They were like jewels. Wrapped up in a box of gold, shiny, mysterious. Some were adorned with a medallion-like disc, others had a little bulge on top - the promise of a sweet and crunchy nut inside. I knew not to touch the ones in shiny, colorful paper. Their insides, runny and spiked with liqueur, were sure to make me shiver and cringe. But there was one ... one I recognized from far away. One I knew and loved. White chocolate on the outside, a little bump where the hazelnut was, a smooth mocha buttercream and hazelnut paste inside ... No matter how many different chocolates there were, I always went for the Manon.
Familiarity is a powerful thing. So is the memory of all the faces pulled and chocolates spat out because of an unexpectedly horrible filling. Because in all honesty, these are the reasons why I still reach for the Manon today. The chocolate itself doesn't excite me anymore. It doesn't even match my taste in chocolate these days. Only, when faced with the great unknown that is a box of chocolates, it is safe and recognizable. It's the one I know and hide behind.
When I was asked to be part of a foodbloggers' jury at the Chocolaterie Awards last week, a national competition looking for the best Belgian chocolate, I couldn't help but feel a little nervous. I'd have to taste and judge 20 chocolates - 10 from professional chocolate makers and 10 from apprentices -, the contents of which would remain unknown to me until I actually took a bite. There would be nothing to hide behind. Nothing safe. Nothing recognizable. Somehow, it's at seemingly insignificant moments like these, hardly life-changing, that I bump into the boundaries of my comfort zone and that I'm reminded of how easily I, too, confine myself to it.
It may be good to bump into those boundaries from time to time. Good to be reminded of their presence and to realize that it takes a little effort to surpass them. Good to make the active and conscious decision to do so. I know I'm just talking about chocolates here, but even those can be a vehicle for growth.
The creations we were presented with at the Chocolaterie Awards were true works of art, of course. Tiny little concoctions that showcased the skill, effort and time that went into making them in a subtle, often humble way. Their rounded shapes, colorful decorations and tiny details were seductive without being obtrusive and the more I studied them, the more quiet excitement and curiosity took over from my initial hesitance. With small, attentive bites, I tasted and savored each one of them.
There were some familiar flavors - the tastes of caramel, peanuts, or speculoos - as well as a few that felt slightly out of place - a strawberry jelly, or a pineapple caramel -, but it was the very first chocolate I tasted that day that blew me away. As the paper-thin layer of milk chocolate, decorated in softly shimmering orange and yellow, cracked under the pressure of my teeth, it released a thick citrus jelly, candied orange and the most fantastic nougat hazelnut paste ... a pairing of flavors and textures that was soothing, yet surprising, and that satisfied with even a single, tiny bite. This chocolate, made by a 17 year old boy, fresh out of school, exuded elegance in every respect.
It was no surprise that Luuk Schaper's 'Citrus Special' was awarded the grand prize at the Chocolaterie Awards and I can only confirm that his was the kind of chocolate I was hoping to discover that day. I'm glad I opened myself up to it and believe there is so much more beauty and flavor to uncover in the many foods I tend to ignore, either out of habit or fear of the unknown. I just hope someone reminds me of this next time I reach for a Manon.