Wednesday, 9 May 2012

It's not just about the chips

Flemish food is perhaps not one of the world’s great cuisines, but that’s not to say that there isn’t much to enjoy and appreciate.

Setting aside chocolate – and don’t worry, we’ll discuss that at length in a coming post – there’s plenty left. For instance, there are waffles – indeed, and you can even get a waffle on a stick in Brugge.

But for somewhat more substantial food, there’s nowhere better to start than Vlaamse Stoverij – or Flamande carbonade as it’s perhaps better known (which does also tie in with the language issue). For the sake of this blog, though, let’s stick with the Flemish where possible.

But whatever you call it, this hearty stew of beef, slow, slow cooked in beer, is a classic – even if many people think of it as a northern French dish.

I had some on night two (pictured above), when we’d discovered that all of the restaurants we’d been considering were closed for the May Day holiday, and had had to resort to the same place as the night before.

The pieces of beef seemed huge and, personally, it hadn’t been cooked as long as I’d have liked. But while the meat didn’t flake at the merest hint of a touch, the sauce was enjoyably sweet.

Away from such meatiness, seafood holds a strong position in Flemish food – certainly in Brugge, anyway.

The stone fish market – a 19th-century creation, so a newcomer in Brugge terms – still hosts three fish stalls for several days every week.

There are vast, square trays of crayfish and shrimps cooking as people wait to be served from a pleasingly wide variety of fish. Spider crab is popular too, along with skate.

It’s a selection of fish that is familiar to British diners – and after all, the Belgians fish in pretty much the same seas. But the selection that seems readily available (and a shop a few doors from our hotel also bore witness to this) is larger than what we are generally able to buy in supermarkets.

Setting aside the obviously touristy ‘moules et frites’ on restaurant menus, it’s clear that shrimps and small sole – ‘sliptong’ in Flemish – are massively popular.

If ‘sliptong’ was a fun new word, it had nothing on my favourite linguistic discovery of the week.

Slagroom’ has nothing to do with slags of any variety; it’s the Flemish for whipped cream, which they employ copious amounts of, including in cups of cappuccino – you have to order an ‘Italian-style’ one if you don’t want the cream.

But for someone who enjoys the odd Carry On film, such words are irresistible.

We both tried eel (‘paling’ in Flemish, if you’re interested).

It was roasted simply in the lunch I had while sitting outside the Café Jan van Eyck in Jan van Eyckplein, and served with a spinach purée as a sauce in The Other Half’s while lunching near the brewery.

The eel has a mild flavour and firm flesh – I can’t understand why Brits have managed to make it into a rather slimy dish with jellied eel. It’s at its best, in my opinion, when smoked, but this was well worth a try.

The meal on our third night was the best. While my duck was good and my Belgian cheese platter interesting, the best course of all was the starter.

It arrived as a mound of salad: grated carrot, green asparagus, leaves and other strings of root veg that I couldn’t make out – it couldn’t have been celeriac, surely, as that would have discoloured too quickly?

But buried beneath were two rolls of very gently smoked salmon, filled with flaked crab, shrimps and a little dill. And all topped with only a minimal, light dressing.

It sounds so simple – and was so light and refreshing. And as I ate, it was with a feeling of spring greenness.

Indeed, there was a pervasive sense of seasonality.

The Belgians – like the Germans – celebrate the arrival of asparagus, using both green and white. And most menus that we saw listed at least a couple of dishes built around spargel.

In the more touristy cafes, the Flemish seem particularly fond of serving a sort of mustard cress, piled high as a substantial garnish; crisp little leaves and a big, peppery taste. Even these were always fresh and always enjoyable.

One of the other things that Belgium is famous for is chips – or fritjes. Much thinner than our chips and served with a variety of dressings – most traditionally, mayonnaise – they’re available everywhere and come with everything.

Our first chance to sample came late on Monday afternoon as we took our first amble around the streets, and realised that we had eaten little that day. So we bought a tray each of fritjes.

They were, unfortunately, very crisp – which was far from easy for me.

The bowl served with our meals that evening was far better. But by the end of our second day I was, frankly, all chipped out.

On our final evening, we ended up in a French-influenced fish restaurant, where I picked the turbot on the basis that it’s not something I’ve tried often.

A light vegetable broth preceded started our meal – and delightful and refreshing it was – and then came the fish.

It arrived as two pieces of fillet, surrounded by generous portions of a lobster bisque and hollandaise, with a panade of crab, plus spinach purée, deep-fried leek and goodness knows what else.

The sauces worked well together – a big, hefty dose of rich, savoury sweetness. But then you sit back and you think: ‘what’s the point of having turbot if the subtly of the taste is swamped?’

It was a very old style of French cooking: if not quite after Escoffier himself, then certainly predating the creation of nouvelle cuisine – and absolute evidence of what the likes of Paul Bocuse were turning their backs on when they launched that culinary movement.

It was a dish that showed just how much tastes have evolved: I found myself longing for the salmon rolls of the previous night, piled high with salad and with only the barest amount of dressing.

And as one always brings someone home from any trip, I came away wanting to eat more salad and most certainly more leaves.

And to taste again that sense of the green, of the pastoral, that has hung around in my mind since the first forkful.


  1. Great couple of reads, thanks.


  2. My pleasure, David. Thanks for the comment – and I'm glad you've enjoyed them.

  3. Thats goos waffle on a stick in Brugge. I'm always sirfing the internet to have more idea about waffles. I really love to eat waffles. cheers!