I am excited by Belgium. There. I said it. Out of all the countries yet to cover in this project I didn’t think for one minute Belgium would get the juices flowing. And I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps it’s due to the enthusiasm of my friend, Anna, whose husband is Belgian and who sent along a variety of suggestions for tasty dishes. I suppose I might otherwise have chosen Moules-Frites and moved on quickly without her input. It could also be related to the interesting little snippets of foodie history I have come across whilst researching the country.
When I first thought of Belgium, the only things that came to mind initially were Moules-Frites and Belgian Chocolate (and a cheeky bit of beer). That got me wondering; why chocolate, and why chips? I found out that the chocolate link is due to the former Belgian colonies in Africa, including the Congo. The cocoa beans produced there have a richer flavour compared to South American ones. Coupled with the Belgian patisserie skills and you have a culture of delicious chocolate production.
The history of the ‘French fries’ much loved by the Belgians is equally as interesting. Apparently the French and Belgians argue about who invented fries. There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that during the first World War, American soldiers mistakenly believed they were in France as French was spoken by the Belgian soldiers, and after tasting Belgian fries called them “French Fries”
So, what to eat…..Some of my Belgian research came from the ‘Hairy Bikers Ride Again’ book which is one of my favourite foodie books because it focuses on the culture and food history of the countries rather than just recipes. One of the recipes I chose to represent Belgium was from the Hairy Bikers book, but was also recommended by Anna. It’s a fish soup / stew called Waterzooi, and developed to use river fish from two substantial rivers in Ghent. It is made from fish stock, carrots, celery, potato, bay, thyme, egg yolk and cream. We added salmon, haddock and prawns. It was really tasty; quite light despite the cream and butter and very fresh tasting. A pinch of saffron with the thyme and bay flavoured the stock nicely.
Another dish recommended by Anna was Stoofvless which is a traditional Belgian beef and onion stew made with beer and seasoned with thyme, bay and mustard. It also contains a slice of bread to thicken the sauce. We used a dark Trappist beer in the sauce and some cider vinegar and brown sugar to create a traditional sweet and sour combination in the stew. Anna recommended that this dish was best the day after making, so we made it Saturday in the slow cooker and left it until Sunday. It was really lovely and rich; perfect Sunday food.
And of course, the obligatory fries! We used Maris Piper potatoes cut into thin chips. These were soaked in room temperature water for about five hours then drained and dried; this removes some of the surface starch leading to a crispy chip. They were then fried in groundnut oil at 300F until they were partially cooked and then taken out and cooled. They were then re-fried at 380F to fully cook.
No Belgian experience would be complete without Belgian chocolate and some waffles. Unfortunately no one local had a waffle iron available to borrow so I decided to cheat and buy some pre-made ones. Luckily, I was able to source some traditional ones from Waitrose which were hand made in Belgium. These waffles were Liege waffles (a more dense type) hand-made on cast-iron waffle irons and contain sugar nibs. Served with an equally cheaty ready-made Belgian chocolate sauce!
Belgium is also famed for its beers, so it would be rude not to sample several fine examples during the course of the weekend including some Trappist beer and Wheat beer. Kriek, a dry cherry beer is also lovely to bake with.