It happened several years ago, but even now thinking of that day makes me shiver with cold.
I can’t feel my toes anymore, although my boots are lined with wool. In my head, I’m counting, again and again, all my fellow students who have already made their presentation, and all who are still waiting their turn. It’s February morning, and I am taking part in a training session for students studying to become tourist guides in Ghent. My classmates and I are giving a mock guided tour of freezing Ghent to our teachers.
Students take turns, ten minutes each, which seems to me like an eternity. After every turn there is a feedback session:
—What do you think of your colleague’s body language and facial expressions?
—Was the voice sufficiently loud?
—Did you like the attitude? Or did you feel that the guide had no interest in you at all?
The teachers are the last to give their opinion and make a conclusion, and I must take notes of what they are saying, but my hands are frozen despite thick woolen gloves and my fingers just wouldn’t bend, so I put the now useless pen back in my pocket. The wind from the North Sea brought humidity, which has turned into an icy haze overnight. With each breath, the ice penetrates my lungs, freezing me from inside. Neither my wool sweater nor my down coat brings relief. In such weather, 0 °C in Flanders feels colder than minus twenty in Siberia.
All my internal energy reserves seem to have been depleted. I suddenly realize that I didn’t listen to the last speaker at all: for the past ten minutes I’ve been imagining a cup of hot chocolate with whipped cream and I can almost feel the thick aroma of cocoa. Meanwhile, half of the group has yet to perform. I’d happily give my kingdom for a cup of chocolate if I had a kingdom, that is. Surprisingly, it was not a cup of chocolate that saved me, it was … a snowball.
1913. Ghent is preparing for the World Expo. One year before the World War I, the industrial city is living to the rhythm of factory horns: every morning, even on Sunday, thousands of factory workers go to work and come back exhausted only late at night. They are poor, there is little entertainment in their lives, and even small pleasures like candy are often beyond their means.
Auguste Larmuseau, a pastry chef, is aware of that. He makes his living selling chocolate to wealthy clients, but he dreams of chocolates that even poor workers could afford. And he comes up with a genius solution: a candy with only a thin coating of expensive chocolate. But what to put inside? For stuffing, Larmuseau uses relatively cheap whipped margarine with vanilla. The fine chocolate coating melts instantly in one’s hand, so to make it melt ‘in one’s mouth’, Larmuseau frosts it with powdered sugar.
It is a true delight: a round cloud of cream in a thin layer of high-quality black chocolate covered with white powder. All there is left to do is to come up with a name for this new delicacy. How to call round candies iced with white powder that melt on your tongue? ‘Sneeuwballen,’ Flemish for snowballs for sure! Thus in 1913 Larmuseau Sneeuwballen are born. Larmuseau presents them during the World Expo in Ghent and receives a gold medal in the ‘Food’ category. Snowballs quickly became a favorite winter treat for Ghent workers. And indeed, they can only be consumed in wintertime, from September to late March: during warm months, margarine literally melts even at room temperature like a real snowball.
I’ve seen recognizable white-and-blue boxes marked ‘Sneeuwballen Larmuseau’ thousand times in shop windows, but I’ve never thought about buying a box to try. ‘Why buy a margarine candy in Belgium, where you can find great chocolate at every corner? This is absurd!’ – I thought.
Meanwhile, exactly one hundred years after the invention of the snowballs, Auguste Larmuseau’s grandson and owner of the snowball factory retired and sold his grandfather’s production site to a young Ghent entrepreneur. The new owner launched a massive advertising campaign: organized an ‘open door day’, created a new attractive website, and with the onset of cold winter weather put in the center of Ghent a round booth, painted in easily recognizable shades of blue and white. A comely girl is selling snow boxes in it, leaving her counter from time to time to offer passers-by a few sweets for free to try.
This booth is just where our group of aspiring guides ends up on the study tour on that icy February morning. Chilled to the bone, I am not even dreaming about hot chocolate any more; I am just craving for any source of calories. ‘Do you want to try it?’ – suddenly a nice warm voice sounds right next to me. I turn around – a young girl is offering me a tray with white balls. ‘It’s snowballs,’ she explains. ‘It’s calories!’ – resonates her voice in my head. I thank her, pull the glove off my hand and, with fingers numb from cold, take one ball from the tray. The chocolate coating breaks with a light crack, the cream melts on my tongue and the taste of cream and vanilla suddenly shadows all the other sensations. For a few seconds, everything but the sweet candy in my mouth ceases to exist. I am standing there with my eyes closed and I swear I can feel myself getting warmer. ‘It’s snowballs,’ I say to myself. It’s bliss.
I graduated from my tourist guide training course a long time ago. I have learned how to dress for tours to stay warm even on the coldest days, and to warn my clients to dress the same way. But even today for me, winter means Larmuseau snowballs. I take a white and blue box with Sneeuwballen Larmuseau logo from the seller’s hands. I come home and make myself a cup of tea. I sit comfortably, take the weightless ball out of the package, put into my mouth and feel the miracle happen once more. Chocolate coating breaks with a light crack, the cream melts on my tongue, vanilla and cream flavors suddenly shadow all other sensations…
From September to the end of March you can order snowballs online, in Larmuseau stores in Ghent, find them in good supermarkets and, of course, in the Centre for East Flemish Regional Products in the Great Butchers’ Hall in Ghent. Sneeuwballen Larmuseau is an officially recognized traditional regional product, so the package features not only corporate symbols but also a round logo with a heart in a circle and the text of REGIO & TRADITIE. STREEKPRODUCT. BE. The real snowball is only produced at the Larmuseau factory. Every day, 40,000 fresh balls are placed manually into boxes. The recipe is kept secret, and rightly so: too often in the past hundred years Auguste Larmuseau’s competitors have attempted to copy his invention. To no avail, because nothing can be better than a real Larmuseau snowball.
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