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Ethnic Cuisine: Belgium

by Lou Seibert Pappas

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Sandwiched between France and Holland along the North Sea, Belgium covers a strip of land almost 200 miles long and 100 miles wide. With over 10 million people, it is the second most densely populated country in the world. Its people divide into two distinct cultures -- the Flemish in the Northern half, and the Walloons in the Southern half. The languages spoken include French, Flemish, and German, though in tourist centers people speak English as well. The capital, Brussels, stands in the center of the land and ranks as an expanding and expensive international city.

Belgium is a highly industrialized country with only 5 percent of the working population involved in agriculture. Even so, they produce 165 different kinds of cheeses and many notable food products. Through history, the country has been invaded and ruled by many other people-the Romans, Vikings, French, Spanish, Austrians, Dutch, English, and Germans-and many great and famous battles have been fought on Belgium soil. This land has become a meeting point for the Germanic cultures of northern Europe and the Latin cultures of the south, and this has influenced their cuisine.

Cooking techniques and ingredients of the invaders were acquired by the natives, who by the Middle Ages developed a cuisine of their own. Today Belgians proudly say their food is cooked with French finesse and served with German generosity.

The country is famous for its mussels and frites (French-fried potatoes), waffles, and endive. Fine chocolates are a passion and exquisite chocolatiers dot the marketplace of every city. More beer is consumed than wine by the populace. Many beers are crafted by small artisanal brewers whose family recipes and techniques go back generations. Beer laces the national dish, carbonnades flamandes, a Flemish beef stew.

Belgians love potatoes and are fond of game and meat. Charcuterie, a basket of bread, and beer often make a meal. Fish and seafood are important. Hearty soups play a big role, and the so called waterzooies are the most typical.

Medieval cookery still influences the cuisine with today's prevalence of condiments, mustards, vinegars, and dried fruits that lend a sweet-sour and sweet-salty flavor to dishes. Almonds and spices are used in abundance, and fresh herbs lace appetizers, salads, meats, and even desserts.

Few cookbooks exist, but the newly published volume, Everybody Eats Well in Belgium by Ruth Van Werebeek (Workman) covers recipes from three generations of her family.

Visiting Belgium today, one is easily captivated by the endive, mussels, and chocolates, and each has a story behind it.

Belgian endive, or chicory, has a place of honor in dining and a unique style of cultivation. This vegetable was accidently discovered by a Belgian farmer, Jan Lammers, in 1830, when he returned from war and found his chicory (used for coffee and stored in the barn) had sprouted white leaves. He was captivated by its tangy, distinctive flavor. It was another 30 years before endive, known as witloof, became a successful crop. In 1872 it was introduced in Paris, to rave reviews, so popular it was called white gold.

Today it is still cultivated as a labor-intensive crop, either in soil in gardens or sheds, or hydroponically. Visiting Belgian in October 1996, I had the pleasure of seeing both methods harvested, and what a fascinating production it is. There are two phases to its growth. First the roots, or chicory, is harvested in July or August. Then the grower forces the endive to sprout the leaves. To achieve this, on small farms the roots are buried in damp sand-filled trenches inside a cellar or heated metal corrugated covers. The roots then produce thick, pale conical buds in 20 days and are hand pulled and the leaves cut. The roots become fodder for animals.

More recently, endive is also produced by hydroculture, by growing in water, and this is done year around. Today endive production has spread to California. We were told that the red endive now available in the States was accidentally produced from a disease of the seed. In the past, it used to be thrown away. Very little of the red strain is grown in Belgium.

A restaurant famous for its fifty endive dishes is Traiteur Restaurant Veilinghof, located at Lewensesteenweg 22, 1910 Kampenhout, Belgium. This bistro means "garden of the auction" as it is situated close to the auction house for produce that is marketed world-wide.

Dining at the bistro with Rudi Coosemans, the charming young president of the Belgian Endive Marketing Board and owner of Coosemans Belgium Specialty Produce, we savored superb endive dishes-a luscious creamy potato soup and braised endive gratin, the leaves sealed in ham and a rich cheese sauce, and we learned about this delicious leaf.

"In Belgian 99 out of 100 times endive is served hot, whereas in the States more likely it is served raw," said Coosemans. There is only 1 calorie per leaf and considerable nutritional value in its mineral content. The fresher it is, the sweeter and less bitter. Belgium now exports 3,000 tons a year to the United States. The price paid for endive grown in the traditional soil method is higher than for the water method.

In Brussels one evening, we delved into another food specialty-mussels at Chez Leon. Located in the Galerie de la Reine, a shopping street and market square with 60 restaurants, this is a bustling 100-year-old fish restaurant. It has expanded over the years into a row of eight old houses and is said to average 1,500 covers a day. It offers 12 different mussel preparations ranging from mussels escargot made with parsley butter, to a huge pot of mussels steamed in broth. Gratineed mussels with tomatoes and cheese and cold marinated mussels are other specialties. The busy restaurant also offers chicken, fish, and meats. It is smart to choose the beer over the house wine. The address is Rue des Bouchers 18, tel: 02/511-14-15. No reservations are necessary. There are dozens of other restaurants alongside, each displaying a fancy array of seafood and fresh produce on tables outdoors. Even in late October, night-time patrons were enjoying dining outdoors under canopies and heat lamps at many establishments.

On an afternoon food walking tour, we learned there are 90 breweries making 400 beers in the city. There are 2,00 restaurants in Brussels and 20 brands of chocolate shops. Among them, Leonidos is considered "the fast food of Belgian chocolate." Godiva and Neuhaus are popular and top-of-the-line, and Wittamer is considered the ultimate. Belgian praline is a general term for filled chocolates. In the shops, each candy has a name. It helps to know that gianduja is a milk chocolate and hazelnut paste blended while hot. Praline also means a mixture of milk chocolate and finely ground nuts or toffee. Nougatine is the same as praline, only larger pieces of nuts or toffee are used for a slight crunch. True Belgian chocolates have no preservatives and use no artificial flavors or coloring. The best ones are made with fresh cream and last only a few days. The chocolates are beautifully packaged and sold in boutiques decorated with gold, crystal, and mirrors.

Street food in Belgium means frites or French fries. Stands serve them in a paper cone accompanied by mayonnaise, bearnaise or curry sauce. Another popular fast food is the Belgian waffle. Stands in outdoor markets bake them with crunchy bits of pearl sugar in the batter. Roasted chestnuts are an aromatic item heating in outdoor stalls in the winter months.

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