The Taste of Belgium by Ruth Van Waerebeek – Cookbook Reviewed by Antonia Lloyd

What is Belgian food you might ask? Is it French, German, or perhaps Dutch? Beyond the popular national dishes of moules frites and sugar waffles, is there much to it?   Our Ambassador of Women In the Food Industry and Writer, Antonia Lloyd, reviews Ruth Van Waerebeek’s The Taste of Belgium which opens our eyes to the possibilities of this less familiar cuisine of ‘elegant comfort food’.

A country that was invaded by almost every other European people – Romans, Vikings, Spanish, French, Germans and Dutch – it has assimilated cooking techniques, ingredients and styles of its invaders to develop a cuisine of its own. Belgians today tend to define their cuisine as ‘cooked with the finesse of the French and served with the generosity of the Germans’.

The Taste of Belgium inside

All photography in The Taste of Belgium is by Regula Ysewijn & used with the permission of Grub Street

Belgians tend to keep a low international profile but, on the food front, they actually have a lot to be proud of. Belgium boasts more Michelin starred restaurants per capita than France; it’s also a country where home cooks spend copious amounts of time thinking about, preparing and celebrating food. The two hundred and fifty recipes that Ruth Van Warebeek has brought together in this compendium introduces us to the best of Belgian cuisine drawing on three generations of Belgian mothers and daughters as her inspiration. Professional chef and cookery teacher Ruth grew up learning about cooking from her great-grandmother Marie, her grand-mother Jeanne and her mother Anny in their busy kitchens in the medieval city of Ghent.  These are authentic recipes with insight into Belgian cultural tradition and the country’s regional variations.

The Taste of Belgium - Chicory

Ruth presents familiar dishes in their historical context which is illuminating. The quiche which is said to have come from Burgundy – appearing in Flanders as early as 1385 when the ‘low countries’ were annexed by the Burgundian Dukes – is well represented.  The classic flamiche, a leek tart sometimes also with smoky bacon, is made more intriguing with the option of cooking the leeks off in wine or even in a dark Abbey beer for a more original, Flemish flavour.

There’s a tart of endive, ham and cheese to make anyone weep – Belgian endive or chicory is sautéed and caramelised and then layered up with ham and gouda cheese in an egg custard. For a little nouvelle cuisine, asparagus, beloved to Belgians, is mixed with a rich Italian gorgonzola or French Roquefort. These are elegant and comforting recipes perfect for family meals or a social occasion.

The Taste of Belgium - Moules

Moving on to seafood, we are reminded that Belgium’s coastline may only stretch a mere 40 miles but the country’s passion for fish and shellfish is boundless with Belgians reckoned to be among the biggest fish eaters in Europe. This chapter offers up myriad ways to prepare mussels this summer and moules mariniere with crispy fries dipped in a mustard mayonnaise (with a cold Belgian beer) sets the tone nicely. Ruth recommends steaming mussels in their own juices, enveloping them in a garlic, parsley ‘snail butter’, sprinkling with breadcrumbs and then browning under the grill in their shells: a revelation! There’s also a way to serve mussels grilled ‘en brochette’ – large steamed mussels are dipped in egg, herby seasoned breadcrumbs, and threaded on a skewer before being browned on the bbq and served with a gribiche sauce. Any leftover mussels are: tossed in Dijon mustard vinaigrette for a salad, placed on a bed of spinach with a comforting gratin blanket, or just sautéed with crispy croutons.  Divine.

The Taste of Belgium - Frites

In the introduction to potatoes, Ruth writes: ‘What pasta is to Italy, the potato is to Belgium, Belgium is a nation of potatophiles.’  Potatoes made their way to Europe in the 16th Century, brought back from the New World as a novelty by the Spanish conquistadors. Initially considered with suspicion due to being part of the deadly nightshade family, ‘these little truffles’ as they were called by the rich folk were finally embraced fully in the 19th Century. Twice fried Belgian ‘frietjes’ are apparently made at least once a week at home in Belgium– first cooked at 160C and then crisped up at 190C.  The big note here is that an older, starchier potato is essential –new potatoes with a low starch content won’t cut the mustard. Other delights include deep fried potato croquettes, parsleyed new potatoes, mashed potatoes with caramelised shallots or leeks for extra deliciousness, and ‘Flemish potatoes’, a potato, onion, and beef broth casserole. Hearty indeed but authentic and full of flavour.

The Taste of Belgium - Cooking With Beer

According to Michael Jackson, author of The Great Beers of Belgium: ‘No country can match Belgium in the gastronomic interest of its beers.’  Furthermore, ‘Nor does any country have such a sophisticated beer cuisine.’ There is almost no wine produced in Belgium due to the climate; it is more suited to growing grains and barley. With 300 varieties of beer, it is indeed ’a beer connoisseur’s paradise’. The beer recipes include comforting meaty fare such as veal chops in a beer and mushroom sauce, pork chops Brussel style with soft onions cooked in a blond pilsener such as Duvel, meatballs braised in beer flavoured with endives, and a rabbit marinated and cooked in Abbey beer with mushrooms.  These are exciting options to explore especially in the UK with our plethora of craft beers available.

Chocolate Mousse from The Taste of Belgium

As you’d expect there are many dishes using ingredients synonymous with the country: not just mussels and beer as forementioned, but herrings, white asparagus, Brussels sprouts, mustard, and of course, Belgian chocolate. I couldn’t resist whipping up the mousse au chocolat at the weekend tempted by Ruth’s egg white and cream version and opting for her grandmother Jeanne’s variation with raspberries. It was easy, delicious, and with a beautiful moussey texture. The ‘Chocolate Chestnut Truffle Mousse’ reserved for ‘les grandes occasions’ is in my sights for a winter treat.

The Taste of Belgium Cookbook

For the adventurous cook looking to explore new territory, this edition is beautifully put together with photographs by fellow Belgian, Regula Ysewijn, and is an invaluable compendium of Belgium home-cooking.

The Taste of Belgium by Ruth Van Waerebeek is published by Grub Street

You may also like to read Antonia’s cookbook reviews of Elly Wentworth at The Angel of Dartmouth, Cooking with Anna by Anna HaughEasy Wins by Anna Jones, and her review of Plant Feasts by Frankie Paz, our review of Recipes for a Better Menopause by Jane Baxter & Dr Federica Amati and our book review of Modern South Asian Kitchen by Sabrina Gidda

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