Eating and Drinking the Belgian Way
Belgian cuisine is said to combine French elegance with Germanic proportion. But it's more complex than that. Belgium is riven by language—Flemish in the north, French in the south, plus a small German contingent—but the country shares a common culture. As Catholics, most Belgians share a greater sense of pleasure than their Protestant neighbors, and it shows in their food and drink.
"People enjoy life," says Ruth Van Waerebeek, author of the Everybody Eats Well in Belgium Cookbook, over a lunch of mussels at Chez Leon in Brussels. "When someone says something is bad for you, people say, 'Lies! Lies!'"
Sweet and Sour Beer
Our group dines one evening at Drie Fonteinen (three fountains), a restaurant and lambic brewery in Beersel, just outside Brussels. Sipping a glass of faro, writer Cal Fussman observes, "This is a Buddhist beer: sweet and sour."
The deft balance of disparate elements such as sweet-and-sour and sweet-and-salty is a hallmark of Belgian cuisine. At Drie Fonteinen, lambic’s acidity is countered with pottekaas, bread slathered with a cream cheese derivative and studded with sliced radishes.
Medieval Influences in Belgian Cuisine
Belgian food reflects the influence of centuries of domination by a variety of cultures. In particular, Van Waerebeek stresses the cuisine's Medieval elements: the employment of condiments, mustards, vinegar and dried fruits to obtain delicate balances of flavors; the liberal use of spices that stems from the spice trade of the Middle Ages; the zesty flavors of fresh herbs that were grown in Medieval monasteries.
The next day our party tours the Abbaye Notre Dame d'Orval in the Ardennes, one of a handful of Trappist monasteries that brews beer. Afterwards we have lunch at the abbey's restaurant. A peppery cream soup of chervil, potato, carrot and leek warms us on this cold, rainy day. Salami, ham and head cheese are perfect foils for Orval's acidity.
The Fat Middle
In Bruges we dine at Restaurant De Karmeliet, a three-star Michelin establishment that serves French cheeses to the exclusion of Belgium's 85 native varieties. Perhaps that reflects what Van Waerebeek calls "a low, even self-effacing international profile." In fact, Belgium has more three-star restaurants per capita than France.
We are invited to lunch at the home of Ruth Van Waerebeek's grandmother, Jeanne Baeckelandt, in St. Martens Latem. Before the meal we enjoy Brugse Tripel and Westmalle Tripel with cold sausages and Ghent mustard. Lunch starts with a cream soup made of leek, potato and celery root. The main course is meatballs made with endive—witloof in Flemish—and Duvel; dessert is pears poached in Rodenbach.
In Knokke, a seaside resort town, we duck into a grocery store and check out the beer selection. This store sells blond and brown table beers containing 1.5 percent alcohol by volume. Once a staple served even to children, table beer is disappearing from Belgian households. Young people prefer Coca-Cola these days. The sweetness of Coke predisposes them against traditional sour beers like lambic.
We dine on pizza and pasta at Rigoletto, washing the food down with a clean Belgian pils. Between mouthfuls of white truffles, Don Feinberg, co-owner of Vanberg & DeWulf Importers, expounds on the nature of Belgian dining: "I like places like Drie Fonteinen—middle class, simple, better than you thought it was going to be. That's what they excel at. Belgium is all about the fat middle."
Belgium is home to hundreds of incredible, unique beers. The following were mentioned above.
Lambic: A throwback to earlier times before yeast was discovered, lambic is a wheat beer that is spontaneously fermented with airborne microflora and kept in barrels for about two years. True lambic is made only in the Brussels area, and is bone dry, sour and decidedly funky.
Pils: The basic beer in Belgium as in most of the world, pils is light and malty, with a refreshing, hoppy dryness.
Orval: Unique among Trappist ales, Orval is fermented with ale yeast and Brettanomyces, giving it a leathery, horsey flavor, and is dry-hopped to give it ample hop flavor and aroma.
Tripel: A style of ale first made by the Westmalle Abbey, northeast of Antwerp in Flanders, this golden ale is soft, creamy, fruity and somewhat dry. It is also strong, with alcohol approaching 10 percent by volume.
Duvel: An extremely pale, beguiling brew with alcohol at about 8 percent, Duvel is a classic.
Rodenbach: Made in Flanders, Rodenbach is matured in wooden tuns for two years, where it undergoes a lactic fermentation that introduces a sour character to this ruddy, reddish-brown beer.
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