'Country of chocolate' Belgium opens museum dedicated to the sweet stuff

A chocolate-maker makes preparations during a preview of the Belgium Chocolate Village, a museum dedicated to Belgium's chocolate-making history, in Brussels on Sept 19, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
A chocolate-maker makes preparations during a preview of the Belgium Chocolate Village, a museum dedicated to Belgium's chocolate-making history, in Brussels on Sept 19, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
A visitor looks at a display during a preview of the Belgium Chocolate Village, a museum dedicated to Belgium's chocolate-making history, in Brussels on Sept 19, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
A visitor looks at a display during a preview of the Belgium Chocolate Village, a museum dedicated to Belgium's chocolate-making history, in Brussels on Sept 19, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
A visitor looks at a display during a preview of the Belgium Chocolate Village, a museum dedicated to Belgium's chocolate-making history, in Brussels on Sept 19, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
A visitor looks at a display during a preview of the Belgium Chocolate Village, a museum dedicated to Belgium's chocolate-making history, in Brussels on Sept 19, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Chocolate creations are on display during a preview of the Belgium Chocolate Village, a museum dedicated to Belgium's chocolate-making history, in Brussels on Sept 19, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Chocolate creations are on display during a preview of the Belgium Chocolate Village, a museum dedicated to Belgium's chocolate-making history, in Brussels on Sept 19, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
A chocolate-maker makes a preparation during a preview of the Belgium Chocolate Village, a museum dedicated to Belgium's chocolate-making history, in Brussels, on September 19, 2014. The museum, located in one of Brussels' oldest chocolate factory, t
A chocolate-maker makes a preparation during a preview of the Belgium Chocolate Village, a museum dedicated to Belgium's chocolate-making history, in Brussels, on September 19, 2014. The museum, located in one of Brussels' oldest chocolate factory, the former Victoria biscuit and chocolate factory, is scheduled to open on September 20, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP 
A visitor looks at a display during a preview of the Belgium Chocolate Village, a museum dedicated to Belgium's chocolate-making history, in Brussels, on September 19, 2014. The museum, located in one of Brussels' oldest chocolate factory, the former
A visitor looks at a display during a preview of the Belgium Chocolate Village, a museum dedicated to Belgium's chocolate-making history, in Brussels, on September 19, 2014. The museum, located in one of Brussels' oldest chocolate factory, the former Victoria biscuit and chocolate factory, is scheduled to open on September 20, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

BRUSSELS (AFP) - It likes to call itself the "country of chocolate" and now Belgium has a new treat for visitors: a museum dedicated to the confectionary featuring a Willy Wonka-style factory and cocoa tree jungle.

Chocolate is a national treasure in Belgium. It is home to such illustrious brands as Godiva, Neuhaus, Leonidas and Cote d'Or. And the museum opening Saturday, in a former chocolate factory in the capital Brussels, will showcase its love of the brown stuff.

"The Belgian passion for chocolate has never been denied and we have become 'the country of chocolate,'" the museum's designer Henri Dupuis said.

At the heart of the Belgian Chocolate Village, as the museum is called, cocoa trees and other tropical plants grow in a lush greenhouse.

Visitors to the museum in the north-west Brussels neighbourhood of Koekelberg can learn how the cocoa bean is harvested abroad, usually in west Africa where it was introduced by the Europeans, and then refined into chocolate in northern countries.

They are told the history of chocolate from its origin in central America where the Maya and Aztec Indians consumed cocoa in the form of a drink, to its arrival in Europe with the Spanish before it was mass produced in the industrial revolution.

It shows how chocolate sparked religious debates - about whether it could be eaten during periods of fasting - and children in Europe were often forbidden from having it.

Visitors are also shown how confectioners cater to different tastes in different countries: the Dutch like to sip hot chocolate drinks, the Belgians adore pralines and favour dark chocolate while the Swiss like milk chocolate.

The visitor can not only see how different chocolates are made in what used to be the former Victoria chocolate and biscuit factory, which closed in 1969, but taste a whole variety of them.

Chocolate is one of Belgium's main consumer products, with the small EU nation manufacturing around 172,000 tonnes of chocolate products a year, according to the Belgian tourist office.