The first thing that hits you is the scent of chocolate. It settles around you as you peruse the orderly rows of dainty chocolates on display at Belle Fleur’s Petersham store. Behind the counter is a black and white wall mural of the family’s chocolate shop in Belgium – this is a family of fourth-generation chocolatiers, after all – and beyond, one of their famed window displays: a huge sculpture of the Antwerp Town Hall – made entirely from chocolate.
“I never get tired of the smell or the taste,” says owner and head chocolatier Jan ter Heerdt, who, together with daughter Claire, is responsible for the creation of Belle Fleur’s chocolates. “It puts a big smile on your face every time – and we have to taste it all the time. While we’re checking the temperature of whatever we’re making, at the same time we’re tasting it too. We just have to do it.”
Upstairs in the light and airy surrounds of the chocolate factory, the velvety aromas intensify again while the younger ter Heerdt works a melted pool of chocolate on a granite benchtop, turning and folding it back on itself with the practiced flicking of two spatulas. She’s hand-tempering – and perfecting – a small batch of chocolate to create that snapping sound when it breaks.
Next to her, an assistant deftly pipes creamy swirls onto the tops of tiny chocolate cups filled with lemon ganache, perfectly uniform and destined to be finished with a fine spray of liquid chocolate to mimic the browning on a lemon meringue pie. One bench over, heavy thudding marks the rhythmic crushing of candied nuts. It’s a delicious atmosphere of creation and passion.
The ter Heerdts started Belle Fleur in 1985, with Jan wanting a change from hotel management. His father came to visit from Belgium and the family made some chocolate together at home.
“I was just a young boy in my family’s business, so I never really got involved in it.” But after doing some testing at home, he took his creations to David Jones to see if the idea of hand-crafted chocolates would work in Australia.
“They said, ‘it’s good. How much?’ I had no idea! No business plan. I just wanted to do something different, and it all grew from there.”
The first Belle Fleur opened in Mosman with a mixed response, and eventually relocated to Rozelle, where local clientele opened their hearts. Years later they moved production to Petersham where it could have a shopfront of its own.
Well known for their cleverly constructed chocolate window displays, the years have seen everything from the Parthenon, to a life-sized bag of golf clubs, train stations and Christmas-scapes, and right now, ter Heerdt is working on a sleigh and reindeers, glued together with chocolate and left to set.
“People get very disappointed if I’m not doing anything and ask when the next display will be ready. It’s my favourite part of the job,” he confesses. “It takes us months to figure out the displays, because over the years we’ve done so many things that we need to make something new. You can’t make Christmas trees all the time.”
The day starts early for ter Heerdt, arriving at the factory at seven in the morning to fire up the tempering machines. These machines hold the melted chocolate at the right temperature to keep it liquid; buttons of Belgian chocolate are added to the machines to melt and adjust the temperature, while wheels keep the chocolate moving.
“You can see the samples here,” ter Heerdt says, indicating to dollops of cooled chocolate on the bench. “We try it out for that snap,” he says, cracking it in his fingers. “Once it has that shine and crack to it, then we can start using it.”
From there the melted chocolate is used to fill moulds set on a vibrating table to shake the bubbles to the surface, then sent to the dry cool room to set at a temperature of 14 degrees.
The rest if the day is dictated by the whiteboard list holding the day’s orders; each day is different and may involve hand-rolling truffles, dipping strawberries and cream, or piping fillings, depending what’s in demand.
“They have to be made fresh. You can’t build up stock really, particularly if they have fresh cream in them.”
But occasionally there is time for creativity, and that’s when the new flavours are created.
“We have around 50 varieties, and people haven’t tried them all, but they’ll still ask what’s new. It keeps us on our toes.” Right now, the biggest winners are the salted caramel and the Explosion, which is full of popping candy.
But at the end of the day, ter Heerdt says he likes the traditional flavours. “I’m quite old fashioned, you know. I like my chocolate with hazelnuts.”
Belle Fleur Fine Chocolates:
584 Parramatta Road, Petersham
Mon to Fri 10am–6pm
658 Darling Street, Rozelle
Mon to Fri 9am–6pm