As the Belgians are fond of saying, "Our food is cooked with French finesse but served in portions of German generosity." And in another homily, "If one has to eat three meals a day, then they may as well be delicious." Together, these adages illustrate the blend of French style, Germanic portions and uniquely Belgian practicality found in the pages of Everyone Eats Well in Belgium, a new cookbook by Belgian native Ruth Van Waerebeek, a visiting chef at the Peter Kump School of Cooking in New York City. This book provides a generous portion of recipes, presented with exquisite attention to detail and capturing the way generations of Belgians have cooked, prepared and enjoyed their meals.
Key to the cuisine of Belgium is its beers, best discovered in the native setting of the estaminet, or cafe. Though not as well recognized as the French version, the Belgian cafe thrives on a steady trade of beer drinkers as well as those who simply want coffee or tea.
Belgian cafe life centers on the beers brewed locally: a "multitap" where numerous brands of imported and domestic beer are offered is found in cities and university towns such as Bruges. In the countryside, one is more likely to find a simple cafe, with small tables at the front for drinkers and larger tables at the rear for families or groups of friends sharing meals. All the beers on tap are from the same brewery, with perhaps a few bottles of custom-blended gueuze laid aside in the beer cellar for special celebrations.
Food is almost always offered at cafes, because the restaurateur's tradition in Belgium is to duplicate as closely as possible what could be offered at home, with only slightly more attentive presentation and perhaps a few more exotic ingredients, such as wild mushrooms. Belgians have a low-key approach to hospitality, never fussy or striving for special effects. Some haute restaurants, such as Chez Bruno in Brussels, elevate Belgian specialties through the addition of unusual ingredients. Yet, the American concept of restaurant as theater, as entertainment, is not prevalent in Belgium. Hence, the simplicity of beer as a companion beverage to food seems only appropriate.
At home, beer often is served at both lunch and dinner, with a witbier or lighter brew to accompany a lunch of bread, cheeses and charcuterie. The more robust beers, such as Abbey or Trappist ales, are reserved for heartier dinner meals of roast game, steaks, and the ever-present frites, or Belgian fried potatoes.
Beer is important to the food and cooking of Belgium for several reasons, says Van Waerebeek. First, the culinary heritage of Belgium is medieval and monastic: vinegar and dried fruits are still used to obtain delicate balances of sweet and sour notes in entrees and side dishes; while spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon, bayleaf, ginger and saffron began to appear in Belgian cookery of the Middle Ages.
In a grain-growing region, Belgian monasteries and hostelries relied on beer, not wine, to serve with food. The tradition still stands today, with good culinary reason. Rich Belgian frites and steak are cut by the acidity of beer and the pungent ripened cheeses and peppery mustards won't erase the carbonated, quenching quality of a beer. Bitter greens, such as chicory and marinated red cabbage, give piquancy to roast fowl, and demand in turn an equally assertive beverage.
Today, the revival of artisanal breweries in Belgium is spurring modern chefs to experiment with beer cuisine. Since the average Belgian drinks over 150 liters of beer per year, suffice it to say that cuisine a la biere has found a welcoming audience.