Put It On Your Plate! – 10 Foods You Need to Try in Belgium
We’re approaching the one year anniversary of this Intolerant’s blog, and as I get a post ready for that momentous occasion I’ve been thinking the ways I can keep things fresh around here while still moving forward. In light of all this pondering, I’ve thought about a new series called Put It On Your Plate! where I’ll throw together lists of intolerant-friendly foods you can eat in various locales. These lists will be aimed at those with food allergies–mainly gluten and dairy–though they won’t be “all-inclusive” as some suggestions may be filled with the aforementioned allergens but can be prepared without. To that end, they’re food tips suitable for the Intolerants and all you lucky people who can eat everything that’s put on your plate!
Let’s kick things off with a country I might adore as much as the one of my birthright: it’s Belgium! A place where the cuisine is similar to what you get in France but “more refined” I’m told (kindly don’t shoot the messenger as they aren’t my words) and you could realistically imbibe on two new beers every day of the year and still not have tried them all. In the light of such fabulousness, what could be better?
Top 10 Foods to Try in Belgium
1. Mussels: This has to be my favourite because mussels are a light, delicious and perfect dish regardless of the season. You can have mussels with a crisp white wine on a balmy summer-like day (which doesn’t happen all that often, the summer-like days I mean) or you can pare it with a robust red in the dead of winter. Mussels come spicy, laden with veggies, in a rich tomato base or smothered in cream. If you’re allergic to dairy be extra cautious, as even your mussels are coming in a non-cream base some restaurants/households insist on using butter in their broth.
Another tip is to eat mussels between September and April because legend has it they are at their peak in any month ending with an “r.”
2. Chocolate: Well, duh. This wouldn’t be a food list about Belgium if it didn’t include chocolate. An item that can be enjoyed by everyone (Intolerants and un-Intolerants alike) the Belgians turned chocolate into an art form that runs the spectrum from milk to dark, bitter to sweet and everything in between. The average Belgian eats about 7kg of chocolate a year and so it’s one of the country’s staples. While you can get your fix anywhere I’m a proponent of “the darker the better” and some of my favourites include Pierre Marcolini, Laurent Gerbaud, Chocolatier Dumon, Callebaut, The Chocolate Line and Zaabär
3. Beer: While this might not work well for the gluten-intolerants out there, it will do fine for everyone else. As most people know, Belgium is the leading beer-making country in the world with over 800 types to its name and some wildly famous Trappist and Abbey beers you should start writing home about (ahem: Chimay, Westmalle, Leffe). There are pale ales and dark rugged stouts. You can hook yourself up with a Flemish Red or kick back with a punchy Tripel. There are white beers, Christmas beers, champagne beers, brown ales and the Lambics. There are also the beers that will have you hallucinating little pink elephants if you have far too much. And if you’re not good with gluten a few companies and independent producers are creating gluten-free stouts that rival some of the more traditional beers on the market.
4. Beef: Here comes a little factoid about Belgium that, if you didn’t know before, you’re going to learn now. Between 1275 – 1278 there was a war of catastrophic proportions that goes by the name of “La Guerre de la Vache” (aka: the War of the Cow). A feudal conflict fought between some men with royal titles from Namur and Liège, it all started when a (probably hungry) peasant stole a prized cow from a rich guy in Liège and tried to sell it in Namur. To make a long story short: the cow was returned but the peasant was executed and upon hearing this a Lord in Namur (who really wanted to be a Lord in Liège) used the execution to his advantage and created a political crisis by burning down some other rich guy’s castle in Liège. (Still following me?) Following this rather passive-aggressive move the two regions went to war over the misunderstanding, which resulted in the destruction of 60 villages and the death of 15,000 people.
See, Belgian beef is that good.
In all seriousness, Ciney is known throughout Europe for raising some of the best-tasting cattle. At least try it for yourself and see if it was worth starting a war over.
5. Stoemp: This is a speciality that is all about comfort. A dish predominantly found in Flanders, stoemp is made up of mashed potatoes/root vegetables and also has celery, shallots and onions thrown into the mix. A lot of restaurant variations include cream and/or milk, but if you can get your hands on some homemade stoemp (without the cream if you’re intolerant) it is amazing. Perfect on a winter night, you can spice up your stoemp–and many Belgians do–with a variety of additions including fried egg, bacon (delicious!), sausage, minced beef or even a filet of horse.
Yes, I said horse. Don’t balk. It’s really damn good (see number 9).
6. Waterzooi: Right, so this one won’t fly for the lactose-intolerant set but if you have penchant for chicken, vegetables, creamy broths and stew-like dishes then it’s something worth giving a try. A speciality that originates from Gent it can come with seafood if you’re not a fan of chicken. I haven’t had it due to the lactose factor but Mama Intolerant has, and if she smacks her lips and says something is “so good that it’s worth having a ‘foodbaby‘ over,” then it must be delicious.
8. Fries/Frites/Frietjes: No matter how you say it–be it in English, French, German or Dutch–fries are as much of a national institution as Manneken Pis. Sometimes referred to as the birthplace of fries, what makes the Belgian version unique is the double-frying (sometimes triple) method, which renders them wonderfully golden with the perfect amount of crunch. Coming in a cone or sometimes paired with a garlic sausage the other unique facet of Belgian fries is that you leave behind the sweet ridiculousness of ketchup to eat them with a dollop of savoury mayo.
Don’t fight it. To do anything else is borderline sacrilegious.
8. Cheese: Just because I can’t eat cheese doesn’t mean I would blacklist it, which is why it gets a spot on this top 10 list. With over 150 different types to choose from, Belgian cheeses rival those from France, Switzerland and Holland with many varieties of cow, sheep and goat available. There’s hard and soft, sharp and gentle, heavy and light and even spicy to boot. I’ll throw in a disclaimer here: it is the one dairy-laden food I have suffered a #foodbaby for because life is too short to NOT indulge in a bit of Maredsous, Caprice de Blanche or a stinky Bleu de Gand.
Think: what a crying shame that would be.
9. Horse meat: I know there are going to be people who will get up in arms about this one, which is fine. If you prefer not to try horse for whatever reasons, kindly skip to number 10. For those of you interested in horse meat, Belgium is a place to give it a try given its popularity. You can have it cooked as a filet, in the form of a sausage, smoked (the way salmon is) or in jerky format. Belgians will eat horse with a generous helping of stoemp, a side of veggies or even packed into a sandwich by way of cold cuts. I’ve had it in smoked and filet form – both times completely unaware of what I was eating and I have to say, it was quite good. It was ‘gamey’ and less tender than expected but it ultimately went down well which is likely a reflection of how well prepared it is more than anything.
10: Rabbit with prunes: Not the most common dish, it can still be found in very traditional Flemish restaurants and bars. It’s essentially a rabbit stew made with a bottle of dark Trappist (see, beer is used with everything), a generous sprinkling of thyme and handful of prunes. Another perfect food for fall and winter, rabbit tends to be warming and hearty, though if you cannot stomach the notion of eating a furry friend then opt for a similar dish (Carbonade Flamande) that comes with beef instead.
Note: if you’re lactose-intolerant double check that no butter has been used in the broth.