Culinary Indulgence, Belgian Style
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.