HOW TO BUY...
Chocolate in Belgium
It's right there and it's calling to you: "Eat me, eat me!" But how do you choose the very best, in a country that's renowned for its sweets?
A fine place to start is around Brussels' famed Grand-Place, where every third shop seems to be selling chocolate. Don't drive yourself nuts trying to pinpoint the perfect vendor. The Belgian government keeps strict control over chocolate production, so bad batches are rare. If you're worried, look for the AMBAO label with the white cocoa bean, which guarantees the freshest, tastiest ingredients--and no vegetable fats or genetically modified additives.
High, low, and little
Their garish yellow signs may set off your tourist-trap detector, but Leonidas chocolate shops--as ubiquitous in Belgium as Starbucks is in the States--offer decent value. A one-kilo box (2.2 pounds) of assorted chocolates is $36.50, or order by the piece for about $1 per. High in snob factor and price is Mary Chocolatier, on rue Royale in Brussels. Mary's manons--smooth sugar paste around a ball of cream and walnuts, flavored with vanilla, coffee, or chocolate--cost $53 for a one-kilo box. Smaller, family-owned stores often make for fun and friendly shopping. Every month, Antwerp's Burie Chocolatier displays a new chocolate and marzipan sculpture in its window. A 12-piece box of the "chocolate diamonds" (gem shaped and made of milk, dark, and white chocolate) runs $8.50.
Step up to the glass
Prices are set, either by the piece, gram, or box, so don't bother haggling. Premade boxes are popular, but if you're picky or curious, order by the piece. English is widely spoken, especially in Brussels, so feel free to ask questions and be specific in any requests. If you want to taste before you buy, you should bear in mind that the mom-and-pop shops are more likely than the big chain stores to dole out samples.
Melt in your mouth--not in your luggage
Pack chocolates you intend to bring home in your carry-on so that they don't melt or get crushed. Expensive chocolates often include fresh cream and can't be stored for more than two weeks. (The cheaper the chocolates, the longer the shelf life.) Keep them fresh longer by placing them in a closed box in your refrigerator. For optimal taste, take them out of the fridge 20 minutes before eating--if you can wait.