Odds are, if you’re thinking about Belgium, you’re thinking about something that tastes good. That’s certainly the case in Japan. Go on, try it out. Say the adjective “Belgian” in your head. What comes next? I would wager many a reader completed that phrase with “chocolate,” or “waffles,” or perhaps even “fries.” Those inclined to imbibe may have gone with “beer.” The point is, in Japan and many other places besides, that is Belgium – a country of flavours delicious, luxurious and a bit decadent.
Well, there has to be a lot more to it than that. It’s quite well known that Belgium has a mainly French-speaking region and a mainly Dutch-speaking region, or that it is host to the headquarters of both the European Union and NATO. But what of its culture? What makes Belgium the place it is, beyond the scrumptious edibles and potables it’s best known for? One early summer’s day, I get the chance to explore that very question at the home of Anne-Marie and Christophe de Bassompierre, the latter a counsellor at the Belgian Embassy in Tokyo. The couple is hosting a lunch built on Belgian cuisine, and to help them answer my questions about their culture and country (and fill the dining room tabletop), they’ve invited along a few of their compatriots: Matthieu Branders, Andrée Kerremans, and the wife and husband team of Séverine de Potter and Jonas Knops, each one of them with a special edible something.
The de Bassompierres welcome their guests warmly into their apartment, with smiles and friendly hellos for each of us. It is a modern and tasteful home of white walls and natural wood furnishings; a very easy, comfortable place to be. The relaxed atmosphere soon has everyone chatting, and as we exchange greetings and a few jokes, we are gently ushered deeper into the apartment and onto the terrace to take in the wonderfully sunny day, as well as a couple of Belgian beer varieties. Belgium is a country of beer, after all. A lot of beer, and of many different types.
Broadly, these can be broken down into four major brewing categories: top fermentation, bottom fermentation, spontaneous fermentation, and mixed fermentation.
|These beers are fermented at temperatures between 15°C and 25°C, relatively high compared to the other brewing methods. Close to the end of the process, the yeast cells rise to the top of the brew. Yeasts producing fruity and spicy notes are used.|
|Bottom fermentation beers are fermented at 5-10°C. After some days, the yeast sinks to the bottom of the fermentation tank, hence the name. The process results in beers with highly stable flavour profiles, and is the highest-selling beer type by volume.|
||In this process, the brewers don’t add yeast themselves. Instead, they add hops to the wort and then leave the mixture in a cool room to be colonised and fermented by wild airborne yeasts. Beers made this way are called “lambics”, and while you might think this method should work just about anywhere, that’s not the case. In Belgium, the wild yeasts thought to be best for making these beers are found on the outskirts of Brussels. The most common wild yeasts there are Brettanomyces bruxellensis, and Brettanomyces lambicus.|
||As the name suggests, a number of different yeasts are used to ferment these beers. In most cases, they are top-fermented first before being put into oak casks and laid down for a year and a half or more, during which lactic acid fermentation continues. The result is then blended with a young top-fermented brew to create the final product.|
（Information from the Belgian government tourism website）
Belgium is one of the world’s most famous beer making countries, but by no means did Belgians invent the stuff, even if they’ve done marvellous things with it. No, the road to beery bliss goes back a very long way indeed, to Mesopotamia some 9,000 years ago, when the first beers are thought to have been brewed. The potent potable then spread to Egypt, jumped the Mediterranean to Gaul (modern France) and eventually flowed across the Roman Empire (of which present day Belgium was a part).
However, those ancient beers weren’t the products of big brewing operations. Making beer was a household chore, and done mostly by women. Fast forward a few centuries to the Middle Ages in Europe, and Christian monasteries are busy assembling and curating vast tracts of practical knowledge on everything from agriculture and animal husbandry to handicrafts. And on beer, which the monks in northern European climes such as Belgium unsuited to winemaking developed and brewed in quantity because it was clean and safe to drink. And over time they began to craft unique brews of quality and character.
Brewing became a part of community life, and the Belgians at the table today say that once upon a time every town and village in their country had at least one brewery. According to the Belgian government’s tourist information site, there were some 3,200 of them at the beginning of the 20th century, but that is not the only reason for the variety of beers in Belgium.
In the 14th century, the Holy Roman Empire introduced a law called the “Novus Modus Fermentandi Cerevisiam” declaring that all beer made within its borders must contain hops. However, not all of present-day Belgium was in the Empire, and those areas outside continued to use herbal mixtures called “gruit” to flavour their brews; a common practice in the Middle Ages. Hops are a natural preservative, but beer makers not covered by the new law relied on natural acidification instead to keep their brews from going bad.
Further regulation emerged in Bavaria in 1516 with the famed “Reinheitsgebot,” or German beer Purity Law, which mandated that beer be made only with barley, hops and water. Among other things, the law was intended to guarantee a certain quality level. However, no such restrictions were imposed in (future) Belgium, where brewers continued to be free to write and refine their own recipes. That may sound the riskier course, but ultimately we have this freedom in fermentation to thank for the many highly individuated beers that have earned Belgium world recognition for its suds.
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing, though. Two world wars and post-war business pressures saw the vast majority of the 3,200 breweries counted in 1900 go out of business or merge. Now, there are 168 breweries. Nevertheless, according to Belgian Brewers Association data, those breweries are still making more than 1,500 types of beer. To put that in perspective, if you tried one Belgian beer every day, it would take you more than four years to taste them all.( (See the Belgian government’s official site for more information on the history of Belgian beer)
Back on that breezy terrace, we are learning a few things about how to consume these beers as well as about their history. According to Matthieu, a good Belgian pour will give you a foam head about two fingers thick. Also, when you toast, it’s important to keep eye contact.
The brews being poured today (with the aforementioned two-finger head) are a golden “abbey beer” (originally made at, you guessed it, an abbey) and a cloudy wheat beer. Both are smooth, medium-bodied and easy to drink, but are otherwise very distinct from one another. I was partial to the wheat beer myself, with its hints of citrus. It turns out I’m not imagining things. The Belgians tell me the beer has orange peel and coriander in it, which is perhaps why I didn’t find it as heavy and filling as a glass of the standard local suds.
We all talk for a while as we sip, and then head to the dining room table. It’s time to see what each Belgian guest has brought to the party. The first dish, authored by Matthieu, is a sweet and savoury hors d’oeuvre of tuna and a whole fresh peach called Pêches au thon/Perzik met tonijn (this being a Belgian meal, all the dishes have both a French and a Dutch name). The tuna is seasoned with a Belgian mayonnaise sauce, and is perfectly moist and wonderfully fragrant on the tongue. Matthieu mentions that, while its possible to make this dish with canned tuna, he prefers to use a good, fresh cut of fish and prepare everything from scratch. And then there’s the mayonnaise.
The Belgians at the table are unambiguous about how important it is to use Belgian mayonnaise. It has more eggs than the local Japanese stuff and is not at all sweet and also has lemon juice and mustard in it. Especially when it comes to chips, anything but Belgian mayonnaise just will not do, they say.
Séverine lets me in on a couple of other tips to great Belgian fries. One, they’re fried not once but twice. And two, you have to start with fresh potatoes; nothing frozen. This talk of fried potatoes has everyone pretty excited, and the de Bassompierres are keen to add that to make real Belgian frites, you have to use potatoes from Belgium. These spuds are especially flavourful because of their amino acid levels, they say. The type of potato most commonly used for Belgian frites is called the bintje, according to The Belgian Potato Sector: A review of 2012 Figures and Facts (Belgapom), and it’s also a popular fried potato option in the Netherlands and France. Unfortunately, I’ve never seen it here in Japan.
It’s time for the second course, courtesy of Andrée. It’s a light green leek soup called Soéupe aux poireaux /Preisoep, topped with traditional Belgian cured ham. Andrée says that it really needs to be made with Belgian leeks (not the local and quite leek-like negi onion) for the genuine taste experience, so she spent quite some time hunting through Tokyo’s import supermarkets. What’s more, once it’s made it should be served fresh, so Andrée made it the night before and put it in her fridge to wait for the day’s lunch.
The silky smooth colour has its parallel in its texture on the tongue, the taste a subtle balance of creamy and fresh. It occurs to me that to create something with such a refined flavour must take true attention to detail.
Appetite whetted, we move on to the main course made by our gracious hostess Anne-Marie: Ballekes au limbic et chicons braises/Ballekes met limbic en gesmoord witloof, or meatballs in a lambic beer sauce with braised chicories. The word “ballekes” is Flemish (the Dutch spoken in Belgium’s Flanders region), but is a favourite in the country’s French-speaking areas as well. The beer that gives the sauce its name is, you might have guessed, one of the spontaneously fermented lambic beers mentioned above. Lambic beers are usually a tad tart, and so the sauce is laced with a slightly sour touch and a bit of beery bitterness. Once again, a subtle and satisfying balance is achieved, both in the sauce itself and with the fat meatballs themselves — mild-tasting mixes of ground beef, chicken and pork.
As to the chicories, here in Japan I’d never seen them before outside restaurant salads, but they are a common sight on plates at home in Belgium, we are told, and often braised as they are today. Chicories are bitter, but sautéed like this they take on a caramelised sweetness on the edges, and retain their solid crunch even as they take on a silky exterior texture. It should also be mentioned that the main dish goes down a treat with the Belgian beers on offer.
And now comes the double-barrelled dessert created by Séverine and Jonas: a chocolate mousse plus a tiramisu given a crunchy dimension with crushed cookie (Mousse au chocolat/Chocolademousse and Tiramisu au speculoos/Tiramisu met speculoos).
Local flavours are deeply rooted in Belgium, but today’s diners say chocolate mousse is common to the entire country. It seems everyone at the table is a great chocolate lover, and considering the taste of the mousse, it’s easy to understand why. I take a moment to breathe in the deep, dark scent of the cocoa that gives the flavour of the mousse its tremendous body. This, I think, is Belgian chocolate in all its glory.
According to the embassy, Belgian chocolate has 10-15 percent more cocoa than mandated by European Union regulations, as Belgian makers take pride in protecting the traditional tastes of their product. This isn’t just about maintaining a marketing-friendly image, but rather keeping the true quality of the chocolates high. And I strongly suspect that this dedication is what has allowed Belgians to sell their chocolates at premium prices, knowing that customers in search of something genuinely great will keep coming back.
Returning to the table, I dig into the tiramisu. Yes, tiramisu is Italian. But the addition of the spiced speculoos (or speculaas) Belgian cookies gives this well known dessert whole new dimensions of taste and texture, making the whole an inspired variation on the Italian original with a distinctly Belgian touch. While mass market versions of speculoos can be found in Japanese shops, Jonas tells me that the cookies in today’s dessert were hand-made by an artisan. Now that he mentions it, the cookies are far more fragrant and boldly flavoured than the store-bought ones I’ve had.
Once again, tiramisu is Italian in origin, but then the Belgians at the table have been telling me that their country is quite open to foods from other places, and that dishes from all parts get adopted and absorbed into the Belgian diet one after another. However, when it comes to those specialties deeply rooted in their culture and history – beer, chocolate, traditional speculoos cookies, and so on – Belgians strive to maintain the quality and protect the traditions that have made these things so highly prized both at home and abroad. My fellow diners agree that Belgians tend to leave an impression of modesty, of a reluctance to boast of their nation’s best. But their best has been acknowledged the world over; an amazing success in its own right, and something I thought a tremendously attractive aspect of the country.
I asked the people at the table what they liked most about Belgium. Not as diplomats, but as regular Belgians. For Andrée, it was the walkable variety of the capital (both of Belgium and the European Union) Brussels. “It is like a mishmash. It is supposed to be the centre of Europe, but for me, it still like a small town,” she says. “You can walk to everywhere. I like it.”
Jonas also speaks of variety, in terms of all the distinct local identities that make up the country. For example, “I am from Mechelen. Lier is a city nearby, but it is not the same. It is in the same region, but it is not the same,” he explains. “That is something about Belgium I like; every town has its own identity and they really stick to it.”
Apparently, towns and villages just a few kilometres apart can have different accents, and there is a strong sense of pride in the place you’re from, right down to the local community. Jonas tells me with a smile that Belgians will talk with great gusto about where they are from, tossing out the name of their town or village without any reference to the nearest big city, in the expectation that the listener will automatically know where it is.
Matthieu and Séverine give disarmingly simple answers: chocolate and frites, respectively. As described above, these are things made with great devotion and attention to quality, and so they inspire devotion in the people eating them as well. If I’d asked the same “favourite thing” question to Japanese people, I suspect I’d get a lot of “Japanese rice” responses, so I understand the two Belgians’ feelings.
When it’s Christophe’s turn, he says he likes that his compatriots don’t take themselves too seriously’, that they are quite relaxed by nature. On the other hand, he says that despite their informality, Belgians tend to be pragmatists, working towards specific goals and making sure everything is properly organised to reach them. “Things get done,” he says, adding that people are “straightforward” and “don’t make fuss about anything. It is very simple. … That’s something I like.” However, Christophe goes on, “Belgians tends to diminish their accomplishments, all the time. So sometimes they don’t see how good Belgium is.”
From modesty, Anne-Marie takes us to personal warmth and openness. Belgium is a “place of friendship,” she says. “People care about each other. You are invited by to each other’s places easily, again, quite informally. You don’t have to make a big dinner or a big thing, but (just) be at the table together and share the meal.”
The impression of Belgium I’ve formed today is fascinating; a country of what might be called “micro-multiculturalism,” peopled by a folk given to modesty but also a refreshing carefreeness. Listening to my dining companions, I get a glimpse into their country I’ve never seen on the news or in its famous brands, a glimpse that makes me feel far closer to what seems an honestly kind and open place.
And so I sip my coffee – lovely rich stuff brewed by the hostess – and imagine absorbing some of that kindness and openness first hand. It might be fun, I think, to wend my way through Belgium on a bicycle, stopping in its distinct towns and villages to sip their beers and talk with the locals. That’s a daydream worth making a reality.
Story by: Rika Sakai
English Text by: Robert Sakai-Irvine