Friday, June 13, 2008

Belgian Food & Young potatoes with cured ham

Finally, I will be starting a long line of posts on Belgian cooking and Belgian food. Most of the traditional Belgian dishes are handed down from generation to generation, usually from (grand) mother to daughter, but in this case from grandmother and mother to (grand) son. I basically spent a few days interrogating my grandma, asking her to spill her secrets. Although I was already quite familiar with the preparation of the larger share of these dishes, my grandma's help was essential in getting things right. But you all know grandma's cooking, absolutely delicious, but usually done without the slightest sign of precise measurements. So, on that note, you'll have to bear with me for a bit and experiment a little on your own, to get the recipe to fit to your particular tastes.

As this is my first Belgian food post, I thought it would be a good idea to give a short descriptive introduction into Belgium's food. This actually led me to do some culinary soul searching as I had never thought about Belgian food in this way before. I had always taken my own country's food for granted, never really stopping to wonder why there weren't any Belgian cookbooks alongside the endless rows of cookbooks of more internationally established cuisines, such as the French, Italian, and Spanish ones (to name a few). Only now that I have had the opportunity to savor an ever-growing number of dishes from all over the world, am I beginning to see that our little country’s cuisine deserves to be recognized as a full, rich and delicious kitchen as well. Part of the explanation lies in the fact that Belgian culinary tradition is still mainly an oral one as indicated earlier. For over five decades, there’s only been one essential Belgian cookbook, of which each family owned a copy; “Ons Kookboek” by the “Boerenbond” (Our Cookbook written by the Farmer’s Union). Only in the past decade and especially in the past three to four years, has there been an increase in the number Belgian cookbooks available in bookstores. This may have to do with the recent institutional crises that the country has experienced, which has brought some people to search for a unifying Belgian identity. I can only applaud such initiatives.
However, the cookbooks produced so far are still focused on the internal Belgian market, which doesn’t exactly help the promotion of Belgian food abroad, where Belgian cuisine all too often equals Belgian chocolate, waffles, endives, beer and sprouts. Although these products are delicious and Belgians are very proud of them, there are so many more delicacies to be explored and savored by foreigners! As far as I know, only one good Belgian cookbook has been written; “Everybody Eats well in Belgium” by Ruth Van Waerebeek. You can find this book on

But what exactly is the Belgian kitchen? How could one describe Belgian food? I have often heard the Belgian food being described to foreigners as “cooked with the same quality and finesse as the French cuisine, while it is served with German generosity”. That is essentially what it comes down to; Belgian food can be characterized as a combination of German, Dutch and French cuisines, with the French influence clearly being dominant. This isn’t all too surprising, when one takes into account that the regions which nowadays constitute Belgium have been overrun by and been under the control of foreign powers on countless occasions. The Romans, Germans, Spanish, Austrians, Dutch and especially the French, all left their marks on the country’s culture and culinary traditions. Even today, the country remains a meeting point of the two main European cultural groups: it sits astride on the barrier which separates the Flemish, who have a Germanic culture, from the Walloons, whose culture is of Romanic origin.

Belgian food is still deeply ingrained in its medieval traditions; the recurrent use of spices such as saffron (Pass it please!!!), nutmeg, the abundance of vinegars, condiments, mustards, almonds and dried fruits, they all lead to typically medieval contrasting tastes such as sweet-salt (for example red cabbage with sweet apples served with salted bacon), sour-salt and sweet-sour. This all reminds us of the region’s rich history as an economic center, when its ports of Brugge and later Antwerpen saw all those exotic spices being bought and sold within their walls.

Belgians tend to attach enormous importance to the quality of the ingredients used in their cooking. Long before the great chefs of the world chanted in chorus that high-quality ingredients are “key” to great cooking, Belgians (and others obviously) had already realized and consequently applied this knowledge to their everyday cooking. Belgian cooking usually doesn’t mix a great number of flavors to create highly complex palettes (although such complex dishes do exist), but rather it will use several key ingredients and bring their inherent flavors to the fore. Hence, you must have high-quality ingredients, as there’s nothing to hide poor quality ones with. A typical example is a dish which is very popular this time of year, namely young potatoes with cured ham, demonstrates this very well. There are two (yes, only two) pivotal ingredients: fresh, young potatoes and cured ham, either salted or smoked. Once the young potatoes have been boiled, they are sliced and fried in a frying pan, with either good butter or for the waistline-conscious, with a neutral vegetable oil, such as sunflower seed oil. When they’ve reached a light brown color on at least one side, they’re served with several slices of good cured ham, and a green salad. As you can see, you must have good ingredients to start with or otherwise your entire dish is ruined. Typical dishes such as this one, give a correct image of the honest, rustic kitchen that can be seen as the Belgian kitchen.
A true reflection of their love of all things delicious and mouthwatering, is the sheer quantity that the food is served with. If you ever have the opportunity to take part in a Belgian family dinner, or a large family party, such as a birthday party or “kermis” (fair) parties, then you’ll see why we are called the Burgundians of the North. Tables will be filled to the edge with main dishes, side dishes, condiments, sauces, beers and wines. Trust me, if you’re a guest at one of these parties, the most common question you’ll be asked is “Are you sure you don’t want anything more? You’re full? Nonsense, have some of this…” Even a simple Sunday morning brunch or evening dinner (depending on the family), will feature pistolets (a round, golden-colored bread roll), sandwiches, wholegrain bread, raisin bread, and several pastries. To go with the bread, you’ll be able to choose from different types of hams, salami, paté, sausages, americain (raw ground beef mixed with herbs and a sauce – a Belgian favorite), chicken in mild curry sauce, chocolate paste and the list can go on and on. Suffice it to say, you will not leave the table feeling hungry!


Núria said...

Hola Josmans! Wonderful introduction to the Belgian food and Cuisine! Can't wait to see your first dishes :D

I think that this picture of a table full of dishes, happens here too and I bet in most of the countries ;-) What was Siesta invented for? A good rest after a good fullfilling meal!

Josmans said...

Thanks Nuria!

Yeah I know, I've been to Barcelona quite often and I've noticed a very strong similarity in the lavishness of food tables :) I seriously need to get back to Bcn, I really miss some of the dishes I had there... I'm planning on making you fidéua, definitely one of my favorites in Bcn. The best one I had was in a restaurant by the sea called "La Barca de Salamanca", located on a pier in Porto Olimpico. But you know what I miss the most? Pimientos de padrón...good lord, I've rarely had something so addictive!

And idd, long live the siesta!!