Soft-centered chocolate pralines are what most tourists with a sweet tooth hunt down when they visit Belgium. Not that it’s much of a hunt: outposts of Leonidas, Neuhaus, Godiva and Guylain, pop up in a continuous loop on a stroll through the area all around Brussels’ Grand Place — miss one boutique and never fear, you’re sure to run into another just a few steps away. But if you hang out with actual Belgians for long enough, eventually one of them will introduce you to a confection you’ve likely never heard of: a dusty-looking purple cone called, in French, a cuberdon (neuzeke, or “small nose,” in Flemish).
“This is a very nostalgic taste, a childhood souvenir,” says Fabian, one of several actual Belgians of my acquaintance. He’s just emerged from a high-end tourist shop in Bruges with a clear cellophane bag full of the cones, which at first glance, look unpromising. They don’t glitter. They don’t gleam. They’re not chocolate. I pull one out of the bag and bite off its tip, unleashing a molten purple center. The experience is…odd. The outer candy has the texture of soft licorice; the inner goo is the consistency of stiff molasses. The traditional cuberdon flavor—some manufacturers have lately come up with a few dozen more—is described as raspberry. But mostly, the taste of it is indistinctly sweet.
“Yes, it is sweet,” says Fabian. Considering that a few hours ago I watched him wash down a sugar-dusted, chocolate-dipped waffle with a cup of hot chocolate, this is quite an admission. But sweet is what you’d expect from an ingredient list that consists of little more than sugar, gum Arabic, gelatin, and that so-called raspberry flavoring. Or from a syrup base that, 150 years ago, was a failed attempt by a pharmacist in Ghent at a new form of medicine, which hardened unexpectedly overnight into a candy. Eventually, this recipe was passed on to Antoine Geldhof—Confiserie Geldhof has been operating since the 1950s. And along the way, other cuberdon makers have stepped into the fray; Cuberdons Léopold is the most recent but there are others, mostly churning out small batches to sell at outdoor markets and gourmet shops. Some manufacturers, though, sell mass-produced, Arabic-less versions at supermarkets.
The cuberdon competition is fierce. For starters, artisanal cuberdons can only be made in limited batches—and the wooden molds that hold them can only be used once. It takes seven days for these cuberdons to cure. And they’ve only got a shelf life of eight weeks; after that, the outer crust begins to thicken and the inner goo starts to crystalize. Not to mention, the market, for the moment, is limited to Belgium and near-by countries that can receive and process shipments before they go stale—that’s why you’ve never seen a cuberdon for sale on the ground in the States. Although you might soon. Cuberdons Léopold has plans to market them at Fancy Food Shows in San Francisco and New York in 2017, with an eye to possibly opening up a base of operations within our shores. Americans might not have a nostalgic connection to cuberdons. But we do have sweet teeth enough to appreciate them.
Lela Nargi is a cookbook author and freelance journalist who lives in Brooklyn, NY. Find her at lelanargi.com.