Festivities in Belgium
Nestled amidst France, Luxembourg, Germany and Holland with a very small coastline on the North Sea, Belgium is situated in the temperate region of Western Europe. One of the most underrated world cuisines, it's a country where northern Germanic culture melds with Southern French culture, both of which are evident in its cuisine.
Ancient Times and Influences on Belgian Cooking
The region which now constitutes Belgium has been invaded and ruled by many people over the centuries including Celts, Romans in 56 BC who ruled for four centuries, Franks in 455 AD at which time the demarcation between the Flemish and Walloons was established, Vikings in 830 AD, Spanish, Austrians and French in turn and the cuisine of Belgium is a true reflection of its history.
Cooking techniques and ingredients were assimilated from all these cultures as was the habit of farming and keeping domesticated animals: prehistoric "Belgians" were mainly hunter gatherers.
By the middle ages a distinct Belgian cuisine had taken shape and by this time Belgium became the centre of the North European spice trade. Spices such as ginger, saffron, cinnamon, nutmeg, and peppercorns, were used to season many dishes and even beer - a practice which still exists in Belgium today.
Talking of which, a special mention must be made about Belgian Beer which is not only the country's national drink, but also widely used in cooking, a fact to which many of the recipes featured on this website will testify. One reason for this perhaps, is the aforementioned additions of spices and sometimes fruit to the beers brewed at this time, creating differences in flavour and making them perfect as an ingredient in recipes.
Vegetables played a large role in Belgian cooking, with potatoes being a staple and featured heavily in meals. Brussels Sprouts were sold in the markets in Brussels as far back as the 1200's but it's the Belgian Endive which has a more interesting history. It was accidentally discovered by a Belgian farmer, Jan Lammers, in 1830. Upon returning from war he found his stored chicory which he'd previously grown and used for coffee, had sprouted white leaves, the taste of which he found very distinctive.
Then there's chocolate. Always held in the highest esteem in Belgium, it's not surprising that in 1912, they created The Praline - a chocolate shell with a delicious filling.
Current Day Belgian Cuisine
Would it surprise you to know that Belgium has highest number of restaurants earning Michelin stars per capita and that McDonalds (the fast food burger joints which have sprung up all over the globe) consistently lose money in Belgium? A testament to the Belgian's love affair with good food freshly prepared from the finest of ingredients.
Current day Belgian cuisine still has its roots firmly planted in homely Medieval cookery. Spices, mustard, vinegars and beer are still widely used in savoury and sweet recipes and whilst there is a definite French touch to many recipes, the dishes are generally more substantial comfort foods. Fresh herbs are also still extensively used, in particularly chervil, tarragon, thyme, parsley, and chives.
All types of Game and game birds, meat and charcuterie are popular and despite the lack of any sizeable coastline, fish and seafood play a significant role in everyday cooking. Mussels are particularly well liked and are cooked and eaten in every possible form and much of the mussels used are imported from Holland which being just "next door", ensures the freshest quality.
As mentioned above, fresh vegetables are prized and above all, the potato, for which the Belgians are enthusiastic to say the least. Indeed, street food in Belgium means frites sold from stands or handcarts, served in paper cones with the obligatory mayonnaise, bearnaise or even curry sauce for dipping. Many consider Frites to be Belgium's national food.
Breakfast consists of bread, butter, jam, cheeses, charcuterie and sometimes eggs and is served with coffee or tea. Dinner is considered the main meal of the day with lunch often being somewhat lighter.
The Belgian approach to food is perhaps best summed up in the following motto: We eat three times a day, so we'd better try to make a feast of it every time. This makes that we don’t have special dishes for special occasions. However, at some occasions we have some specialties especially for children.
1. Sinterklaas 6 december
In Dutch-speaking Flanders,
colorful parades greet St. Nicholas with bands and banners picturing
He and his Zwarte
Piet assistants come in November by boat, train, or on
horseback to get ready for his feast
day, the 6th of December. The Sinterklaas season
is mainly a children's festival because December 6th is a special
day for children, rather than whole families as in the Netherlands.
St. Nicholas visits Flemish children more than once. He visits in
schools, sports clubs and homes, asking children if they have done
their best in the past year. He checks in his big book to see if
they are telling the truth. In shops and department stores, St
Nicholas sits on a throne and children queue to greet him and
receive a small gift. St. Nicholas also makes appearances at the
special St. Nicholas circuses that
are popular iin Belgium. Some Saint Nicholas churches collect toys
and gifts for the needy at special services honoring the saint.
On St. Nicholas' Eve, December 5th, or the weekend before, children
put their shoes or small baskets at the hearth or beside the door
with carrots, turnips, and a sugar lump for the saint's horse and a
glass of wine for the saint. There may also be a picture they've
drawn (or a list) showing what they would like. They believe St.
Nicholas rides on horseback over the rooftops, dropping his gifts
down the chimneys. In the morning shoes have been filled with
chocolates, spiced speculoos cookies
shaped like the saint and Piet, oranges, marzipan, and toys. In the
spirit of St. Nicholas, treats are meant to be shared, not hoarded.
Bad children, of which there are none, would find twigs. Since the
sixties, however, such negative and frightening aspects have faded
away in Flanders.
Marzipan is great by itself, when dipped in chocolate, or when combined with fruit or nuts. If you have only one marzipan recipe, Basic Marzipan is the one you need. Using this as a base, you can color, flavor, or form marzipan into many different candies or decorations. Marzipan is often used to make decorations for cakes, like flowers, ribbons, animals and human forms. If you're simply looking to eat the marzipan, cutting it into squares is the easiest way to serve it.
Marzipan Figures exemples
The holiday eating festivities begin on "le réveillon de Noel” or Christmas Eve. An aperitif (before dinner drink) is served with small appetizers. Next comes a seafood course followed by - what else - a turkey!
“La Bűche de Noel” (Christmas Log) is a special dessert made with cream served after the Christmas Eve dinner. On Christmas morning breakfast will include “cougnou” or “cougnolle” which is a special sweet bread shaped, they say, like Baby Jesus.
Some families enjoy another big meal on Christmas Day, but for most the Christmas Eve Dinner is the main attraction.
Merry Christmas: Joyeux Noël!
Bűche de Noël
Klaaskoeken or Belgian Christmas Cookies
Easter eggs are specially decorated eggs given out to celebrate the Easter holiday. The oldest tradition is to use dyed and painted chickens eggs, but the general modern custom is to substitute eggs made from chocolate. Easter eggs can be any form of confectionery such as hollow chocolate eggs wrapped in brightly-colored foil. Some are delicately constructed of spun sugar and pastry decoration techniques. The ubiquitous jelly egg (or jelly bean) is made from sugar-coated pectin candy. These are often hidden, supposedly by the Easter Bunny, for children to find on Easter morning.