Food and Culture in Belgium
In 1830, Belgium, a small heavily populated country bordering on France, Germany, and Luxembourg, detached itself from the Netherlands and became an independent nation. Its history is a long story of other nations marching over Belgian soil, each leaving an imprint upon the people and their traditions: Romans, Franks, Spaniards, Austrians, Dutch, and especially the French.
Belgium is made up of two main groups: the Flemings in the north, a Teutonic people who speak Flemish (a dialect of Dutch related to German), and the Walloons in the south who are primarily a Celtic people who speak a dialect of French. It is said that Antwerp, the northern Flemish business city, represents its people’s character: “salty, stubborn and proudly provincial,” while Brussels, located in the heart of Belgium, and about four-fifths French-speaking, seems to represent the more emotional and flamboyant Walloons.
But wherever one goes in Belgium, North or South, despite the differences, some things are universal. Almost everywhere, except in remote rural areas, English is spoken and understood; Belgian husbands become emotional on the subject of food and argue about whose wife is the better cook; and Belgians like their food in ample quantity and of good quality. But although good food well prepared is a priority, Belgians are not adventurous cooks. They have little interest in experimenting with “foreign” dishes, remaining happily confident that the best is Belgian home cooking and the best of restaurant food is none other than the haute cuisine of France. And although the Flemish favor foods masked with velvety sauces of cream and eggs, and the Walloons make extensive use of pork in their dishes, the overall tone of Belgian cookery is definitively French.
The meticulous care with which Belgian cooks select their foods can best be illustrated by a walk through a Belgian supermarket, where even every-day items like butter and cream are carefully labeled with the proud producer’s name, where an incredible array of exquisitely garnished cold meats, pates, sausages, salads, and prepared appetizers delight the eye, and where varieties of canned, packaged, and bottled goods line up in colorful profusion unparalleled elsewhere. Advertisements proudly proclaim:
“Butter from Namur” … “Asparagus from Malines” … “Pork and pork products from Pietron” … “Walnuts from Bastogne” … “Strawberries from Wepion.”
The tremendous Belgian sweet tooth is not gratified in simply one bakeshop alone. A distinction is carefully made between the daily baked goods, which may be purchased from a boulangerie, and party specialties, which are selected from a patisserie. Candies and confections are so important they are sold in specialty stores called confiseries, where even a wan-ton glance seems to add pounds.
But gradually, as is happening in other parts of the world, some of the high standards of daily shop-ping and food preparation must be lowered to accommodate the modern lifestyle: the realities of traffic snarls, working mothers, and a shared inter-national desire to narrow the waistline.