Culinary Indulgence, Belgian Style
There are adventure vacations where you climb a mountain or sail the sea. There are restful getaways where you burrow into a white sand beach with a good book, only to come up for air when the sun has set and it's time to go to bed.
Then there are those rare expeditions that elevate your senses beyond what you thought possible. You taste something simultaneously savory and sweet. You stumble upon a town divided for centuries then united by a microbrewery. You dizzyingly dine through 17 courses in a single day - and just when you think you're about to burst, you take a bite of Napoleon ice cream with ground cherries and you think, "I may be dead because it's not possible that anything this decadent could be anywhere but heaven."
You are not in heaven. You are in Belgium.
With a population of approximately 11 million people, Belgium is a mélange of Dutch and French speakers and a cultural mish mash of Flemish and Walloon. The differences and uneven economic development of the country has been a source of contention for decades.
Food brings these opposing viewpoints onto an even playing field and the result is a culinary movement that ignores borders. A gastronomic adventure through the central and southern regions of the Brussels-Capital Region and Wallonia is a powerful reminder that a praline may be more impactful than a peace treaty.
Bitter Never Tasted So Sweet
Chocolate arrived in Belgium during the 17th century when the territory was occupied by Spain. The cacao bean became a substantial trade product, but it wasn’t until 1912 when Jean Neuhaus created the praline and chocolate became one of the country’s signature items. Today Belgium has more than 2,000 chocolate shops and produces 172,000 tons of product per year. Brussels is home to some of the best, each exhibiting a unique take on this sweet confection.
Wittamer (Place du Grand Sablon 6, Brussels) is the grand dame of Belgian chocolate and operates out of a charming storefront on Place du Grand Sablon. The brother and sister team of Paul and Myriam Wittamer are the official suppliers to the Court of Belgium. You, too, can get the royal treatment with unusual pralines like dark ganache with Madagascar pepper or milk chocolate ganache with rum and raisin.
While Myriam Wittamer is known for her love of fashion as much as chocolate (just ask close friend Diane von Furstenberg), it is Laurent Gerbaud (2 D rue Ravenstein, Brussels) who has created a couture couverture blend of Trinitario beans from Madagascar and Nacional beans from Ecuador. These beans cumulatively represent only seven percent of global cocoa production. Consequently, Gerbaud’s take on Belgian chocolate is minimalist to allow the exquisite ingredients to shine through. Instead of liquor-laden pralines, he opts for an international array of exotic raw ingredients ranging from Japanese yuzu to Calabrian bergamot. In terms of the Belgian chocolate industry, Gerbaud’s style is renegade, but that seems in line with a man who spent two years in Shanghai running an underground chocolate delivery service out of his apartment while teaching French to expats to pay the bills.
To complete your Brussels chocolate trifecta, Pierre Ledent (rue au Beurre 19, Brussels) is a must-taste destination . As sophisticated as shopping at Tiffany’s, the sharply dressed employees handle the pralines with white gloves, placing Ledent’s confectionary gems into exclusively designed "jewelry boxes". Also noteworthy is the macaron collection. Not to be confused with the coconut-laden American macaroon, biting into a classic French macaron is like nestling into an almond-scented cloud. Ledent takes the sweet treat and elevates it to an unforeseen level. Seasonal flavors include Mojito (mint cream, lime and rum), Fraise (strawberry cream and rhubarb), and Speculoos, which pays homage to Brussels’ traditional shortbread cookies through a modern interpretation of cinnamon cream sandwiched between squid ink almond biscuits.
Waffling Through the Countryside
Contrary to popular belief, man cannot survive on chocolate alone. This is where the Belgian waffle comes into play. Variations of the waffle appeared throughout England as early as the 14th century, but the Belgian waffle as we know it today surfaced in the early 19th century.
There are two types of Belgian waffles. The Brussels variety is a yeast-leavened batter and similar to what you might see in the U.S. adorned with strawberries, whipped cream and chocolate sauce. It is a snack best enjoyed from a street vendor while people watching in The Grand Place or in Brussels Park surrounded by the Royal Palace.
The Liège waffle can be found in the charming city by the same name and was invented by the chef of the prince-bishop of Liège in the 18th century. It is a denser waffle and avoids the accouterments of its thicker and fatter counterpart. Often found among the various Christmas markets, the Liège waffle is adorned with sugar that caramelizes when baked. It’s the perfect treat while perusing the holiday stalls and sipping on a steaming cup of mulled wine.
Mulled wine may be popular during the holidays, but Belgian’s national drink is most certainly beer. Since the Middle Ages, beer has been an integral part of the region’s identity. Today, there are more than 450 varieties. You could spend an entire vacation exploring the various breweries, beer festivals and pubs. Better yet, plan your own itinerary (with a designated driver) on one of the many Belgian beer routes.
For an artisan beer experience within Brussels, be sure to visit Cantillon Brewery (Rue Gheude Straat 56, Brussels). The family-run operation has followed the same brewing traditions since the first batch in 1900. Their specialty is Lambic - a spontaneous fermenting beer made of malted barley, raw wheat and hops. This is the beer that Mother Nature intended. It is not pasteurized, nor is sugar or yeast added. The small batch production takes place only during the winter months when there is more natural yeast in the air and less bacteria. If you’re lucky, you might catch a member of the Van Roy-Cantillon family in the bottling room or one of the rare public brewing sessions with the Master Brewer.
In just over an hour from Brussels, you can travel back in time to explore the charming town of Herve and the brewing abbey of Val-Dieu (Val-Dieu 225, Herve), built by the Cistercian monks in the 13th century. Their ancient traditions were revitalized in 1997 using recipes passed down through the generations. The brewery produces a blonde, brown and triple beer, as well as seasonal varieties - all unpasteurized and according to the old infusion method. While in Herve, be sure to sample the cheese by the same name. Pungent and soft, this raw cow’s milk cheese is the perfect accompaniment to a glass of Val-Dieu.
Head northeast about 15 miles and keep your eyes peeled for Hombourg, a quaint village with a tumultuous past. Here you will find Grain d’orge (Rue Laschet 3, Hombourg), the peacekeeping brewery of husband and wife Benoît and Viviane Johnen. This sleepy town has a century-old rivalry between two guild houses, Brice and Joup. It dates back to a confrontation over the transfer of a statue of the Virgin Mary, and to this day, the divide is like a European countryside version of "West Side Story." There is no intermarriage and each has an identifying color (at least there’s some fashion sense involved). The Johnen’s have created a signature beer for each: blonde for the Brice and brune for the Joup. The labels display a caricature of each guild with their backs facing one another to symbolize peaceful relations. After a few drafts at the neighboring pub, the only conflict seemed to be over who was going to pick up the tab.
Epic Epicurean Adventures
You can fill your days in Belgium with small tastings and beer samplings, but when the sun sets there is nothing more satisfying than settling into a long dinner. Belgians don’t rush through meals, so be prepared for an evening longer than a Grétry opera.
Orphyse Chaussette (Rue Charles Hanssens 5 B, Brussels) near the Grand Sablon is a cozy restaurant with inspiration from the south of France. Menu items include heirloom beets and Stilton cheese, a classic foie gras with apple compote, and guinea fowl with root vegetables and chorizo sausage. A carefully curated wine list includes quirky finds such as ?Château Pech Redon’s 2004 Les Genêts, a Chardonnay-Viognier blend.
Walk across the town square to L’art de Vivre (Avenue Reine Astrid 53, Spa) after a day at the thermal baths in Spa. The exquisitely serene dining room holds but a handful of tables for the lucky few who manage to experience Chef Jean-François Douffet’s contemporary cuisine. From venison carpaccio to gray sole with parsnip purée, his technique-driven approach hits all the right notes and is presented in an architectural style that elevates the entire dining experience.
In contrast is the self-declared feminine culinary style of Michelin-star chef Arabelle Meirlaen of Li Cwerneu (Grand Place 2, Huy). Her kitchen "is not a discipline of rules and laws. It is its own style. Here is a woman’s kitchen." Meirlaen draws from her own garden and composes whimsical dishes such as Pot de Légumes du moment (fresh baby vegetables, herbs and "dirt" that is actually edible vegetal charcoal). Fear not if your heart stops during the 10-course culinary extravaganza. You will surely be whisked away by Meirlaen’s husband and sommelier Pierre Thirifays who will revive you with a glass of 2005 Domaine Adenis Agapê (an intoxicating blend of Syrah, Grenache and Carignane) or some other libation.
Whether you choose to keep your Wallonia adventure low-key with brewery visits and authentic street food or opt for decadent dining experiences that last late into the night, Belgium will welcome you with open arms. You will leave satiated and serene, appreciative of a food culture that is ever-changing and undoubtedly contributing to the harmony of its people.
Beyond the Bite
From charming independent hotels to five-star accommodations, you’ll be sure to get a restful night in preparation for your next gastronomic adventure.
Vintage Hotel (Rue Dejoncker 45, Brussels) is a quirky throwback to the 1980’s. Featuring 29 rooms with retro fittings, the property is around the corner from the fashionable Avenue Louise where you can pick up more modern styles.
The Dominican (Rue Léopold/Leopoldstraat 9, Brussels) is on the site of a 15th century Dominican Abbey as well as the former home of French painter Jacques-Louis David. The soaring ceilings and original stone floors offer a serene respite from the hustle of the nearby Grand Place and other attractions.
Crowne Plaza Liège (Mont Saint Martin 9-11, Liège) is a stunning archeological and architectural achievement. Meticulous restoration combines the town house of Sélys Longchamps and Comtes de Méan while integrating sustainable development.
Radisson Blu Palace Hotel (Place Royale 39 - 4900, Spa) is in the heart of Spa and adjacent to a funicular that will carry you to the famed Les Thermes de Spa, which offers an array of healing thermal baths, saunas, and massage treatments.