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Self-styled shock-o-latier Dominique Persoone loves to experiment with outlandish ingredients, but also creates fine, elegant, herb-infused confectionary. Emma Beddington meets the real-life Willy Wonka and finds theres method in his madness

he chocolate-box beautiful city of Bruges is the undisputed chocolate capital of Europe: theres a chocolate museum (Choco-Story) and an annual chocolate festival, while an extraordinary 52 chocolate shops line its medieval streets. None, however, is quite like the establishment run by Dominique Persoone. Its not that The Chocolate Line named for the route New World explorers took to transport cacao beans looks particularly different: an elegant brown and gold frontage on a narrow cobbled street, wooden counters, white uniformed staff. Its what you find behind those counters that sets it apart. Take a closer look and youll find chocolates spiked with soy sauce or balsamic vinegar, curry, tobacco and Coca-Cola. You can buy a chocolate lipstick or even test the Chocolate Shooter, a contraption for snorting chocolate snuff which Persoone designed for a birthday party for the Rolling Stones. Its chocolate, but not as we know it. Thats just the tip of the iceberg for the selfproclaimed shock-o-latier. When I meet Persoone in the test kitchen of his factory on the grey outskirts of the city (the letterbox is a giant cacao pod, and the

THE SHOCK-O-LATIER

Clockwise from far left: Shock-o-latier Persoone with a precious cacao pod; the Chocolate Line store in Antwerp; a variety of unique chocolate creations; Persoone at work; his dipped-in-chocolate HQ.

building is decorated to look as if it has been dipped in chocolate), the genial 44-year-old Bruges native reels off a few of his more outrageous creations. Weve done cauliflower, oysters, grass, melon and Parma ham. Rain. Anchovy. Caramel. Chocolate frogs coated in lidocaine It could all be terribly gimmicky, but Persoone has a stellar culinary pedigree. He trained as a chef before opening The Chocolate Line in 1992 and his creations are brilliant, experimental gastronomy: the outlandish combinations not only work, they change your perspective on what chocolate is and how it can taste. The culinary establishment agrees: Persoone is one of only three chocolatiers in the Michelin Guide, and has the distinction of supplying all of Belgiums three-star restaurants with chocolates. Hes also part of Heston Blumenthals Fat Duck think tank, and tells me a wonderful anecdote about experimenting with chocolate and a tank of helium, and ending up surrounded by clouds of floating chocolate. Ren Redzepi of Noma (Restaurant magazines Best Restaurant in the World 2012) sent his pastry chef to train at the factory last summer. Im a cook, not a real chocolate maker, says Persoone. For me, chocolate is just another department of the kitchen. A lot of chef colleagues say that working with chocolate every day must be boring,

but there are so many things we can do, its wonderful. The experimental culture extends to his whole team: 12 people in the factory, and another 22 split between the two shops (the second, opened in 2010, is in a gorgeous frescoed space in Napoleons former palace on the Meir in Antwerp). We have everything here: bakers, cooks, even a butcher. The one thing they have in common is they all fell in love with chocolate, and we share the same passion. Each week the team meets to discuss new ideas, to experiment and taste. The test kitchen is a riot of scribbled recipes and sketched designs, mysterious, industrial-scale pieces of kitchen equipment and jars of esoteric flavours and spices. Current projects include chocolate pills flavoured with walnut, fig and goats cheese, and a new smoked-tea praline for Michelin three-star chef Sergio Herman of Oud Sluis. We use lots of strange ingredients, says Persoone, gesturing at a row of jars. Thats powdered coca leaf from Peru. Its legal to buy there so I brought it back in my luggage wrapped in my socks and underwear! Developing a new chocolate can take anything from a few hours to six months, says Persoone; sometimes you get lucky, more often you need to test exhaustively. Are there any disasters? Things that just dont work? Rose hasnt worked out yet. I tried, but it tasted like soap. The challenge

is to find the right balance. Of course, some of the flavours we do sound crazy-freaky, but its important to have an open mind when you taste. The quest for new flavours and combinations has also taken Persoone to Latin America to explore the roots of chocolate. The walls of the factory are lined with souvenirs of his travels, from machetes, tribal masks and molinillos (hot chocolate stirrers) to traditional wooden implements for creating a cocoa espuma, or foam. Its an addiction. Im addicted to food, to tattoos [he has five, mainly chocolate related, including a Rolling Stones inspired Chocolate is rocknroll] and to Latin America. Since his first trip in 2007, hes returned to the region again and again, trips which formed the basis for his prize-winning book, Cacao. Always animated, hes aglow as he describes his adventures of riding deep into the rainforest, abseiling into a cenote (the deep natural sinkholes in which the Mayans grew cacao) and encountering boa constrictors at close quarters. Its amazing. Its a completely different story of chocolate than the one we know in Europe. I discovered new varieties of bean, the spices the Mayans used in their drinks, and learned how to make an espuma. Last year Persoone acquired his own cacao plantation, deep in Mayan territory near Uxmal in the east of Mexico. Its partly pure adventure,

partly a way of protecting his supply. We see so many things going wrong with the beans. Theres a variety called Criollo Negro, an amazing, wonderful bean, but only 120kg are grown a year, because other crops are more profitable. We thought maybe we could save some varieties.

7 heavenly chocolates from Persoone


Cebolla: Almond praline with crisp fried onion. Tokyo: Bitter ganache with Japanese wasabi marzipan. Italian Javanais: White chocolate ganache with fresh basil, sun-dried tomato chutney and marzipan with black olives. Bollywood: White chocolate with saffron and curry ganache. Atlanta: Coca-Cola ganache and almond praline with fizzing popping candy. Cabernet Sauvignon: Caramel of Cabernet Sauvignon vinegar with pine nuts. Havana: Dark chocolate ganache, flavoured with Havana tobacco leaves.

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THE SHOCK-O-LATIER FR Le Willy Wonka belge

Rencontre dEmma Beddington avec le premier shock-o-latier du pays Avec son muse et son festival ddis au chocolat, la pittoresque ville de Bruges est, en Europe, la capitale inconteste du chocolat. On y trouve en outre pas moins de 52 boutiques de chocolat dans ses rues mdivales. Toutefois, aucune ne ressemble ltablissement de Dominique Persoone, La Chocolate Line ainsi nomme en rfrence la route emprunte par les explorateurs du Nouveau Monde pour transporter le cacao. Vue de lextrieur, avec sa faade lgante de couleur brun et or, sa boutique ne parat pas trs diffrente. Mais de lautre ct du comptoir, cest une autre histoire. Regardez-y de plus prs et vous dcouvrirez des chocolats rehausss de sauce soja, de vinaigre balsamique ou encore de curry, tabac et Coca-Cola. Vous pourrez y acheter un rouge lvres saveur chocolat ou mme le fameux Chocolate Shooter, un sniff de chocolat. Persoone la conu pour la fte anniversaire des Rolling Stones. Cest du chocolat, certes, mais pas sous sa forme habituelle ! Laudace est la marque de fabrique de ce shock-o-latier originaire de Bruges. A 44 ans, Persoone est un artisan qui nous tourdit avec ses nombreuses crations extravagantes. Tout cela pourrait paratre terriblement gadget, si Persoone ne possdait un rel talent culinaire. Il a suivi une formation de chef avant douvrir la Chocolate Line en 1992 et ses brillantes crations relvent de la gastronomie exprimentale. Lestablishment culinaire saccorde dire que Persoone est un des trois seuls chocolatiers repris au Guide Michelin, et quil a le privilge de fournir les restaurants toils en Belgique. Je suis un cuisinier, pas un chocolatier, explique Persoone. Pour moi, le chocolat est juste une autre branche de la cuisine. Sa culture de lexprimentation stend toute son quipe : 12 personnes dans lusine et 22 autres collaborateurs rpartis entre les deux magasins (le second, ouvert en 2010, se trouve dans un ancien palais napolonien dcor de fresques, sur le Meir Anvers). Nous avons tout ici : ptissiers, cuisiniers, mme un boucher. Leur commun dnominateur est leur amour pour le chocolat, une passion partage par nous tous.

Emma Beddington ontmoet Belgis allereerste shock-o-latier Brugge is ontegensprekelijk DE Europese chocoladehoofdstad. In de middeleeuwse straatjes vindt u een chocolademuseum, een jaarlijks chocoladefestival en liefst 52 chocoladewinkels. Dominique Persoone baat echter het alleruniekste winkeltje uit. U vindt er chocolade op basis van sojasaus, balsamicoazijn, curry, tabak of zelfs Coca-Cola en u kunt er chocoladelippenstift of een Chocoladeshooter kopen, een heuse chocolade shot die Persoone ontwierp voor het verjaardagsfeestje van de Rolling Stones. De in Brugge geboren, 44-jarige Persoone is een genie. Chocolade op basis van bloemkool, oester, gras, meloen, Parmaham, ansjovis en karamel, chocoladen kikkers met een laagje lidocane, Het zijn maar enkele van zijn extravagante creaties. Voordat Persoone in 1992 The Chocolate Line opende, volgde hij een koksopleiding. Zijn creaties zijn briljant en experimenteel; bizarre combinaties die je perspectief over chocolade en hoe het smaakt helemaal veranderen. De culinaire experts zijn het ermee zijn; Persoone is een van de slechts drie chocolatiers die worden opgenomen in de Michelin Gids. Hij levert chocolade aan alle Belgische driesterrenrestaurants. Ik ben een kok, geen echte chocolatier, aldus Persoone. Voor mij vormt chocolade gewoon een onderdeel van het koken. Veel van mijn collegas zeggen dat het saai moet zijn om dagelijks met chocolade te werken; maar je kunt er zoveel mee doen, het is fantastisch. Deze experimentele chocoladecultuur stelt 12 mensen te werk in de fabriek en nog eens 22 in de twee winkels. We hebben hier echt alles: bakkers, chef-koks en zelfs een slager. We hebben onze liefde voor chocolade gemeen en delen allen dezelfde passie.

NL Belgische Willy Wonka

of course some of the flavours sound crazy-freaky, but you have to have an open mind to taste
Hes growing four types of bean in his plantation (including one discovered at the bottom of that cenote) and the first crop is due two years from now. Well never get rich from it, but my big dream is to take all my team to Mexico for the first harvest. Its amazing, its really fun. Flemish television has been filming his Mexican adventures, so Persoones life looks set to get even more rocknroll. He already gets recognised on the street, something that leaves him bemused: People stop me and ask for pictures. Its very strange. Thankfully his wife, Fabienne, is there to keep him grounded. Shes the real boss. Im a very bad businessman, so shes in charge and she gives me pocket money for cigarettes and beer. It works perfectly. Whats next for this real-life Willy Wonka? Theres more TV in the offing, projects in Japan and Qatar, perhaps a new shop, definitely a trip back to his beloved Latin America. Hes busy busier than most of us could imagine but the word I hear most from him is fun. I never feel like Im working. I have fun, I travel, I follow my passion. It is, if youll forgive the pun, a sweet life. The Chocolate Line, Simon Stevinplein 19, Brugge, and Paleis op de Meir 50, Antwerp, thechocolateline.be

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PORTRAIT: DOMINIQUE LIBERT