
- Neuhaus Créateur Chocolatier Galerie de la Reine 25-27; 888-261-2064; www.neuhaus.be Neuhaus Tin Heart, Caprice and Tentation (delivered): $165 With airfare for two from Toronto: $2,316.38
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