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From 29 January till 2 February VUB is playing host to some 85 students and young professionals from China. The trip is organised by the Global Youth Leadership organisation, who opened a call to all Chinese universities for this 2-week trip to Europe. The second week will be spent in France. The aim of the visit is to educate the visitors on sustainable development.
During their time in Brussels they will be given a number of presentations by various representatives of the VUB International Relations office, the Confucius Institute at VUB, as well as a number of VUB academics. They will also visit the European Parliament, the Eco house in Antwerp, learn more about the United Nations Environment Programme, and go to Bruges to visit to the College of Europe.
However, there is also time allocated for some Belgian businesses active in Asia to present to the young guests. The most notable one will be familiar to all chocolate aficionados: Mr Pierre Marcolini.
On Monday 29 January at 2pm in Building D, Mr Marcolini gave a presentation entitled, “The chocolate of the Future”. He presented the evolution of his company, but also gave some background on how chocolate is made nowadays, and what sets off his organisation from those high street names we are all familiar with. The chocolate business has clearly evolved since Pierre Marcolini launched his company in 1995. The well-known brands take their chocolate supplies from two producers who source it from countries across the equator. Essentially, same chocolate for all; the difference is in the transformation at the end of the process.
However, this didn’t interest Pierre Marcolini. He went back to basics, the beginning: the cocoa bean. For him this is key to what makes his chocolate different from what you get in high street shops. Chocolate comes from cocoa beans which come from plants. Even the soil in which they grow ultimately makes a difference to the quality and taste of the end product. This movement, going back to basics and sourcing the cocoa beans themselves rather than rely on large producers to do it, is called ‘bean to bar’. At this point in time, there are some 100 chocolate houses who work in this way, with some 34 in Europe, and 16 in the United States.
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From 1995 to today, Marcolini built his company with passion, conviction and gusto. Today he has more than 40 shops around the world, 4,000 sqm of shop floor surface area and employs 400 people. The expansion to Asia was an obvious follow-through after establishing himself in Belgium (13 shops), France (4 shops) and the UK (1 shop). In Japan he now has 10 shops, but with big events coming up like St Valentine’s, 125 pop-up shops will open in Japan just for that time period. His foothold in China is expanding too, with currently three shops in Shanghai.
When asked whether he saw different tastes in the different countries, the answer was a surprise: not much! Tastes are a lot more universal than one thinks. The world has changed as well though and recipes for chocolate-making (at Marcolini) now contain three quarters less sugar than they used to. The three main chocolates remain popular: dark, milk and white across the board.
The company prides itself on its sustainability and fair trade principle. As Mr Marcolini explained, ‘this is reflected in the price: we pay our suppliers fairly. This is how you ensure fair trade, lasting working relationships and a high end quality product, and this is reflected in the price you pay for our chocolate.’
The audience of enthusiastic students and young professionals asked many questions, which got animated and honest responses from Mr Marcolini. When asked what the major difference was according to him in doing business in Asia as opposed to Western Europe, he said, “In Asia… their enthusiasm, their curiosity, their open-mindedness towards all things new is amazing”. The eagerness to learn was certainly clear among the 85 youngsters in the auditorium. Their joy at tasting some Marcolini chocolate even more so!