Hello Brussels, I never thought I would be in you, but here I am—fresh from a Eurostar trip from London. I brought my friend Nick Savage; he’s never been to Europe, so this visit is extra exciting to him. I hear you have waffles and fries? Beer too, I do love your beer. And chocolate, of course—who can forget? Oh, right and you have mussels! Holy cow Belgium, is there anything else to do besides eat?
The Magnificent Grand Place in Brussels
Three days in Brussels was a perfect break between London and Paris. With no real plans, Nick and I arrived to Gare du Midi expecting some art nouveau architecture and some fries. We did not expect to find a real snacking culture in Belgium that is completely lacking in other parts of Europe (France, Italy—no snacks). In this two-part post, I’ll take a look at a couple of the defining foods that make a visit to Belgium a worthwhile experience, especially for anyone who likes to eat.
There are two main types of waffles in Belgium: gaufres de Bruxelles and gaufres de Liege, named after their respective cities of origin. Bruxelles waffles are similar to the types of waffles Americans are accustomed to eating. They are made from a batter similar to pancake batter. Once they are cooked on a cast-iron waffle maker, they are light and chewy on the inside and remind me a bit of funnel cake. Liege waffles are made from dough and are a bit denser. What really makes them special is that they are made with pearl sugar, so when the waffles are cooked, the sugar caramelizes and forms a great sugary crust on the outside.
Gaufre de Liege with Strawberries
Upon arriving in Brussels we immediately sampled both types, plain, just to be fair and objective. Liege waffles were absolutely our favorite; I don’t think we even bothered with gaufres de Bruxelles after that initial taste test. Nick wisely declared that a proper waffle is neither a cake nor a cookie, but rather something in between. Sure, the Liege waffles we had were good enough to eat on their own as we wandered through the Grand Place, but who could resist the seemingly endless list of optional toppings? Fresh fruit, Chantilly cream, Nutella, chocolate, and of course, ice cream. While there are several places to get a waffle in Brussels, especially around the Grand Place, we always ended up at a tiny waffle shop that seemed to be run by a gaggle of teenage girls. I would always order strawberries on mine and Nick preferred Chantilly cream. We had waffles in the morning for breakfast of course, but the urge for sugar-crusted goodness would also come in the late afternoon or evening.
Final waffle breakfast with all the trimmings
On our very last day in Brussels we stopped at a café called Aroma, located on the Grand Place, that we had been eyeing since we arrived. We ordered coffee and waffles and took a seat on the outdoor patio facing the magnificent square. It was the priciest waffle and coffee we had during our stay, but it was by far the most memorable. Crisp, fresh morning air and clean, warm sunshine made the nearly empty square a brilliant setting for a final nosh. Three days in Brussels was enough to develop a serious waffle addiction that would plague us even after we blasted through Paris, Prague and flew back home. Even now with pearl sugar in hand (very kindly gifted to me by Nick for Christmas), I am hesitant to try to make Liege waffles at home—it just wouldn’t be the same.
When a sweet snack simply won’t do and the beer bubbles have really gone to your head, frites (fries) are in order. Golden and delicious Belgian-style frites with just the right amount of crispiness and fluffiness will get you through the rest of the night. What really distinguishes Belgian fries from any other fries in the world is the double-cook method that allows for maximum crisp on the outside and soft goodness on the inside.
First the fries are cooked in vegetable oil (sometimes animal fat) at a low temperature to ensure that the inside of each fry is cooked. Next they are drained and then cooked again in oil at a hotter temperature in order to achieve a nice crunch and color. Then come the sauces–not just ketchup, but a pallet of different colors, flavors and textures. Dijon mustard, curry ketchup, mayonnaise, cheese sauce, peanut sauce and so many other more exotic toppings are available. I ordered mustard fries while Nick felt adventurous and ordered the frites spécial which came with ketchup, mayo and fresh onions. Much like our method with waffles, we tried out a couple of friteries around town and found our favorite to be the sassily-named Menneken Frites— not far from the iconic Mennekin Pis fountain.
One morning while we waited for fresh fries to cook at a friterie across the street from our favorite waffle place, a group of young American women walked in and asked in English if the oil used to cook the fries contained any butter. Nick and I looked at each other immediately with nothing but bewilderment in our eyes. Butter to cook frites? No, that wouldn’t work at all. The frites cook didn’t know what to do; he didn’t speak a word of English and even if he did, it was such a confounding question to have to answer. The young woman was insistent, repeating the question several times in various different ways. “Serious allergy to milk,” she persisted, only to be returned with a dumbfounded and confused look from the fry cook. At one point, the cook even called out to his buddy out in the street to ask if he knew English. I was resolved not to get involved—no way was I going to get in the middle of such a stupid question. Everyone else in the restaurant also remained silent and looked at the floors and the walls, avoiding looks from the cook and the American girls. In the end, the group of Americans gave up and left the restaurant and I felt a pang of sadness at the thought that they would not get any frites. But this sadness soon dissipated as we were handed a warm cone of fries with curry ketchup.
On the morning of our final day in Brussels and after we had enjoyed our final waffle, Nick insisted we take one more trip to Manneken Fritesso he could get some frites spécial. I sat outside the shop with our luggage while he scampered in and placed his order. Nick stepped out happily with his fries and sat down to eat in the sunshine. European mayonnaise, I should mention, is so much better than American mayonnaise. Its color is a bit whiter and it’s also much creamier and less gelatinous. We also noticed that while American mayo tends to turn a bit translucent when it comes in contact with hot foods, magnificent European mayo does not. Nick finished his final frites and we gathered our bags and walked to the train station. We were taking the bullet train to Paris, a journey that would zip us across the gorgeous Belgian and French countryside. Since it was Nick’s first time to Europe, he did nothing but look out the window and proclaim that he was finally “on the continent.” Unfortunately, the fresh onions from the spécial earlier were far too obvious in such close quarters. With no gum or breath mints at hand, the odorous gifts of the spécial followed us all the way to Paris. Much like our final waffle breakfast, spécial frites made quite a lasting impression on us.
For next time: beer, chocolate and mussels.
What do you think about the food in Brussels? Let us know in the comments section or on Twitter and Facebook!