Kathleen Harsh is a Chicago based bakery scientist. On a recent trip to Belgium, she visited a handful of bakeries and reported back on what she found. Belgium is probably best known stateside to be the home of the waffle but it’s really a hub of food creativity. It was a great educational adventure for her, with much learning to be shared with the company. What follows are her words on what she experienced.
Traveling brings many great joys, amongst them the opportunities to fully immerse oneself in the food of a different culture and to consider the unique offerings places from around the world bring to the table. Belgian food extends beyond the Americanized Belgian waffle to offering a true feast for the senses for every eating occasion. During a trip to Belgium this summer, I explored traditional Belgian bakeries, chocolate shops, and cookie shops that have perfected recipes over centuries of dedicated practices. Belgian cities are also a hub for creativity in food, so I seized the chance to check out innovative food concepts happening in bustling Antwerp and Ghent.
In a lively square in Antwerp, a fourth generation family run bakery founded in 1884 called Goosens draws crowds for everyday baked good staples. Its small storefront only has room to order, pay, and gawk in delight at the rows of stacked baked goods. Some of Goosens specialties include crusty sandwich bread, Danishes, and roggeverdommeke, a rye bread with raisins. Himschoot, a bakery in Ghent, has a similar set up showcasing muesli bread and dense chocolate bread packed with pieces of real Belgian chocolate.
Right next to Goosens in Antwerp, Philip’s Biscuits is a popular stop for traditional Belgian cookies such as speculoos. Speculoos cookies have a graham cracker-like taste profile with ginger and cinnamon notes and a short, crisp bite. Belgium pioneered the cookie butter that is gaining traction as a popular food trend in America by turning speculoos into a spread the consistency of creamy peanut butter. Speculoos spread can be found in Belgian grocery stores and served alongside Nutella and jams in breakfast buffets.
Another notable food destination in this Antwerp square is Mary Chocolatier. One can find delicious chocolate at every turn in Belgium, but Mary Chocolatier stands out as a Certified Supplier of the Belgian court. The fanciful shop has artfully displayed truffles and small chocolates that make the perfect gift or treat to oneself.
Waffles in Belgium are considered an indulgence, more akin to ice cream in America than the Belgian waffle we are all familiar with as a brunch and breakfast staple. That American breakfast food is referred to as the Brussels waffle in Belgium, and while that is certainly a delicious baked good, the Liege waffle deserves tremendous praise as well. Made with yeast, pearled sugar, and a higher fat content, the Liege waffle has a slight sour flavor from the fermentation and a denser, chewier texture with a crisp exterior from the pearled sugar caramelizing during the cooking and reheating process. As a luxurious end to an evening out, I enjoyed a Liege waffle topped with fresh chopped strawberries and a dizzying amount of Nutella purchased from a small cart off the canal in Ghent.
Another Belgian influence in America is the rise of Le Pain Quotidien restaurants, a bakery chain and fast casual restaurant that originated in Belgium. I stopped by a location in Ghent to admire the breads and pastries on display, which interestingly included a basket of hard boiled eggs to the right of the baguettes for a complete breakfast experience. Le Pain Quotidien had some unique offerings such as savory pastries and a dragon fruit and raspberry chiller. The latte was a perfectly refreshing alternative to coffee on a hot summer day with the added benefit of antioxidants from the fruits.
Fries are a staple in the Belgian diet, and they are frequently used as a base or the main course for many meals as pasta is to Italian food or rice is to Chinese food. Frituurs or fry shops are ubiquitous in Beligum, especially in the Flemish region where small towns have a frituur every few blocks. Frites Atelier Amsterdam is quick service restaurant that is capitalizing upon the Belgian fry popularity. This chain offers fries as a snack with a variety of dipping sauces such as classic mayonnaise, truffle, andouille, and béarnaise, as well as a full meal with a variety of saucy stews and curries as a topping. I stopped at the Antwerp location to have fries with stoofvlees, a traditional Flemish stew made with tender, rich meat and hints of mustard and beer, topped with mustard seeds and microgreens. The fries were crisped to perfection with a delightfully tender inside and a crunchy exterior due to a double frying method. This was my favorite meal during my time in Belgium!
Over in the university town of Ghent, I had the pleasure of stopping by another restaurant where the idea of a traditional Flemish dish has taken some contemporary twists. At Balls & Glory, you can order from an array of ground pork, chicken or meat substitute meatballs filled with a variety of creative fillings and lightly coated in breadcrumbs. The meatballs are served on top of a rotating flavorful salad or on top of stoemp, Belgian mashed potatoes with carrots and celery. This modernization of the Belgian affinity for meatballs lends itself well to a unique, satisfying meal occasion.
Ghent is a very Catholic city dating back to medieval times, and the city has such a staggering number of churches that many are currently up for sale. In an exciting new concept, a food hall called Holy Food Market has sprung up in a chapel from the 16th century. The design element is striking, with cathedral height ceilings, stained glass and beautiful architecture juxtaposed against modern design elements like black and white stained woodwork, marble countertops, statement indoor plants, and string lighting. Food halls have sprung up in the U.S. too such as Revival Food Hall in Chicago and Ponce City Market in Atlanta. Their popularity here stems from offering quick service, trend driven, and ethnic and regional food options to serve everyone’s pallets. The Holy Food Market follows a similar approach by offering 16 different food choices ranging from Malaysian, Abruzzo (regional) Italian, Russian, and vegetarian friendly options. Each food stand holds its own between the columns and arches with a bar in the center of the first floor, and the top floor has been converted into a club and lounge type area. I loved the blending of cultures and foods from around the world housed in a familiar yet modernized design, creating a new way to visit a picturesque European church.
During your next European adventure, consider stopping by Belgium for much more than just their waffles. The plethora of traditional treats Belgium has perfected over centuries coupled with new flavor and form combinations in non-traditional settings gives every traveler an opportunity to relish in Belgian cuisine.