Belgian cuisine, particularly that of Brussels and Wallonia, is held in high regard worldwide, and in most of Europe is seen as second only to French in quality – indeed many feel it’s of equal standing. For such a small country, there’s a surprising amount of provincial diversity, but it’s generally true to say that pork, beef, game, fish and seafood – especially mussels – are staple items, often cooked with butter, cream and herbs, or sometimes beer – which is, after all, Belgium’s national drink. Soup is also common, a hearty stew-like affair offered in a huge tureen from which you can help yourself – a satisfying and reasonably priced meal in itself. The better Belgian chefs are often eclectic, dipping into many other cuisines, especially those of the Mediterranean, and also borrowing freely from across their own country’s cultural/linguistic divide.
The least expensive places to eat are cafés and bars – though the distinction between the two is typically blurred, hence the large number of café-bars. A number of these establishments flank every main square in every small and medium-sized town, offering basic dishes, such as pasta, soups, croque-monsieur (a toasted ham and cheese sandwich with salad) and chicken or steak with chips. Prices are usually very reasonable – reckon on about €12 for the more modest dishes, €17 for the more substantial – though of course you will often pay more in the most popular tourist destinations. In general, and especially in Wallonia, the quality of these dishes will regularly be excellent and portions characteristically substantial. In the big cities, these café-bars play second fiddle to more specialist – and equally inexpensive – places, primarily pasta and pizza joints, cafés that cater for the shopper – and specialize in cakes and pastries – ethnic café-restaurants and so forth.
Though there’s often a thin dividing line between the café and the restaurant, the latter are mostly a little more formal and, not surprisingly, rather more expensive. Even in the cheapest restaurant a main course will rarely cost under €15, with a more usual figure being between €20 and €27. Restaurants are usually open at lunchtime (noon–2pm), but the main focus is in the evening. In addition, many restaurants close one day a week, usually Monday or Tuesday, and in the smaller towns kitchens start to wind down around 9.30/10pm. One final point is that many bars, cafés and restaurants offer a good-value plat du jour/dagschotel, usually for around €15, and frequently including a drink.
Wallonian cuisine is broadly similar to French, based upon a fondness for rich sauces and the freshest of ingredients. From the Walloons come truite à l’Ardennaise, trout cooked in a wine sauce; chicorées gratinées au four, chicory with ham and cheese; fricassée Liègeois, basically, fried eggs, bacon and sausage or blood pudding; fricadelles à la bière, meatballs in beer; and carbonnades de porc Bruxelloise, pork with a tarragon and tomato sauce.
The Ardennes, in particular, is well known for its cured ham (similar to Italian Parma ham) and, of course, its pâté, made from pork, beef, liver and kidney – though it often takes a particular name from an additional ingredient, for example pâté de faisan (pheasant) or pâté de lièvre (hare). Unsurprisingly, game (gibier) features heavily on most Ardennes menus. Among the many salads you’ll find are salade de Liège, made from beans and potatoes, and salade wallonie, a warm salad of lettuce, fried potatoes and bits of bacon.
In Flanders, the food is more akin to that of the Netherlands, characteristically plainer and simpler. Indeed, for decades traditional Flemish cuisine was regarded with much disdain as crude and unsubtle, but in recent years there’s been a dramatic revival of its fortunes, and nowadays Flemish specialities appear on most menus in the north and there are dozens of speciality Flemish restaurants too.
Commonplace dishes include waterzooi, a soup-cum-stew consisting of chicken or fish boiled with fresh vegetables; konijn met pruimen, an old Flemish standby of rabbit with prunes; paling in ’t groen, eel braised in a green (spinach) sauce with herbs; stoofvlees, beef marinated in beer and cooked with herbs and onions; stoemp, mashed potato mixed with vegetable and/or meat purée; and hutsepot, literally hotchpotch, a mixed stew of mutton, beef and pork.
Breakfast and snacks
In most parts of Belgium you’ll breakfast in routine fashion with a cup of coffee and a roll or croissant, though the more expensive hotels usually offer sumptuous banquet-like breakfasts with cereals, fruit, hams and cheeses. Everywhere, coffee is almost always first-rate – aromatic and strong, but rarely bitter; in Brussels and the south it’s often accompanied by hot milk (café au lait), but throughout Belgium there’s a tendency to serve it in the Dutch fashion, with a small tub of evaporated rather than fresh milk.
Later in the day, the most common snack is frites (chips) – served everywhere in Belgium from friture/frituur stands or parked vans, with salt or mayonnaise, or more exotic dressings. Mussels – moules/mosselen – cooked in a variety of ways and served with chips, is akin to Belgium’s national dish, and makes a good fast lunch. Just as wholesome are the filled baguettes (broodjes) that many bakeries and cafés prepare on the spot – imaginative, tasty creations that make a meal in themselves. Many fish shops, especially on the coast, also do an appetizing line in seafood baguettes, while street vendors in the north sell various sorts of toxic-looking sausage (worst), especially black pudding (bloedworst).
Everywhere there are stands selling waffles (gaufres/wafels), served up steaming hot with jam, honey, whipped cream, ice cream, chocolate or fruit. There are two main types of waffle – the more common Liège version, sweet, caramelized and with the corners squared off; and the Brussels waffle, larger, fluffier and needing a topping to give added flavour.
Cakes, pastries and chocolate
Belgium heaves with patisseries, where you can pick up freshly baked bread and choose from a mouthwatering range of cakes and pastries – from mousse slices through to raspberry tarts and beyond.
As almost everyone knows, Belgium is famous for its chocolate and on average each Belgian eats a prodigious 12.5kg of the stuff annually; chocolates are also the favoured gift when visiting friends. The big Belgian chocolatiers, for example Neuhaus, Godiva and Leonidas, have stores in all the main towns and cities, but many consider their products too sugary, one of the reasons why all of Belgium’s cities now boast at least a couple of small, independent chocolate makers. These almost invariably charge more than their bigger rivals, but few would deny the difference in taste.
No trip to Belgium would be complete without sampling its beer, which is always good, almost always reasonably priced and comes in an amazing variety of brews. There’s a bar on almost every corner and most serve at least twenty types of beer; in some the beer list runs into the hundreds. Traditionally, Belgian bars are cosy, unpretentious places, the walls stained brown by years of tobacco smoke, but in recent years many have been decorated in anything from a sort of potty medievalism (wooden beams etc) through to Art Nouveau and a frugal post-modernist style, which is especially fashionable in the big cities. Many bars serve simple food too, while a significant percentage pride themselves on first-rate food served from a small but well-conceived menu.
Wines and spirits
In Belgium, beer very much overshadows wine, but the latter is widely available with French vintages being the most popular.
There’s no one national Belgian spirit, but the Flemings have a penchant – like their Dutch neighbours – for jenever, which is similar to gin, made from grain spirit and flavoured by juniper berries. It’s available in most ordinary as well as specialist bars, the latter selling as many as several hundred varieties. Broadly speaking, jenever comes in two types, young (jonge) and old (oude), the latter characteristically pale yellow and smoother than the former; both are served ice-cold.