BRUSSELS — Forget music. A glance at storefronts around Brussels at this time of year will tell you that chocolate is the food of love.
In the city that regards itself as the world’s capital of chocolate, St. Valentine’s Day is big business. This week chocolatiers across Brussels are working overtime to encase the ardor-inducing confections into heart-shaped packages, rose-petal wrappings and raspberry-hued hat boxes.
This year however, the grim economic news is casting a shadow over the festival of romance and Belgium’s chocolate makers are asking if cash-strapped Casanovas will be willing to buy the annual ration of cream, cognac or almond-filled treats.
So far, the verdict is mixed. Some of the chocolate boutiques overlooking the cobbles of the old city confess that sales are down, but at Chocolatier Mary — which supplies the Belgian Royal Palace with just about the poshest chocs in town — the mood is buoyant.
“People are not giving up all their pleasures, maybe they’ll miss a holiday or a weekend away, but they are not going to sit home eating bread and drinking water. Chocolate is an affordable luxury,” said the manager, Michel Boey.
“Maybe it will come later, but for the moment we don’t see any impact, on the contrary we’re expanding,” he told GlobalPost amid the Louis VX furniture and gilded cherubs of his 1919 store. In fact Mary is about to open a new workshop so it can export its 70 different chocolates, such as the “Gabriel” with cream and walnuts, the “Louise” with black chocolate mousse, and the milk chocolate “Paola” with vanilla and praline.
Chocolate might not be recession-proof, but there are figures to back up Boey’s upbeat assessment. On Monday, the Swiss chocolate industry released statistics showing sales were up 2 percent in 2008, with the average citizen of the Alpine nation gobbling up 12.4 kilos (27.3 pounds) of chocolate, up 100 grams (3.5 oz.) from 2007.
“People eat chocolate in good times to celebrate and in hard times to feel better,” said Josiane Kremer, a spokesperson for Barry Callebaut, the Zurich-based upmarket chocolatier.
Since Jean Neuhaus Jr. opened his marble and crystal store in 1857, ornate chocolate shops have become as essential to the fabric of Brussels as pubs in Dublin or pizzerias in Naples.
Belgium, a nation of 10 million, boasts over 2,000 chocolate shops, ranging from the original Neuhaus store in the world’s oldest shopping mall, to cool modern palaces of choco-chic like the flagship of the Pierre Marcolini empire on the historic Grand Sablon square. Marcolini attracts flocks of tourists and sells them top-dollar chocolates filled with innovative flavors, such as orange-and-thyme, jasmine and lemon tea.
Across the square sits the venerable Wittamer patisserie, cafe and chocolate store, which has been selling temptations since 1910.
For Valentine's Day 2009, Wittamer is offering raspberry flavored chocolate hearts filled with bitter ganache at 10.50 euros ($13.50) for a box of nine. Such delights are still drawing in the crowds, but even this upscale outlet said customers are feeling the pinch.
“What sets this crisis apart is that the top-of-the-line sector is affected,” said Myriam Wittamer, granddaughter of the founder. “I hear it in boutiques and jewellers — it’s not that people don’t have the money, but they realize that they’ve lost a lot.” People are still buying chocolate for Valentine’s day, she said, but perhaps a little less than in previous years.
Experts, however, believe chocolate addicts will always be prepared to pay for their fix regardless of the financial freeze.
“We all know that chocolate does improve moods. It’s very simple because it fulfills two innate preferences, for sweet taste and creamy texture,” said Henk Smit, a research fellow at Oxford Brookes University, who has spent years studying the psychology of chocolate.
“It’s something that provides comfort at a time when people need comfort,” he added.
However, the man colleagues call “Dr. Chocolate” had bad news for would-be Romeos hoping to make a conquest with their Valentine’s box of goodies.
“I would not say it’s an aphrodisiac. We can’t assume that there’s anything to do with love or sex in there at all,” he insisted. “It’s absolute nonsense.”
More Valentine's Day dispatches: