Pierre and the Chocolate Factory: A Visit to Pierre Marcolini

Pierre Marcolini makes my favorite chocolates in the world. So when I got an invitation, which meant a visit to Brussels, it was a no-brainer: to try and secure a visit Marcolini and tour his chocolate factory. It wasn’t easy, as he’s a very busy man—his business produces chocolates in a small factory near the Brussels airport to supply his shops in Belgium, London, Paris other European cities, Hawaii and Asia, plus manages distribution via the internet to many other parts of the world. All of that from the capital city of Belgium.

We finally secured a full visit including a few minutes with the man himself, most likely in between meetings (the daily torture in most companies, especially multinational ones!). I thought he looked remarkably like Gordon Ramsay, similar age, height, hairdo and clothing. We walked through the different stages of the process, what they call their “bean-to-bar” approach, covering every single step of production. And they go a little further, as they also take care of the sales and distribution, and want to make sure the products offer the same quality in every corner of the world. 

Pierre Marcolini in his chef whites.

Roasting the beans to boosts flavor and then grinding them to a paste are the other of the two fundamental steps. Have you ever wondered why Belgium, of all places, is famous for its chocolate? Because the cocoa beans do not grow anywhere nearby, of course—the plant only grows in tropical climates. Well, I’ve asked that myself question many times, but I never really took the time to look for the answer. But it came to me in this visit. “The finer you grind the cocoa beans, the more flavor you get,” Patricia Van Assche, plant director and Marcolini’s right hand, told me. “And that’s why Belgium became famous for its chocolate. We had the technology to grind the cocoa until it was really fine, as we were spice traders and worked with that kind of machinery.”

We saw the process from the very beginning until the final boxed product. They carry out ever step themselves, roasting the cocoa beans and even the nuts that they use to create their pralines—hazelnuts from Italy’s Piedmont, almonds, I believe from Spain, pistachios from Iran. We tasted some of the pralines, including the hazelnut Nutella-like spread that is going to be launched as a separate product, “but with no palm oil or any such ingredients in it.” Imagine what that would be like on a thin piece of toasted sourdough bread… 


I was particularly interested in the origin of the cocoa beans, as they’re sourced from different plantations around the world. We got to chew raw beans (there’s around 40 of them in a cocoa pod) from Java and Cameroon, and they each had a different taste. So I started asking questions, “Do they taste differently if the soils are different?” and “does the climate affect taste?” Of course they do, and of course it does. “It’s very much like for wine—location matters. Each plantation has different characteristics and the flavors of each bean is very distinct. That’s why we never mix beans of different origins.”


As they carry out every step of the production in house, they have total control of what happens. “Every detail counts and every step is very important. We have machines, but the process is very manual. We can make some chocolates a little bit faster, the ones that are not painted or written on—some have the origin of the cocoa written on them. For those, the process is less automated and thus slower.” The whole thing seemed quite manual to me and required quite a lot of people. 


 “A great percentage of the employees here at Pierre Marcolini are chocolatiers, people trained in the making fine chocolate. Not the staff involved in mechanical operations that require no specific chocolate-making skills, but those working on the actual production. It’s hard to keep young chocolatiers with us, because many of these people come here for experience for their CV, and once they have it they want to set up their own businesses. It’s a natural process, of course.”


When it comes to the actual quality of the product ,I liked a remark that had a direct wine comparison: “Cocoa content is not the most important thing about chocolate. Measuring or marketing chocolate by its cocoa content is like referring to wine through the alcohol content; here, this has 12.5%, this one has 14%... it would be ridiculous, wouldn’t it?” The comparison and parallels with wine was very interesting. “Mr. Marcolini visits the plantations—not every one of them every year, as it would be too much—because they are the source of the quality of our end products, and every step counts. What they do in the plantations is very important,” Mrs. Van Assche continued as we walked around the small factory.
All the Marcolini products sold around the world are produced in this small place in Brussels, which means they are not widely available, and you can only get them if you’re close to one of their shops or if your address is included in their shipping destinations. Luckily Spain is on the list now—it wasn’t when they started offering web sales—and it is delivered using refrigerated transport, which is quite a high cost, but ensures you’ll receive the chocolates in perfect condition. Otherwise… wasn’t there a theory about sex being a substitute for chocolate?


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