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When news came that the Belgian chocolatier Leonidas had opened a branch in Jerusalem, I fought my colleagues to review it as, in my opinion, I was the most qualified. Having grown up in Brussels, I was weaned on these delicacies. No popcorn at movies for me - no, my sister and I would set off each with a 100-gram bag of our favorite Leonidas. For me, it was always, and still is, the white Manon - white chocolate filled with fresh coffee cream topped with a nut. My sister liked the Gianduja, milk chocolate and nut paste that melts in your mouth.
The company is named after its Greek founder, Leonidas Ketekides, a confectioner in the United States since the early 1900s. He met a young woman from Brussels, settled there, opened tea-rooms and expanded the business. In 1935, his nephew Basile took over and chose the logo of an effigy of Leonidas, king of Sparta, in honor of his uncle. The company is still headed by family members and has more than 1,400 retail outlets worldwide.
Prices in Israel are much higher than in Belgium due to transport costs, kashrut certificates and customs and are similar to those in France, although still cheaper than Switzerland and the US.
The first time I brought Leonidas chocolates as gifts for family and friends in Israel, I called my sister-in-law to tell her to keep them in the fridge and they would stay fresh for at least 10 days.
"What 10 days?" she replied. "We finished the box in 10 minutes. We just kept tasting them, oohing and aahing, and the one was more delicious than the next."
I would always bring at least five kilos of Leonidas back to Israel with me and subsequently my luggage would be five kilos overweight at the check-in counter. Smiling sheepishly, I would just say "chocolates" by way of explanation. A look of understanding would appear on the face of the clerk and my baggage would be waved through. Now I can be a model citizen, buy my chocolates here and stay within the weight limit.
The shop at 33 Jaffa Road opened two weeks ago and has been doing a roaring trade ever since. Chocolates are flown in from Belgium every fortnight and, although the whole Leonidas range is not imported, there are more than enough choices to satisfy every taste: dark chocolate assortment, white chocolate assortment, butter cream assortment, marzipan, truffles, liqueurs and pralines, each with its individual name.
Slabs of dark chocolate are also on sale. Try it next time you bake a chocolate cake and taste the difference.
The shop is decorated in elegant Leonidas style and all the chocolates are beautifully displayed. Also on sale are a range of Orcha teas, tastefully packed at NIS 35 a sachet, and very unusual cast-iron teapots in various shapes and sizes.
Desert pomegranate "Rimon" wine made on Moshav Kerem Ben-Zimra in the Galilee with 15% alcohol as well as "Rimon" port wine with 18% alcohol are also available.
Though I have always enjoyed eating Leonidas chocolates, I never spared much thought as to their fabrication - I just knew they
Franchise holder Jacky, who manages the Jerusalem branch together with his partner Armando Ben-Dahan, explained that all the chocolates were made with 100% top quality cocoa butter. He also said that the "Palet d'Or," dark chocolate containing 72% cocoa imported from the tiny Sao Tome island off Africa's west coast, was good for relieving coughs.
"There is something in the chocolate that soothes the gullet," I was told. While this is in no way scientifically proven, it's worth a try and must taste better than cough medicine. Try them together: After all, to paraphrase Julie Andrews, a Palet d'Or chocolate makes the medicine go down.
One thing that always puzzled and mesmerized me was the expert packing of the boxes, which is a pleasure to watch. No matter what weight I would order - a mixture of chocolates or just the white Manons - the box would always be the right weight, perfectly packed with no empty space.
"Is there a trick to this?" I asked.
"Practice," was the reply.
Weeks before the shop opened, the staff were taught by Osnat and Shlomi Zingler, importers and owners of the flagship Ramat Hasharon Leonidas shop, together with their experienced sales personnel, how to pack, know and describe every chocolate.
In Belgium, Leonidas also has their own brand of ice cream - so get ready for summer, as the Jerusalem branch hopes to have it in by then. Also in the cards for the near future is the import of the Leonidas range of sugarless chocolate.
You can also make a delicious drink that both adults and children will love. Drop two or three Gianduja chocolates into a cup of hot milk and stir. The chocolate is so soft that it dissolves instantly and is the best hot chocolate I have ever had. It's perfect for a nighttime drink, especially with the rainy, cold weather we are now experiencing.
There are also very good recipes on the Leonidas Web site at www.leonidas.co.il. I tried the chocolate mousse and it is wicked.
The chocolates are kosher and have three kashrut certificates: the Israel Chief Rabbinate, the Dutch Rabbinate and the Jerusalem Rabbinate. The boxes cost NIS 280 per kilo. They come in 220 gr., 300 gr., half a kilo, 750 gr. and one kilo sizes. The smiling sales people are there to advise and guide you in a shop where the customer is an honored guest and, whether you only buy one single chocolate - which will be beautifully wrapped for you in cellophane with a ribbon - or a one-kilo box, you will be made to feel like a special and valued customer.
Leonidas is located at 33 Jaffa Road, and is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tel: (02) 622-3262.