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Belgium on a plate: How many of these regional delicacies have you tried?
Belgian food is an endless source of surprises, and the various parts of the country jealousy guard the traditions of their culinary past. Many are well-known; others more local and less famous, but no less interesting.
Pâté Gaumais from Luxembourg province is a cross between a meat pie and a pâté en croute, made of marinated pork. Every year on Boxing Day, it’s the subject of an annual competition to find the king of the dish. The name is protected by law and to qualify, the pie has to contain a minimum of 30% of pork, marinated in white wine or vinegar with herbs and spices according to a recipe that differs from one maker to another and is always a closely guarded secret.
To accompany the Pâté Gaumais, you might choose a beer from the Brasserie de Bastogne, just one of many in the region. The brewery is a three-man operation: Philippe Minne the brew-master, his assistant, Philippe Meuris, and Cathérine, his wife, who’s in charge of marketing. Their ever-evolving beers include an IPA made with spelt, a stout and a saison, as well as occasional experiments.
Speaking of saison, Hainaut is where this beer sort was invented, intended as a refreshing drink for farm workers in the summer and around harvest time, low in alcohol, fruity and spicy. Nowadays it’s made year-round, with notable examples including the saison Dupont, once voted the best beer in the world.
The area of Tournai, also in Hainaut, boasts some local treats like palets de dame, a sort of iced biscuit common in the north of France and in Belgium. Also in the sweet range are the ballons noirs invented in the 19th century and maintained to this day by the Quenoy family, according to a recipe from grandfather Emile.
Across the linguistic border in East Flanders, an unexpected Ghent delicacy is mustard, prepared by Tierenteyn since 1790 on their premises on the Groentemarkt, where the mustard is made in the basement and matured in wooden barrels and served to the customer in glass or earthenware pots. The range includes pickles and vinegars.
Also on the Groentemarkt (the name means ‘vegetable market’) you’ll find cuberdons, a local speciality also known as neuzekes or ‘little noses’. These cone-shaped sweets are made of gum and a sugary syrup flavoured with raspberry, firm jelly on the outside and liquid on the inside. There are two producers on the square selling side by side, and it’s open warfare between them.
The neighbouring province of West Flanders is famous for its grey shrimp, especially those harvested by the horse-drawn fishermen of Oostduinkerke, but another delicacy is potjesvlees: potted meat consisting of chicken, rabbit and veal, cooked and jarred in a jellied stock of vinegar and white wine. In the town of Poperinge every butcher makes their own, some boned-out and some sold on the bone. Eat it cold with a salad or some crusty bread.
While in Poperinge – not only the centre of hop culture but also a First World War tourist site – pick up a mazarinetaart, a cake dating back to 1800, made with eggs and cinnamon then soaked in a syrup of butter and sugar. Not for the faint-hearted, the cake is traditionally sold in a tin in a size said to be enough for six.
Finally, let’s not forget the better-known products produced in the Belgian regions: cured hams from the Ardennes; witlof or chicons from Brabant; lambic-based beers like gueuze and kriek from the Pajottenland outside Brussels; pickled beef known as filet d’Anvers from Antwerp; the deep, dark pear and apple syrups from Liège and Limburg; and also from Limburg, a wide variety of open-faced fruit pies known as vlaai. Wherever you are in Belgium, it’s worth popping into a local butcher, baker or traiteur and asking what they have as a local speciality. You’re unlikely to leave empty-handed.
This article first appeared in The Bulletin winter 2017