Thursday, May 22, 2014

Chocolate Life: Neuhaus Factory Outlet

Ahhh, Brussels. It's been six months since I was here, but it feels like I never left. Except for the improvement in the weather this time around. You might recall that last November I traveled to Belgium to visit my friend Jonathan (JR) from college. Even as I left, I knew I had to come back. Not only because it would mean another chance to hang with JR, but also because Brussels is a beautiful and fun city providing easy access to much of continental Europe. In other words, it makes an excellent home base for day trips.

I also had unfinished business in Brussels. Last time I was here, I waited until my last day in town to visit one of the sights I had most wanted to see. A rookie mistake, I know. Especially since my last day in town ended up being Armistice Day, a national holiday, and a day when pretty much everything in town is closed. Which means I went all the way out to this very special find the gate closed and locked. What is the place I am referring to?

The Neuhaus Factory Outlet.

Just in case you aren't up on your fine Belgian chocolatiers, Neuhaus is one of the oldest and most luxurious Belgian chocolate makers. We're talking on the same level as Godiva here--though I actually think it's better. And while they don't have the exotic flavors of say, Pierre Marcolini, what they do have is deliciously smooth, creamy, and classic chocolates.

Before I get into the amazeball-ness of the factory outlet store, let's talk some history. Neuhaus the company was founded in 1857 by Jean Neuhaus, a swiss immigrant, who opened the first Neuhaus store here in central Brussels.

There are traditionally two types of chocolates in Belgium: truffles (soft and round chocolates with various fillings) and pralines (a hard chocolate shell also with various fillings, what Americans normally think of as "chocolates;" think of what comes in a Whitman sampler, etc.).

In 1912, Jean Neuhaus II invented the praline. So yeah. These folks know what they are doing. Another fun fact: Jean II's wife, Louise, invented the "box of chocolates" when she realized the pralines were getting smooshed when placed in bags. "Let's put these things in boxes!" she said, and BOOM. All of a sudden, Forrest Gump had a catch phrase.

Ok, so back to my original story. Last time I was in Brussels, I spent a lot of time googling things like, "best chocolate in Brussels" and "hidden Brussels," you know as you do. And I came across this blog, Writing With Chocolate, that talked about a place so wonderful it could not be real: a Neuhaus factory outlet that was located on the outskirts of Brussels, was metro-accessible, and offered free unlimited samples of EVERYTHING IN THE SHOP.

I didn't believe it. Free and unlimited samples of Neuhaus chocolate? Could such a place even be real??

Well, today I finally found out. Yes, Virginia, there is a Neuhaus outlet and it is just as wonderful and magical as you ever imagined.

And it's all for me! Not really, but it felt that way.

It's also fairly easy to get to. You take the #5 metro line all the way to the end (Erasmus--about a 20 minute ride from central Brussels) and after a short 10 minute walk past the Erasmus University College, you come to a very corporate looking building with a Neuhaus sign out front. Right when you are thinking, "this can't be right," you spy the small red sign labelled "chocolate shop" with an arrow pointing around the corner of the building.

And then: paradise. Nirvana. Heaven. Whatever you want to call it, the Neuhaus chocolate factory outlet opens up before you like a dream and as your eyes scan over the offerings you realize it's true. There really are free and unlimited samples of everything in the shop available for tasting.

Just walk by each item and there are open versions encouraging you to take a taste.

The best part about the outlet is the opportunity to buy truffles in bulk. Truffles in Neuhaus stores typically retail for about 2 euros each (as of today that's $2.73). A 410 gram box (containing 38 pieces) retails for 26.50 euros (about $36). But at the outlet, you can get 1 kilogram boxes (approximately 100 truffles weighing 2.2 pounds) for 20 euro. And if you buy 3 boxes, they are only 40 euro total. We are talking BIG savings for the highest quality Belgian chocolate. Sure, each box contains only one type of truffle, but if you buy three of them you have three excellent types of truffles to gift to people.

The row of bulk items with open boxes for sampling displayed in front. 

There are deals on lots of other items as well: I got 750 gram bags of pralines (holding about 50 pralines each), 3 for 30 euro total. In the stores one praline is a little over 1 euro. A lot of the pre-packed box and gift assortments are heavily marked down as well. Not everything in the outlet is discounted, but as long as you pay attention to the signs you can find some fantastic deals. And all your chocolate gift shopping = done.

And let's talk about the samples. Literally everything in the store is available for sampling. The employees just pull the lids off the products/boxes and set them up so you can walk around and try them. I had to take small bites of the truffles and pralines (and throw away the rest --wasteful!) because it was just so much chocolate. It was basically my lunch today, and I can say with some authority, that yes, it is possible to get chocolated out. But, oh what a way to go.

To recap: the Neuhaus outlet might be my new favorite place in all the world.

Neuhaus Factory Outlet
Postweg 2, 1602 Vlezenbeek, Belgium
Mon. – Thur. 9 a.m.-6 p.m.
Friday and Saturday 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
The outlet is open during the lunch hour and takes credit cards (though like a lot of European stores, I think you need the special "chip and pin" style of card which Americans credit card companies don't typically provide). There is also lots of available and free parking, but the store is only 1/3 of a mile from the metro stop.

Also, don't try to go during a national holiday. Trust me folks. You'll go all the way out there only to have your heart broken when you realize they are closed. But at least the story has a happy ending this time!

My haul: total cost 70 euro for about 500 pieces of chocolate. That works out to about $0.20 per piece, people. 

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