A Food Trip through Belgium
"What do you think of the food in Europe?" the skinny French gentleman sharing our table asks us.
"Love it," Dave replies although it's our first few hours in Europe and we are sitting at our first restaurant. The man knows we arrived in Belgium today, but I think he has forgotten after we told him we had came from London.
"Ah…I lived in London for two years so I could learn English. The food is shit." He is clear on where his loyalties lie.
We are excited to be in Europe for the food and particularly excited to be in Belgium for its beer. I hadn't really thought about the differences in food between a place like London and its European neighbors, but as we started to make our plans for two days in Brussels and three in nearby Ghent, our itinerary grew long with food to try and beer to drink. We never had a list like that in London.
For a relatively small country, Belgium has given the world more than its fair share of gastronomic pleasures. From healthy things like brussel sprouts and endives to indulgent things like waffles, fries and chocolate, Belgium is a surprisingly food centric destination.
In five days, we walked all over the two cities we visited and tried our fair share of its renowned menu items.
Mussels in Brussels
Moules frite. It's all Dave would say whenever we talked about adding Belgium to our itinerary. He had visited once before and his meal of mussels and fries was permanently lodged in his memory. While in Brussels, we saw the pots of mussels lining cafe tables all over the city and we were determined to find the best.
A long, sweaty walk in near 90 degree heat to a non-touristy part of town brought us to the mussel mecca. La Bonne Humeur is a tiny restaurant that specializes in mussels. Their website told us that the Belgium mussel season had just arrived and we were looking forward to the real deal. When we walked through the door thirty minutes before they stop serving lunch, we were met with formica tables covered with huge pots of mussels. Everyone in the restaurant, young and old, was eating from their own gigantic pot.
We ordered a half bottle of wine and a 1.5 kg pot of mussels to share and we waited. Fifteen minutes later, our pot of mussels and plate of fries arrived. The smell of the white wine, onions and celery broth consumed our table and Dave looked ready to jump up and down. We ate close to 100 mussels that afternoon and they were all delicious. Not another tourist in sight, we felt pretty giddy about our find.
Walking for Waffles
After remembering that waffles originated in Belgium, I was on the hunt for a freshly made authentic waffle. There are store fronts and stands around Brussels, but I didn't want to pay the tourist price of three or four euros.
As we walk the streets away from the Grand Place, we see a waffle truck and the smell is enough for us to walk over. One euro and 50 pence later, I am the proud owner of my own fresh waffle, wrapped in paper and coated in sugary goodness. It is crisp on the outside, just cooked enough on the inside and beyond delicious.
A Fry Cone
Supposedly during World War I, a group of Belgian soldiers were making fries and speaking French (for those who have never been to Belgium, they speak French in half the country and Dutch in the other). American soldiers heard them speaking and assumed they were French, resulting in us now calling fried potatoes, french fries.
Both Brussels and Ghent have "frite" stands all over town, easily recognizable by the signs with a cone of fries hung outside their door. We have been trying to stay away from fried foods on our trip, but we had to have a cone of fries. Sitting off the main plaza in Ghent, we dug into the largest cone of fries I have ever seen. Tradition says you need to eat them smothered in mayonnaise, but it is my least favorite condiment so we opted for good old tomato ketchup. It was enough of a meal that we didn't have to eat for most of the day.
Crazy for Chocolate
Belgians are also known for their amazing chocolate (I know…could this country get any better?). High end retailers line cobblestoned streets and their window displays had me drooling day after day. I opted to wait until arriving in Ghent to get my chocolate fix in order to find smaller chocolatiers.
To my delight, we stumbled upon Hilde Devolder Chocolatier, a small chocolatier off the main drag in town. The afternoon we walked in, Hilde herself was behind the counter and spent time explaining the different chocolates and fillings to us, along with letting us sample some of her raw chocolates.
Her signature is decorating the top of her chocolates with what is inside so you can remember what is in your box, like sesame seeds on top of a sesame flavored chocolate. Five euros for eight pieces of chocolate later, I couldn't wait to get home to dig in.
Last, but not least, the beer (by Dave)
Where to begin? Beer is to Belgium what water is to a mermaid. It sustains life. The numbers of beers offered are staggering and the different types are simply incredible. You can find mass produced, yet wonderful Belgian beers like Leffe, Duvel and Chimay everywhere. Then there are the trappist beers made by monks that take things to a different level, full of flavor and alcohol.
Jill loves saisons and lambics, the former considered a farmhouse ale and the latter typically flavored with fruit. We had a great peach lambic we found at a bottle shop.
The draft selection is unbelievable with popular beers like La Chouffe on many lists along with less obscure ones. Often there will be a light and dark (bruin) beer from the same brewery on tap. Much to my enjoyment, Belgian brewers have hopped on the hoppy beer bandwagon and are now making wonderful Belgian IPAs. While I loved the Duvel Tripel Hop I found, a proprietor at a beer store we visited seemed less than enamored with them, I'm guessing because they are not traditional Belgian beers and more adaptations of an American style. Regardless, there's a beer (to two) for everyone in Belgian and it goes without saying that beer lovers need to visit this paradise.
Cheers to that!