Paul Stump unwraps one of Belgium’s most enduring public images – and never mind the calories.
A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down – those were the words the Sherman Brothers put in the mouth of Mary Poppins, and they are as fitting a way as any to begin examining the forthcoming centenary of the invention of one of Belgium’s gifts to the civilized world; the chocolate praline, which first went on sale in Brussels in 1912.
It originated in a shop at 25-27 Galerie de la Reine. It was a cover-all-bases emporium, a sweetshop and a druggist, set up in 1857 by Jean Neuhaus, a chocolatier from Neuchatel in the French-speaking Swiss canton of Vaud, and his chemist brother in law. Cough linctus, pastilles and licorice sticks to combat gastric disorders were their big sellers at the start, not raspberry creams and hazelnut clusters, yet they helped establish a cornerstone of Belgium’s cultural identity in the 20th century. Is this to overstate the case? This writer believes not.
National calling cards, associative trademarks, popular synonyms, are funny, sometimes quirky and trivial things – both Belgium and Switzerland are synonymous with chocolate in the popular consumer’s imagination throughout the world, which makes it apt that the man credited with the invention of the classic Belgian praline should be a native of Switzerland.
One would have thought that, by now, at least one of the three daily international express trains running between Brussels and Switzerland would have been named in his honour, but the Belgian State Railways (SNCB/NMBS) and Swiss Federal system (SBB/CFF/FFS) have yet to see fit to mark the great cultural tradition shared by the two nations in the figure of one man. Why could they not, for example, decorate the locomotive with a giant lovers’ bow motif, like a costly chocolate box?
The concept of the praline, essentially a sweetmeat made from nuts and sugar syrup, originated in France at the château of Vaux-le-Vicomte and was the brainchild of the cook of a wealthy sugar magnate, Marshall du Plessis-Praslin (1598-1675). The originals were essentially whole almonds coated in caramelised sugar, a little like nougat – the Neuhaus dynasty soon hit on the idea of taking the basis of ground nuts, hazels or pecans, adding chocolate and then using their expertise in chocolate coating. For this, the world can thank Jean Neuhaus II, the founder’s son. However, Jean’s wife, Louise Agostini, despaired at the thought of her carefully wrought little candies breaking up in the flimsy paper cones in which they were presented and pioneered the use of the ballotin, or chocolate box.
This is no culinary breakthrough, no addendum to the sensual power of chocolate; merely one of the great masterstrokes in the history of marketing, raising the humble bonbon to the status of a gift presented in its own individual case, like a jewel. Adelson de Gavre, Jean and Louise’s son-in-law with comparable acumen, went out of his way to insist on (and ensure that the company was known for) the procurement of the finest ingredients available, a standard by which Neuhaus preserves its position as luxury chocolate market leader even today. By 1958, Belgium recognized the tireless dedication that had gone into the enterprise by offering Neuhaus a concession at that year’s World’s Fair in Belgium’s capital, where the famous ‘Caprice’ and ‘Tentation’ brand pralines proved a sensation.
Belgium is not conventionally a rich country; in the poetic imagination, it has never been compared to the mysterious East of silks, diamonds, pearls and spices; it has no export trade in precious stones, no champagne, caviar, no soft furnishings, yet it has become synonymous – in the ascetic Anglo-Saxon world at any rate – with outrageous sensory indulgence. For this, it has the Neuhaus family and its inventions to thank. With their enterprise, what was regarded as a decadent luxury of exceptional rarity became a consumer commonplace, and with a differential between price and actual quality that placed fine chocolates as a democratic luxury quite apart from oysters or cognac, for example.