Everything I know about good chocolate started with the Dutch.
Everything I ever learned about good chocolate I learned from the Dutch. Not exactly true, but I owe them for my introduction to European chocolate: Hagelslag. Chocolate letters. Guylian.
Groningen is a city in northern Holland, an historic fortress along the country's German border. It has also been dubbed the World's Cycling City. When I was a teenager in Durango, Colorado, I met a family from Holland. My Dutch friends grew up in Groningen, bringing with them to Colorado tales of winter skating on the canals, wooden shoes, my beloved boterkoek recipe, the ability to speak four languages fluently, and my first box of Guylian chocolate seashells. I was sixteen when I met Tanja, Gerald, Louisa, and Ruth Buitenkamp. Before meeting these four, my chocolate palate had never tasted anything better than a Hershey's kiss. Those I ate in abundance as a child growing up in Colorado and New Mexico, along with Nestlé and the waxy chocolate coating of Hostess Ding Dongs (although I did go to school with the daughter or niece of a co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory).
I remember those chocolate letters from Sinterklaas, transported across the Atlantic to honor Dutch traditions on snowy Colorado holidays; I can feel that Hagelslag dancing in my mouth, its textured, chocolate goodness sprinkled liberally on toast. But the shells. Those delicious, Belgian, Guylian shells. Those were what I remember the most. The praline centers. The smooth velvet swirls. Chocolate mixed with hazelnut; I'd never tasted anything like it. And they were all the more scrumptious for the simple fact that I couldn't get them any time I wanted, like I can now. In the 80s in rural Colorado, there were no boutiques or gourmet grocery store chains carrying European chocolate. I was at the mercy of the Buitenkamps, anticipating their next trip to Europe almost as much as they were, knowing that once they returned, more good chocolate might come my way. Chocolate much better than anything the American food landscape afforded me.
Aside from the literal pleasure I gleaned from this transcontinental cacao, it also served a symbolic purpose. I was a rural Colorado girl, the product of mining towns, ski resorts, and hypoxic air. To me, this delicious European chocolate represented travel and culture and foreign languages and inspired a drive to leave the mountains and see the world.
Thirty years later, Guylian is no longer my favorite chocolate (I had some recently and, with my 70-percent-plus love affair, now find it too sweet), but I have experienced the things it symbolized and inspired. I've studied in Europe twice and speak fluent French. I have traveled around the US and lived on both the East and West coasts for extended periods of time. I love to travel and via Bellflower Chocolate, plan to experience cacao cultures and places, bringing pieces of them back to Seattle, hopefully influencing and informing the palate of others the way the Buitenkamps influenced me.