COVID: Who is boring now? Belgium defies stereotype by deeming chocolate and beer ‘essential’

Chocolate. An indulgence. An occasional treat. A staple at Christmas. But an essential food item? That’s what the Belgian government defined it as this year when allowing only certain shops to stay open during lockdowns.

Belgium produces some of the best chocolate in the world and shops selling it were allowed to keep trading when other “non-essential” shops were forced to close due to the coronavirus.

Neuhaus is one of the oldest and most famous chocolate producers in the country and the company’s CEO Ignace Van Doorselaere says it has a special place in Belgian culture.

From Neuhaus’ flagship store in the nation’s capital he tells us: “Chocolate is part of the culture of this country, so it’s essential because it’s part of your daily life, like beer is or like wine would be in France. And it’s a joyful product. Chocolate symbolises joy. I know very few people who don’t like chocolate.”

Neuhaus was founded not as a chocolate maker but as a pharmacy. The original owner used sweet things to sugar-coat pills and medicine back in the 1850s. By the early 1900s his grandson had transformed the company into a chocolate producer. Despite a major drop in trade this year they think they will survive COVID-19.

Ignace Van Doorselaere says: “We were fortunate to be in the food industry. So the food stores were allowed to be open all along. The government never said that food stores had to close, so that helped a lot.”

And those rules also applied to Belgium’s other great love, beer. Outlets selling it were allowed to stay open during lockdown when non-essential shops were forced to close.

Beer Mania is an institution in Brussels. It was the first beer shop in the world when it opened in the 1980s and its store and bar have been offering customers hundreds of varieties to sample over the decades. Under coronavirus restrictions the bar had to close but the shop is still open, although footfall is low.

Beer Mania founder Michael Eftekhari tells us he cherishes the few customers he now sees personally. He’s lost 90% of his trade and has had to adapt.

“My online shop saved my life. When the lockdown started, people started ordering online. We sent beer to many countries, we shipped to lots of places and with the help of lots of people, the customers, we kept our heads above water.”

Michael is putting faith in the COVID vaccine to bring customers back. He’s also relying on the Belgian love of beer for his company’s survival, telling us: “We drink beer at all ceremonies. At weddings, birthdays, Christmas time, among friends, at the football, so beer is very important like French fries, like mussels. This is part of our culture and nothing can change this.”

And it’s that thought which gives him hope people will be back next year and next Christmas.

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