Belgium is one of those small countries that some people still have a hard time finding on a map, so it’s no surprise that its food is generally not known beyond its borders. Belgium is stuck between The Netherlands, France, Germany and the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. It is a very small country (you can drive through in three hours) divided into three speech regions: the Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north, the French-speaking Wallonia in the south, and the German-speaking East Cantons.
Both Belgium’s multilingualism and its cuisine’s specific taste come from a dark past. Before independence in 1830, Belgium had been victim of multiple invasions: Vikings, Romans, Spaniards, French, Dutch, and Germans all have made their way to this tiny territory. It’s a strategic spot where, today, the Germanic culture meets the Latin culture for better or for worse. It is certainly for better once it comes to cooking. With its blend of influences, Belgian cuisine stands among the best European food.
The Belgian cuisine tradition dates from the Middle Ages. A medieval influence can be tasted today in the way Belgians use condiments, mustards, vinegars, and dried fruits in the same dish. The spice trade of the Middle Ages has completely enhanced popular food by the subtle flavors of nutmeg, cinnamon, peppercorns, saffron, ginger, and bay leaves. These are abundantly used to season everything from meats to vegetables, desserts, and even the hot wine sold in the streets in winter. Fresh herbs, particularly chervil, nettle, tarragon, thyme, sage, parsley, and chives are also essential to many recipes. The best example is probably the eel cooked with fourteen different herbs and called anguille au vert.
You’ll probably find the ingredients of Belgian cuisine in its surrounding countries, but the way Belgians use them is completely original. For instance, it is well known that Belgians brew beers—more than 300 varieties. What distinguishes their technique from that of other countries are the multiple fermentations, yeast strains, the use of fruits and herbs, blending of different batches and ages of beer, cask aging and bottle-conditioning. Nonetheless, what makes the real difference is the cuisine à la bière!
Belgium’s cuisine is recognized for its stews. There are creamy stews like the waterzooi with chicken, or beer stews like the carbonnades flamandes, in which beef and vegetables are tastefully simmered together in beer for two hours. Gueuze lambic beer (along with some onions, mustard, vinegar and a slice of country bread spread with a strong mustard) gives the meal its exceptional taste. The adventurous cook will add a slice of pain d'épices, an old-fashioned honey spice bread, and at the last minute drop in a piece of dark chocolate.
Belgians are inveterate potato eaters. In France, potatoes are considered to be vegetables and therefore are not served if there are already other greens included in the dish. In Belgium, unlike its neighbor to the west, potatoes constitute a meat-and-vegetables complement. Baked, boiled, fried or sautéed, they can take any form. Another alternative is a delicious stoemp, a purée of either celery, carrots, leeks or cabbage mixed<
Belgian Restaurants in the U.S.
The Abbey, 163 Ponce de Leon, 404-876-8768.
NEW YORK CITY:
De Granvelle Belgian Chocolatier, Trump Tower, 725 Fifth Ave., 212-829-8602.
Markt, 401 W. 14th St., 212-727-3314.
La Petite Abeille, 107 W. 18th St., 212-604-9350; 400 W. 14th St., 212-727-1505; 466 Hudson St., 212-741-6479; and 134 W. Broadway 212-791-1360
Belgian Lion, 2265 Bacon St., 619-223-2700.