I really love food tourism. Not just in a ‘I want to see if I can eat my body weight in noodles’ kind of way, but also in a ‘food is an enormous part of culture’ kind of way. Eating food from different countries is one of the best parts of travel and Belgium did not disappoint.
Often, the Internet can give a misleading view of what locals actually eat. For example, sushi is definitely a part of Japanese cuisine, but it is not the only thing in Japanese cuisine and is not an everyday food in the way we might expect. However, the prevailing image of Belgian cuisine is, according to Lisbeth, the lovely woman who ran our tour and has lived in Belgium her whole life, deliciously accurate.
This tour was supposed to last ninety minutes but ended up going on for two and a half hours as we munched our way through Bruges. We tried waffles, chocolate, fries, beer and cuberdon, some excellent mainstays of Belgian cuisine and tourism.
We started with waffles. The Belgian waffle is probably the only reason that many people know Belgium exists, other than maybe Belgian chocolate. But what most people don’t know – and that I didn’t know until the other day – is that there are two types of Belgian waffle. The Liège waffle, named for the French-speaking part of Belgium in the south, is thicker and gooey, made with denser dough that needs to be left to rise and is dotted with big lumps of sugar that caramelise upon cooking. The Brussels waffle is made from a classic waffle batter and is much lighter. Typically, the sugary Liège waffles are eaten plain, as the caramel acts as a topping of sorts. The Brussels waffle used to exclusively be eaten as a savoury meal in the Middle Ages, but has become a modern sensation topped with whipped cream, chocolate and fruit. I mean, you could cover a shoe in sugary sauces and someone would probably still eat it, but the fluffy waffle base definitely adds to the enjoyment.
We got to try both types of waffle and Mum and I ended up back at the house of waffles the following day to try the loaded savoury versions and a classic fruit-and-cream-covered sweet waffle. I only took pictures of half of these moments because I was literally so excited to eat them that I forgot to turn on the camera.
We then headed to the fry museum. If you’ve never heard of a fry museum before, that seems fair, as this is the only fry museum in the whole world. We did end up going around the museum properly the next day so don’t worry, there’ll be plenty of chip content on Restless this week. The fry museum has an onsite chip café and we got to sample some fresh fries with a traditional Belgian sauce combo, mayonnaise and meat stew, and Joppiesaus, a Dutch condiment.
We listened to our guide, Lisbeth, give an impassioned speech about why you should never, ever call chips ‘French’ fries. They are Belgian fries. They became known as French fries after a mistake in the trenches, when the American soldiers thought that the French-speaking soldiers offering up delicious fried potatoes were French, not Belgian. Hence, the French fry came to America, and the Belgians were devastatingly overlooked.
Lisbeth implored us to never call them French fries again. “We don’t have a lot to be proud of in Belgium – please let us have our fries.”
After our fry stop, we headed over to the chocolate museum. We didn’t go inside on the tour – though we did head back the next day to get the full chocolate experience – but Lisbeth came out with a tray of white, milk and dark buttons for us to snack on as she spoke (we had to eat them in that specific order to avoid spoiling our palate for the richer buttons – see, chocolate can be science).
She explained how, as with the potato, the Spanish brought the cacao bean back to Belgium (where they ruled at the time) from South and Central America, which they had colonised to tune of thousands of deaths. If you ever want to make chocolate depressing, just think about how it came to exist in the first place. It was in Europe that someone figured out that to make bitter cacao more appealing you should add a crapload of sugar. The Belgians have always been at the forefront of chocolate innovation and continue to have an extremely high standard of chocolate, mandated by law. It’s not just a myth that Belgian chocolate is better – it’s a stone cold fact. There are strict rules about exactly how much cacao must be in white, milk and dark chocolate in order for it to be produced in Belgium, which stops chocolatiers from cramming their treats with cheap cane sugar instead of the good stuff from the cocoa plant.
Lisbeth also gave us the name of ‘the best chocolate maker in the world,’ a Belgian man called Dominique Persoone, who had a store mere minutes away. After the tour, Mum and I went a got a box of his chocolates to share, mixing classic pralines with adventurous bitter honey, yuzu and balsamic flavours. They were, we had to admit, unreasonably delicious.
You just can’t get chocolate like that outside of Belgium – for legal reasons, literally.
Next up was cuberdon, a Belgian sweet that was invented when a pharmacist was trying to make a sweet syrup and failed to keep it syrup-like. It’s not hard to believe they were made by a pharmacist because they do have the unfortunate quality of tasting a bit like a Calpol chew. It’s very medicinal. The first bite is good but it quickly descends into an overwhelming medical sticky sweetness that is… not bad, but not the kind of thing you’d crave after a long day. Half a cuberdon was enough before I started to worry about getting a migraine.
(Pharmacists have actually played a big part in the development of Belgian confectionary. One pharmacist started covering pills in chocolate to get kids to take them, a move than inspired his grandson, John Neuhaus, to invent Belgium’s famous chocolate form, pralines. This seems hugely questionable on the part of the pharmacist but given it gave us pralines everyone is cool with it – as easy as giving candy to babies, huh?).
We finished up with beer. Now, I am slowly, tentatively, starting to like beer. It’s a process. I’m generally more of a boozy fruit juice kind of drinker. But, for the sake of cultural exchange, of course, I managed to get down half a glass of dark brown beer. It was much better than I was expecting.
I do want to get into beer, because there’s something about the mental image of me in a pair of denim shorts, drinking a Peroni that really works for me. I think it would be a good look. However, the fact that I feel like I’m drinking yeast from a glass still remains a sticking point.
We learned about how beer has been around for millennia, showing that even early humans had found a way to use basic substances to blunt their emotions. We learned a bit about the production process that has already left my brain (blame the few sips of beer I’d had). Mainly, I learned that if you’re a beer drinker, Belgian beer is great, from the enthusiastic responses of my fellow drinkers.
This tour was an awesome intro to Belgium. There’s truly nothing I like more than getting to know somewhere through food. And yes, while certain delicacies were done up for tourists (I’m looking at you, Liège waffles covered in Nutella), there was no Trdelnik. Lisbeth made clear that not only were these true Belgian specialties, but she was only qualified to give this tour because of her jobs in both waffle and chocolate shops and her many years eating these foods (she was also an athlete, a tour guide and a dental hygienist. I presume not at the same time).
As we wandered away from the tour, chugging water to offset the salt and sugar overload, we met a traffic obstruction of a car, a horse and carriage and a hundred-strong marching band. This whole morning was peak Bruges and it was awesome.
We took the ‘a taste of Bruges’ tour with Legends Tours. It was free but don’t forget to tip your guide!