Tom Vanthemsche always dreamt of being a chocolate and ice cream maker. With The Cacao Tree by Tom, his boutique shop in Rhode St Genese, just outside Brussels, he has fulfilled his dream. He works with fresh ingredients particularly those which are in season and he prides himself of using fresh farmer’s milk which he picks up himself and 60% fruit in his sorbets which is highly unusual.
“Some think our sorbets are ice-cream because they are very creamy. This is because of the percentage of fruit we use.” Tom told Food and Wine Gazette in an interview that he prefers to use fresh products rather than unusual spices or ingredients that might shock but don’t necessarily work. “For me, finding the right balance between sugar and acidity is crucial. I will add a bit of texture to the chocolate, make it creamy but what I am looking for is balance. For me that is fundamental.”
He is constantly on the look out for new chocolate. “When I set to create a new praline, I will taste the chocolate and depending on its flavour will decide what to add to it. I think that inspiration sometimes comes from knowing what works and what doesn’t and having the discipline to say no to what does not work.”
Tom said that he always tries to use fresh products and ones which work well together without going to far because there is a tendency these days to try and use special spices, to have chocolate and caviar and even one with sausage which he thinks is disgusting.
He also tells me that he does not make pralines with alcohol. “I only break the rule during Christmas festivities where I have a champagne truffle but otherwise I believe that chocolate and alcohol don’t go together. Some are happy to use alcohol because this increases the shelf-life of the product but this is not something which interests me or my clients,” said Tom.
“I look at what other chocolate makers are doing but I try not to copy. I always try to give my touch in what I am doing. Ideas come from trying new ingredients like fruits and seeing what works. Travel for me is also important because you discover new tastes and flavours and that is also a source of inspiration.”
How did you come with the name The Cacao Tree I ask him. “At first I wanted to create the Chocolate Tree but the name was already taken. I opted for Cacao tree. I’ve used an English name because although I am Dutch speaking, I am a commune which also has many French speakers and this is neutral and keeps everyone happy,” he tells me.
The artisanal approach is really important for him. “I believe that people want quality. They are not afraid to pay a bit more and move away from industrial products. I think people are starting to realise that industrial production is not the same. When you replace butter with other types of fat or you use aromas instead of real fruit you do not get the same flavour.”
Tom tells me that he makes pralines every day and they are fresh. “When you come to our shop they will never be older than a week. In some cases, when we are speaking of industrial chocolate, they might have been ready for three months before they reach the shops,” he said.
How easy it is to become a chocolatier in Belgium, a country renowned for its chocolate, I ask him? “It is definitely not easy because you need to have a name and that comes with awards. The fact that we have been selected by Gault Millau means that we start to become known. We have also been twice to the Salon du Chocolat so people start to get to know us. What is most important for me is word of mouth. People try the chocolate and if they like it they buy it. We are starting to get known in Brussels like this. My aim is not to have adverts but rather for people to try and chocolates and then tell their friends about them. When a product is good, news spreads just like when its bad,” he said.
He has always dreamed of making ice-cream and chocolates but why are more and more youngsters attracted to chocolate making I ask him. He tells me that time is a very important factor. “First Belgian chocolate is well known around the world so it is an easy product to export. You can also be creative and the working hours are better than being a baker or patissier or else owning a restaurant. Having a bakery is extremely difficult. You can still do well but it means that you work all nights starting at 11pm and ending around noon the next day,” he said.
He dreams of one day becoming a household name in Belgium for his chocolates and ice-cream. “I would love to have more shops but I want them to still be making chocolate and ice-cream on the spot and wouldn’t exclude exporting his chocolates even though this would not be to the detriment of quality.
His inspiration is not a Belgian chocolatier but rather a French chocolatier who has a shop in Place Sablon, Brussels. “Patrick Rogier is an amazing artist apart from a chocolatier,” he says.