It’s so near, but almost totally overlooked from the culinary perspective. Belgium is one of our closest neighbours but is overshadowed by the gastronomic giant (the French believe their own publicity) next door.
Let’s think logically. We wax lyrical about French food and will go to the extent of crossing the Channel just for lunch – and a boot-full of cheeky reds – but we assume that cooking flair ends at its borders. Belgium has access to the same ingredients as northern France and has a wealth of dishes that have been developed over generations. Each recipe might, to the untutored, be heralded as French regional, and with that accolade would come the misguided ‘Nobody does it like the French.’ Well, dear reader, The Taste of Belgium will broaden your horizons to the left of La Belle France and you will thank it.
Ruth Van Waerebeek is a well-travelled Belgian who has penned this volume of traditional and family recipes. It’s a book filled with proper food, beautiful photography by Regula Ysewijn, and stories of grandmothers, mothers and local character. The Taste of Belgium is the perfect cookbook for anyone living in the cold grey north of Europe.
This is very much a Belgian culinary presentation but there is a sense of the familiar. Yes, I said that the pages are filled with ‘proper food’, but that doesn’t translate as dull, flavourless or pedestrian. We in the UK have ready access to all the ingredients and they won’t demand a mortgage extension to acquire. We love the flavours and vibrant colours of Mediterranean cuisine over the summer, but when the weather turns chilly we look for comfort, seasonality and local. Hothouse-grown toms like bullets, red peppers at inflated prices, are hardly appealing when one wants warm, hearty and from here.
There are many recipes that would rank as ‘pick of the book’. There is, in fact, nothing at which one would turn up a nose. Even the humble and mostly (by me) vilified Brussels Sprout is elevated when made into a creamy soup.
Belgium’s other eponymous vegetable is endive. Many people say they dislike the rather bitter taste of Belgian endive but cooked properly it becomes a very different personality from its crunchy raw self. Gratin of Belgian Endive will convert the most sceptical. One can make this dish without the ham but I think the slight saltiness of the cured meat adds a natural seasoning to the dish. The secret of success is cooking the endive for that full 25 minutes before assembling the dish. This isn’t the time for lightly steaming or a quick introduction to a 2-minute simmer.
One of the stars of this firmament is the recipe for Poached Chicken with Veal Dumplings and Rice. Although there are several elements to this dish, it is, nevertheless, quite simple to make. This would be a good substitute for the traditional Sunday roast and could easily be scaled up in quantity to feed a crowd. A couple of bottles of wine and some crusty bread and it’s likely that even the most dedicated Francophile head would turn.
The Taste of Belgium is gift-quality and should be filling the stockings of many a discerning cook. It’s attractive, practical, accessible and full of recipes that one might really use, and some on a regular basis. This isn’t a Celebrity Chef tome and it will be a shame if it’s overlooked just because the author isn’t gracing our TVs. This is a delightful book and is the ‘Mostly Food & Travel Journal Cookbook of 2014’
The Taste of Belgium
Author: Ruth Van Waerebeek
Published by: Grub Street
Cookbook review by Chrissie Walker © 2018