Although Les Francais will undoubtedly dispute this, there is a strong case to be made that Belgian’s national dish, ‘les frites’, was given the name ‘French Fries’ by American servicemen when they arrived in Belgium at the end of the First World War. Whatever the truth, you won’t find better chips anywhere in the world, cooked to crispy perfection following the traditional recipe of double frying in beef fat. Just don’t expect to find vinegar at a Belgian chippy as everyone here dips their frites into a creamy sauce. Traditionally this is mayonnaise, but now you’ll see a dozen different bottles on display, ranging from curry ketchup, bearnaise or cocktail to the exotic samourai or andalouse.
Food-lovers the world over take pride in their collection of cast-iron cooking pots and pans that bear the renowned Le Creuset label, one of the symbols of French haute-cuisine. But although these iconic porcelain-enamelled cocottes have been produced in the same foundries in France for over 80 years, the origin of this idea was thought up by two Belgian industrialists, Armand Desaegher (a casting specialist) and Octave Aubecq (an enamelling specialist), who chose to build their foundry across the border in Fresnoy-le-Grand simply because it was on a strategic crossroads for transporating the raw materials needed for the enamelling.
Although everyone may associate Belgium with beer, it can come as big surprise that the country also has its own vineyards producing wine and distilleries that make a very respectable bottle of whiskey. And most French people would have a heart attack to discover that Pommery, one of the great Champagne houses, is Belgian owned too. The Owl Distillery near Liège is the brainchild of Etienne Bouillon, who studied whiskey in Scotland, grew his own barley in Belgium, and now distills a range of single and pure malts. Grapes were grown to make wine in Belgium since the Middle Ages, with most towns boasting vineyards around their city walls. You can see them today in the walled gardens of Thuin, where a crisp, sharp white wine is still produced, and in the last 20 years production across the country has become more widespread. Lovers of bubbly can even try the dry, sparkling Cremant de Wallonie.
Walk into any bar, bistrot or cafe in Belgium, order a coffee, and a tiny biscuit will be nestling on the saucer, at no extra cost. This is a ‘speculoos’, a tasty biscuit flavoured with ginger and cinammon, that takes its name from the Latin word for ‘speices’, and began as a Christmas tradition, bearing the image of Saint Nicholas. Today, it is quite simply an integral part of daily life in Belgium. You’ll now find speculoos ice cream, a paste that resembles peanut butter, and an after-dinner liqueur that rivals Bailey’s Irish Cream.
Herve may sounds like someone’s name, but it is also what Belgium’s most pungent cheese is called. And the Herve, made in the village of Herve from unpasteurized cow’s milk then aged in humid caves, is just the tip of Belgium’s surprising selection of cheeses. Particularly in Wallonia, cheeses are linked with the Abbey’s that make beer, so in any ‘fromagerie’ you’ll see the distinctive cheeses like Abbaye de Chimay, Abbaye d’Orval, Avesnois à la Trappiste and Bouquet des Moines.
Blue Elephant restaurants are known throughout Europe and the Middle East as temples of Thai gastronomy. But few foodies in London or Paris, Copenhagen or Kuwait, who ring up to reserve for a gourmet dinner in one of these elegant locales, realise that these embassies of Thai cuisine were the brainchild of a Belgian, Karl Steppe, together with his Thai wife, Khun Nooror Somany, one of Thailand’s best chefs. What’s more, when the first Blue Elephant opened its doors in 1980, it was not in Bangkok but Brussels.
Formula One enthusiasts will know the Walloon town of Spa as home to one of the most famous Grand Prix circuits. But its real claim to fame is giving the world a geneneric term for healthy natural spring water. People have been taking the waters from the town’s hot springs here since the Middle Ages, and any destination that boasts a natural water source, from Vichy in France to San Pellegrino in Italy, now calls itself a ‘spa town’. But the bottled mineral water in the distinctive Spa bottle that you can buy in UK supermarkets is the only one to come from this uniquely Belgium watering-hole.
Every country in Europe is particularly proud of its very own smoked ham, be it the ‘prosciutto’ of Italy from Parma or San Daniele, France’s rustic jambon from the volcanic mountains of the Auvergne, Bavaria’s smoky Black Forest variety, or the terrifically expensive Pata Negra variety of Jamon Serrano. Well Belgians are equally proud of their own delicious ham, made in the wild forests of the Ardennes, following an ancient tradition which sees the pork salted by either dry rubbing or immersed in brine, then wood smoked and aged depending on the cut.
While London has its pubs and Paris its bistrots, Brussels and the rest of Belgium boast wonderful old fashioned bars known as ‘estaminets’. While the beers have some of the oddest names - imagine ordering a glass of ‘golden snail’, the Caracole Ambre, a ‘piggy beer’, Biere Cochonne, or choosing between the lesser of two evils, Lucifer and Bonne Esperance - some of the traditional bar snacks are even more strange. It turns out that ‘oiseaux sans tete’, birds without a head, are actually stuffed veal paupiettes, ‘kip kap’ is a tasty gelatine with pigs cheeks, a kind of brawn, while ‘langues de chat’, cat’s tongues, are a delicious chocolate in the image of one of Belgium’s favourite cartoon characters - Le Chat.
‘Moules Marinières’ is a dish served in pretty much every seafood restaurant around the world, but here in Belgium, eating mussels - invariably accompanied by a pile of crispy ‘frites’ - is something of a national pastime. While cooking these succulent molluscs in white wine - marinière - is definitely the most popular, there are literally hundreds of different recipes, from a typically Belgian idea of cooking them in beer, to Spanish-style with chorizo, all’Italiano in a rich tomato and garlic broth, or exotic Thai and Indian versions using coconut milk, lemongrass and lime.
On any street in Belgium you can’t miss tiny stalls or hole-in-the-wall stores selling melt-in-the-mouth waffles smothered Brussels-style with just powdered sugar, or with anything from whipped cream to hot chocolate or honey. If there isn’t a queue outside you’ll still smell the irresistible aroma wafting up from the old-fashioned iron griddle. Waffles have been around since the Middle Ages, and are now enjoyed all over the world, but connoisseurs will tell you that the king of waffles is the one invented in the 18th century in the Walloon town of Liège, a sweeter, richer variety, topped with crunchy, caramelized sugar. Just don’t think of how many calories there are in each one!
Belgian cuisine features a colourful variety of healthy, seasonal vegetables, with most organic crops coming from farms in the Walloon part of the country. While local gourmet chefs would probably choose asparagus as their favourite product, and children the world over would cite the Brussels sprout, it is the humble endive, known locally as ‘chicon’, that ends up most on people’s dining table, and in other country’s around the world, this unique root is actually known as Belgian Endive. In summer it is the perfect raw ingredient to make a salad fresh and crunchy, while in winter, slowly braised in beer, the endive is the ideal accompaniment for meat, poultry and game.
Think of Belgium and you think of chocolate, with producers like Neuhaus, Leonidas, Marcolini, Galler and Godiva household names all over the world for their irresistible pralines. In fact, ‘pralines’, a special way of using chocolate as a cover or ‘couverture’,for delicious fillings like hazelnut, coffee or fruits, was invented by Monsieur Neuhaus in 1912, completely revolutionizing the industry. What is unique in Belgium is that the majority of the production continues to use the finest cocoa beans, and has remained artisanal, with even the smallest village boasting its own ‘chocolatier’, selling original creations, a completely different world from the mass-produced chocolate bars stocked in sweet shops and supermarkets.
For a nation that have a reputation as ‘gourmands’ as much as ‘gourmets’ - lovers of hearty servings as well as sophisticated cuisine - it can come as a surprise that at lunchtime, Belgians often forgo their favourite dishes covered rich cream sauce, cooked in butter or accompanied by huge portions of chips, and instead prefer a bowl of steaming homemade soup and a hefty, dunkable chuck of crusty brown bread. You’ll find a ‘soupe du jour’ on every cafe menu, ranging from the popular classics - tomato, pea and ham, leek and potato - to Ardennes soup made with endives and a hearty ‘soupe de poisson’, made with fish caught off the North Sea, served with toasted croutons topped off with a garlicky aioli. There is even a soup made with beer, known as ‘sweet ale soup’, made from a dark stout with the subtle flavours of ginger, cinnamon and lemon.
For a country that boasts several hundred brewers and over 500 different beers, it is hardly surprising that for centuries, Belgian chefs have been inspired to use beer in their cooking. Today you can find traditional dishes cooked with beer in the most simple of ‘estaminets’ to Michelin-starred temples to Belgian gastronomy. Tender beef slowly braised in a potent Trappist brew, is transformed into a delicious ‘carbonnade de boeuf’, while ‘moules marinière’ works just as well with ale as with white wine. And then, the sheer variety of Belgian beers means gourmet chefs can come up with creative recipes like chicken stewed in the distinctive Kriek cherry beer with cherries, wild boar can be marinated with beer known as Gueuze, or how about an ice cream made from Peach Lambic.
You will find the dish ‘filet américain’ on pretty much every bistrot or brasserie menu, but don’t expect a plate with a huge T Bone steak as this classic is a typically eccentric Belgian version of what gourmet’s know as ‘steak tartare’. The ground raw beef is not served with the usual spicy condiments and raw egg yolk on the side, but rather ‘prepared’, with each restaurant having its own unique mix of ingredients. More surprisingly, the ‘americain’ is not just a main dish - accompanied unsurprisingly by the ever-present crispy ‘frites’ - but also a sandwich spread, which butchers and delicatessens sell as a lunchtime takeout.
If you want to try the Belgian version of ‘bangers and mash’ the dish to order is a hearty plate of ‘stoemp’, which could certainly give plenty of energy to the dancers in the cult American musical, ‘Stomp’. The term ‘stoemp’ actually refers to the potatoes, definitely a rough mash rather than a smooth purée, mixed with several other veggies like cabbage, sprouts, carrots, leeks - almost a ‘bubble and squeak’. Then, the actual dish depends what is served with the ‘stoemp’, usually a couple of sausages, but also black sausage or a thick juicy steak.
Coming essentially from the Walloon region around Namur, Belgium’s ‘petit-gris’ snails are a more subtle gourmet product than the more well-known ‘escargots de Bourgogne’. Most French restaurant-goers are not even aware that their plump snails oozing in garlic butter are most probably imported from Albania or Greece, but at least if the menu here lists ‘petit-gris de Namur’ you can be sure where they have been raised. Rather than being served in their shells, the petit-gris are used in traditional recipes, served as the creamy filling of a vol-au-vent puff pastry.
While breakfast in Britain is unimaginable without jam or marmalade, what you will find next to the toast in Belgium is a distinctive pot of Liège syrup. Made with apples and pears from orchards in the Liègois countryside, this dark brown, molasses paste is low in sugar and has a much higher concentration of natural fruits than any usual jam. The Sirop is also used in the recipe for Boulettes Liègeoises, where meatballs are simmered in the sweet sauce, while after dinner, a sticky dollop of Sirop de Liège is the perfect complement to a chunk of tangy Herve cheese.