Chocolate is not only a major economic player for Belgium, worth €2.8bn (£2.5bn) in exports a year, but one of the few cultural artefacts, along with frites (fries) and beer, which bind this complicated country of many languages.
Yet the latest takeover of a stalwart of the Belgian scene, this time by the Qatari royal family, has caused something of an existential crisis. The Flemish daily newspaper Het Nieuwsblad asked: “How Belgian is Belgian chocolate, if just about all the top players are in foreign hands?”
The founder of Galler, the latest chocolaterie to be purchased, is at least surviving the Qatari takeover. Jean Galler, who once enthused that “chocolate is freedom”, is being retained by the House of al-Thani, headed by Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, the emir of Qatar, as creative director.
Last year, the Liège chocolate company recorded a record turnover of €35m and a recurring gross operating profit of €2.5m.
The acquisition is the latest foreign takeover of a Belgian chocolate company.
Buying up crown jewels
Guylian, founded by Guy Foubert in 1958, is owned by the South Korean conglomerate Lotte. Jacques, founded in 1896, is owned by the Dutch business Baronie. Côte d’Or (1883) and Meurisse (1845) belong to the US confectionary group Mondelēz.
Dominique Persoone, a chocolatier, told Het Nieuwsblad: “Of course, it is a pity that foreign companies are buying up our crown jewels. I feel it myself: every week, there is a Chinese or Arab person calling me who says he wants to invest millions to grow and conquer the world.”
Guy Gallet, the secretary general of the Royal Belgian Association of the Chocolate, Praline, Biscuits and Sugar Confectionery Industries (Choprabisco), was sanguine on the issue.
Photo: Pexels. Exports from Belgium have nearly doubled in the past 18 years, from 300,000 to 600,000 tonnes
“If they are owned by a foreign company, or the capital is in foreign hands, that is of less importance than that they are creating employment in Belgium,” he told the Guardian. “There are a lot of French wines, French châteaux, that have foreign investors, but the wine is still French. It is the same story.”
Heritage and expertise
Asked what makes Belgian chocolate special, Gallet said: “It is the heritage, the knowledge, the expertise. The blending and the selection of the cocoa beans.
“In general, the bean is ground to a very small particle size so it is smooth in the mouth. And no other vegetable fat is used, although it is allowed.”
Questioned as to whether Belgian chocolate could be made outside the country, he insisted: “No, of course not. We have a code of practice and companies know that a Belgian chocolate has to be made in Belgium.”
Exports have nearly doubled in the past 18 years, from 300,000 to 600,000 tonnes.
Gallet said Choprabisco was now working on an application for EU’s geographical indications. “If we hear of a maker saying their chocolates are Belgian, which are not made in Belgium, then we write to them. We try to do it in a friendly way,” he said.
“It depends on national laws, but in Europe, you cannot mislead the consumer. With products that say they are Belgian flavour, or a Belgian collection, it is difficult. But we are applying for geographical protection to be proactive rather than reactive. It has to be protected.”
By Daniel Boffey