Europe's Best-Kept Secret
When shopping for dinner, a Belgian will happily go 20 minutes out of her way if it means her family will enjoy a better loaf of bread or a more tender bunch of asparagus. Food is an extremely important part of Belgian life. Not only do Belgians spend considerably more money on food than the average American, but they also devote a great deal more time and energy to discussing it, shopping for it, preparing it, and consuming it. The Belgian approach to food is perhaps best summed up in the following motto: We eat three times a day, so we'd better try to make a feast of it every time.
But what is Belgian food? When faced with this question, most Americans might answer, after a puzzled pause, "French?" "German?" or, perhaps, "Dutch?" Even other Europeans find Belgian cuisine enigmatic. To a great extent, that sad fact is our own fault, since Belgians tend to keep a low, even self-effacing international profile. But it is all the more confounding when consider that Belgian food is truly some of the finest Europe has to offer and that Belgium has more three-star restaurants per capita than France.
Although present-day Belgium can aptly be described as a nation tied to its traditions, its very culture sprang from a pastiche of foreign influences. Over the centuries, Belgium has been invaded by almost every other European people — including the Romans, Vikings, Spanish, French, Germans, and Dutch — effectively becoming a meeting point for the Germanic cultures of northern Europe and the Latin cultures of the south. Favorite cooking techniques, ingredients, and styles of the invaders were picked up by the natives, who by the Middle Ages, had developed a cuisine they could call their own. Now we Belgians are fond of saying that our food is cooked with French finesse — and served in portions of German generosity.
At some point, the urge to forge and preserve this hard-won and slow-cooked identity eventually became a sort of national mania, reflected in a native suspicion of strangers and a hard-shelled, highly conservative resistance to any further exotic influence. Our customs, traditions, folklore, and festivals were frozen in time, along with our cuisine, which has remained doggedly faithful to its origins.
A MEDIEVAL BIRTH
Belgian cuisine is still deeply rooted in medieval cookery. The influence of the Middle Ages, a time when Flemish culture was very highly developed, can be seen today in the way we use condiments, mustards, vinegars, and dried fruits to obtain delicate balances of sweet-and-sour or sweet-and-salty in the same dish; in our use of fresh and dried fruits and nuts, particularly almonds, to enhance flavor and presentation. The spices we use so abundantly to season everything from meats to vegetables, desserts, and wine - nutmeg, cinnamon, peppercorns, saffron, ginger, and bay leaves — can be traced back to the spice trade of the Middle Ages. We love fresh herbs, particularly chervil, tarragon, thyme, sage, parsley, and chives. These are the same ones that grew in the herb gardens of the medieval monsteries, and we use them lavishly. We drink more beer than wine and produce more than 300 varieties, many of them crafted by small artisanal brewers whose family recipes and techniques go back hundreds of years. The exuberant and subtle beer cuisine of Belgium is just now beginning to have an influence outside of our borders.
Belgians love potatoes in nearly every guise; fried potatoes are practically the Belgian national dish. Mussels, another passion, are eaten regularly in great quantities, always accompanied by Belgian fries. Belgians are definitely a nation of meat lovers,
consuming large quantities of pork, beef, veal, chicken, and rabbit. We also eat a large amount of game, everything from rabbit to wild boar, and wild birds of every sort — duck, grouse, quail, partridge, and dove. We often make a meal of our excellent charcuterie accompanied by a selection of breads and a glass of beer.
We are famous for our fresh vegetables (who has not heard of Belgian endive or Brussels sprouts?) as well as for waffles, and of course, chocolate. Belgians have a very well-developed sweet tooth; I think it is fair to say that we have unparalleled cravings for chocolate. Not only do we produce some of the finest chocolate in the world, but the average Belgian consumes nearly seven pounds more per year than his American counterpart. In short, everybody eats well in Belgium.
Given this bounty of wonderful food, it may surprise you to learn that there are few cookbooks devoted to Belgian cooking published in Belgium. The reason is simple: In Belgium, the secrets of cooking are still transmitted orally. Recipes, techniques, traditions, tastes, and passions are passed along from generation to generation in a country where "family values " is not merely a political catchphrase but a living reality. Our cuisine, like our nation, is at heart bourgeois — home cooking at its best.
For that reason, I want to introduce you to Belgian cooking through three generations of Belgian mothers and daughters: my great grandmother Marie, her daughter Jeanne, and her granddaughter (my mother) Anny. I am now a professional chef, and a cooking teacher at Peter Kump's Cooking School in New York City, and I learned about cooking in their busy kitchens in the medieval city of Ghent, where I grew up. These women are truly remarkable cooks, and each is thoroughly Belgian in her approach to cooking. Yet from each of them I have learned a distinct and recognizable style.
Everybody Eats Well in Belgium Cookbook
by Ruth Van Waerebeek with Maria Robbins
Illustrations by Melissa Sweet
$14.95 Paperback; $24.95 Cloth
Workman Publishing, 1996
ISBN: 1-56305-411-6 (Paperback)
ISBN: 0-7611-0106-3 (Cloth)
Reprinted with permission