Since inventing the praline more than 100 years ago, Belgium has cultivated a £3.5bn chocolate industry that accounted for 9 per cent of Belgium’s food sales last year.
Belgian chocolate, one of the country’s most popular exports, has become the ultimate seal of quality and taste, but for Belgians it runs much deeper. It is a matter of national pride – and the industry is going through an identity crisis.
Aside from the general pressures that come with operating in a globalised world where big fish eat the smaller ones, Belgian’s chocolatiers exist in a market where prices are rising, global demand is soaring, and where some of its most established chocolate manufacturers are being accused of muddying the good Belgian name.
Galler is the latest in a string of well-known brands in Belgium being bought by foreign companies.
As of last month, Galler is owned by the Qatari royal family, with Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, the emir of Qatar, appointed as creative director. The news prompted Flemish newspaper Het Nieuwsblad to ask: “How Belgian is Belgian chocolate, if just about all the top players are in foreign hands?”
And this isn’t an exaggeration. Sixty-year-old manufacturer Guylian is owned by the South Korean conglomerate Lotte; Chocolat Jacques, founded in 1896, is owned by the Dutch business Baronie; and Côte-d’Or and Meurisse belong to the multinational Mondelēz. And this, according to some of Belgium’s top chocolatiers, is in conflict with the battle to protect the heritage, knowledge, expertise and processes that are all unique to Belgium.
Steven Candries, sales director at Guylian, argues that it is possible for companies to have foreign owners and remain true to their Belgian heritage. He insists the Guylian takeover 10 years ago “hasn’t changed anything”, and that it still produces everything in Belgium. In fact, this year it has pledged to become the first Belgian chocolate manufacturer to use no palm oil in its products, which has been linked to environmental, social and health concerns.
But some Belgian manufacturers, Candries points out, make their chocolates in factories abroad, and still call it Belgian. For example, Godiva has a factory in Pennsylvania, US.
According to Guy Gallet, the secretary general of Choprabisco (the Royal Belgian Association of the Biscuit, Chocolate, Pralines and Confectionary), it’s less important who the manufacturer’s owners are.
“What’s most important for us is that the chocolate is made here. Foreign companies don’t invest in Belgian chocolate with the aim of locating it to another county, because they couldn’t then use the Belgian chocolate name,” he says.
In some cases, however, these foreign takeovers can affect product lines. Brussels-based chocolate manufacturer Godiva, for example, is almost 100 years old and was bought by American firm Campbell Soup Company in 1966 and subsequently purchased by the Turkish Yıldız Holding in 2007. Last year the company found itself in a PR nightmare when it announced it would no longer be making pralines containing liqueur, which was, up until then, one of its signature chocolates, in order to appeal to more people.
Leading Belgian chocolatier Dominique Persoone doesn’t approve. “My grandmother always bought Godiva when I was child. They were very famous for liquor chocolate but now, with their new owners, it’s forbidden. But starting to change original recipes is not a good idea,” he tells.
In the meantime, chocolatiers have written the ‘chocolate code’, which states that the complete process of mixing, refining and conching must be done in Belgium to be considered Belgian chocolate. But the code, produced by Choprabisco, isn’t compulsory, and many companies are finding ways to get around it.
“Company names and brands contain Belgian geographical names, typical symbols of flags, the Belgian royal family, anything recognisable as Belgian,” Steven Candries says, but those who break the rules can only be given a stern speaking to, because there are no laws to protect Belgian chocolate from this.
“So many are abusing the label, we need to go a step further. We must go in a legal direction, and we hope that governments will make that possible – but certain countries won’t listen to European laws, which makes it fairly difficult,” he says.
Tourists to Belgium’s bigger cities, Dominique Persoone says, are targeted with boxes of chocolate decorated with the Belgian flag, but the products inside barely even resemble chocolate.
“In Brussels, if you see signs for artisan, handmade chocolate, you can be sure it’s a trap. Real chocolate-makers don’t put these things on our windows, and so it’s difficult to show the difference. We have a lot of chocolate gangsters,” he says.
But this isn’t a battle of superiority, chocolatiers argue. It’s about patriotism. The battle to save the Belgian chocolate name, Candries says, isn’t necessarily about other chocolate not being as good.
“You just can’t say something is made in Belgium when it isn’t. When chocolate manufacturers outside of the country put ‘Belgian style’ on their packaging, this has nothing to do with Belgium, it doesn’t exist. It’s like saying something is ‘grandmother style’, when all our grandmothers all cook differently”.
The Belgian chocolate label will continue to mean different things to different people. For Belgian’s top chocolatiers, it means handcrafted chocolate using years of expertise and the finest ingredients, made entirely in Belgium. For high street bakery Greggs, on the other hand, it means a £1 Belgian chocolate dessert pot, a chocolate mousse containing palm oil, with 5 per cent chocolate sourced from Belgium.