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Chocolate a la Chateau

How I Drank Up Belgium

February 28, 2001|HESEON PARK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When winter's rains sweep through chilly Southern California, all I want to do is rush indoors, cozy up to a good book and prepare a steaming pot of chocolat chaud. Instantly, my thoughts wrap around the memory of the hot chocolate served at the chateau in Belgium. The Chateau du Pont d'Oie, literally "the castle of the goose bridge," made hot chocolate unlike any other.

Four years ago, I spent the summer teaching French and Belgian teens the differences between perfect and imperfect verb tenses at a school in French-speaking southern Belgium, known as Wallonia. I had known, I have known, I will have known. Had I known my voice would grow hoarse by summer's end, I would have incorporated teen-friendly French slang from Truffaut films into my teaching vocabulary. "L'Americaine," the students would whisper as I walked past.

Pure white milky cows, Belgian Blues, dotted the pasture next to the school located in the heart of the Ardennes region, an expanse of undulating forests and valleys, hidden hills, trails and lakes, believed to be the inspiration for the Forest of Arden in Shakespeare's "As You Like It."

From sunup to sundown, the British teachers and I coaxed, cajoled and commanded the students to converse and enunciate vowels and verbs in "Ing-leesh." "Ecoutez et repetez, repetez et ecoutez," listen and repeat, repeat and listen, became a mantra day in and day out, all summer long. In the evenings, the teachers adjourned to the village pub to play electronic darts, smoke cigarettes and drink Chimay, Hoegaarden or Orval, local beers brewed by Trappist monks.

On our days off, Selina, a teacher from northern England, and I would bike through villages winding sleepily through the past and ride to the Chateau in Habay-La Neuve. Pedaling through the main gate, we'd take a quick ride around the lake, duck underneath the leaves of the trees, and stop at the cottage restaurant for chocolat chaud (pronounced "show'). The chateau was an old castle turned swanky bed-and-breakfast frequented by well-heeled French and Luxembourgeois on weekend getaways. Cars with Parisian plates were always parked on the gravel lot.

With one glance at our mussed hair, grubby T-shirts and flushed faces, the chateau's flawlessly dressed waiters would wave Selina and me toward the patio.

"Would you prefer to be seated outside?" they would ask.

"No, we'll sit here in the salon. We'll have chocolat chaud."

"This chocolat chaud," they would always announce, "will take awhile. The chef has to melt the chocolate."

"Fine," we'd say. "We can wait."

Bon.

It was Pooneh, a Persian-born Londoner, who introduced us to the chateau. We were holed up in the teacher's room watching a French-dubbed episode of "The Simpsons" one gloomy gray afternoon when Pooneh announced, "It's time to have chocolat chaud."

Belgium's cloudy skies are as notorious as its reverence for fine chocolate making. It had been raining for days, and as soon as the rains let up, a group of us headed out on foot for the chateau.

Immediately upon entering the salon, you felt decontracte -relaxed to the hilt. Perhaps it was the geese floating across the surface of the lake, or gazing out at the life-sized chess set in the garden. We sat in big, overstuffed chairs covered in floral chintz and waited.

Waited for that chocolate to melt.

The waiter arrived, bearing a silver-tiered tray of light and dark amber-colored rock sugar on the table, then he placed a pot of steaming chocolat chaud in front of us. With a serving towel draped over his arm, he poured the hot chocolate, a liquid the color of creamy, molten clay, light and ruddy, cooling to a flat, mineral-like sheen inside Villeroy and Boch china teacups.

On a plate, delicately made fruit tarts no bigger than an inch around accompanied dark chocolate-covered nuts placed like numbers on a clock. Between the tarts and nuts sat miniature madeleines, the flower of the china pattern peeking through as you picked up a delicate cake.

If time could stand still, it did, accompanied by the chateau's chocolat chaud. And what a chocolate it was. Each drop was rich and sweet without a trace of bitterness, all romance and elegance, chintz, velvet and storybook cottage, in a cup.

The secret, Pooneh would demonstrate, was to place a morsel of quartz-shaped sugar on your tongue, sip some hot chocolate and let the liquid slowly dissolve the sugar in the back of your throat.

Sated, we walked back to the school chanting ecoutez, repetez, repetez, ecoutez, listen and repeat, from that afternoon at the cottage, the first of many visits to the chateau that summer.

Rich, chic and fashionable, chocolate is hot all over the world. In Argentina, the trendy drink at bars is the submarino, bittersweet chocolate submerged in steamed milk. In Spain, France and Italy, locals start the day with chocolate con churros, chocolat chaud or latte al cacao.

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