Say Belgium. Think waffles. That is what anyone who went to the World's Fair in New York a few years ago is likely to remember. It happens in Belgium, too. Each street fair, each market, almost each corner of a Belgian city has its waffle stand. The delicacies are somewhat crisper than one customarily gets in the United States, and are served with powdered sugar. They make great nibbling.
So do the "frites" (French fries) cooked to order on the sidewalks of this small country. There is no need to go hungry here even without going to a restaurant. With "frites" and cheese, which can be bought in any market, one can subsist happily for hours.
But waffles and frites, delicious as they are, offer only a glimpse at Belgium's cuisine, which ranges from $100-per-person dinners in very fancy restaurants to simple, satisfying sausage-and-potatoes meals for around $5 in small, cozy cafes. Chocolates, famous the world over, are available at varying prices, but always handsomely displayed and beautifully packaged.
In Europe there is a consciousness that cooking is an art beyond that of merely providing something to eat. The quality of the always-fresh ingredients and the appearance of the food is as important as its ultimate flavor. That is true in the informal restaurants of Belgium just as it is where linen napkins and exquisite service accompany food.
For instance, at Le Barbe D'Or, a small restaurant where the people of Liege might eat between bouts of marketgoing, we were served a meal consisting of a pate of mixed livers on a bed of lettuce, then a blood sausage with small new potatoes, and a baked apple on a layer of watercress.
THis was followed by dessert, an affirmation that Belgian pastries are quite as scrumptious as the French. Altogether it was a satisfying and appealing meal , for only about $5, and the entire luncheon interlude took between 30 and 45 minutes. When one goes to a more formal restaurant, the meal can take a 2- to 3 -hour chunk of time out of the middle of the day or evening.
Another delicious snack in Belgium is to drop into one of the small cafes, as we did in beautiful Brugge one early nippy evening, for hot chocolate served with real whipped cream.
But of course, if you enjoy gourmet dining and can afford the astronomical prices that inflation has dictated in Belgium, then the country offers a wealth of superb restaurants. They are always full, in and out of season, and the Belgians admit that their salaries have nearly kept pace with inflation. While the tourist trade is important, Brussels is also headquarters for the Common Market and that, alone, brings an international clientele all year long.
As to superb restaurants, a case in point is the flower-filled dining room of the redecorated Brussels Hilton Hotel. At one time shabby and unprepossessing, this hostelry now veritably sparkles. Its award-winning chef, Michel Theurel, creates dishes as elegant as the best you can find in Belgium.
A typical menu consisted of fresh salmon, cooked in the smoke oven and presented on a salad with wild mushrooms. That was followed by breast of duckling, slightly under done, and flavored with juniper berries. Accompanying it were a candied pear and fresh Belgian endive simmered in butter, plus a celery mousse.
Belgian restaurants often serve vegetables in mousse form, to add a different texture and color to the plate. Later came a fresh fruit medley with a warm zabaglione sauce.
Another example of gourmet dining near Brussels is the Villa Lorraine, to which Michelin gives two stars of a possible three. It is the custom to eat late in Belgium, so one arrives at 8:30 or 9 p.m., leaving again at, maybe, midnight. Dinner is the event of the evening.
This is another elegant restaurant where flowers are used lavishly. The huge sliding windows look out on a tree-shaded garden with small tables nesteled in quiet corners. Dinner consists of up to eight modestly sized courses, each as elegant as the setting. Duck, chicken, lobster, venison follow hors d'oeuvres or soup.
Dessert offerings always include pastries, a chocolate souffle, and specialties of the house, displayed on an elaborate silvery cart, a work of art in itself.
While the Villa Lorraine is special, it is far from being unique. At Ostend, for instance, the Andromeda Hotel with a dining-room view of the North Sea and the ferries going and coming from Dover, presents a fish buffet which has to be tasted to be believed.
Scottish salmon and the smoked variety, crayfish, shrimp, smoked haddock, lobster, and so on graced the table. Plus such delights for dessert as passion fruit and fresh pineapple.
Other fabulous restaurants included the country-style Bij Moeder Angele in the countryside near to Audenaarde, the Cafe Robert in Brussels, and the three Zilveren Kannen at Damme outside Brugge.
Those who prefer to cook at home may like to know that Belgian foods whether from the northern Flemish areas, or the French south, can be made at home. There are several Belgian cookbooks available.
In Belgium, endive is often called the national vegetable, because the country is famous for growing it and using it in various ways. This is the white bud that grows on the stem of the chicory plant after the leafy green chicory leaves have been harvested. In other countries, Belgian endive is considered simply a salad component, possibly because it is usually expensive.
The Belgians often cook endive country style, by melting some lard in a skillet and adding chopped onions, and diced red and green peppers. Cubes of cooked ham, chicken, or some other meat are added, followed by the raw endive in small pieces. The mixture is then cooked just until the endive is soft -- a vew few minutes. Salt, pepper, nutmeg, and chopped parsley are the usual seasonings.
Remember never to add much liquid to endive because it contains a lot of water itself. Wash it quickly and dry on paper towels. If you wish to remove that slightly bitter flavor, a Belgian cookbook notes, trim off a thin slice of the stem end with a very sharp knife scoop out about 1/4 inch of the core.
To accompany a meat dish such as calf liver, the endive may be cooked with it in the oven. First boil the vegetable in a little water with lemon and salt until just tender. Add that to a casserole dish in which some chopped shallots and sliced tomatoes have cooked a little already in a moderate oven. Place sliced endive lengthwise, cut side down, in the fish. Spoon juices over it. Cover with foil or lid and cook for about 10 minutes at 250 degrees F. Remove lid and add liver slices which have been lightly fried meanwhile for one minute on each side with pepper over a hot flame. Salt the liver. Then assemble the whole thing to look pretty and serve it with lemon juice and chopped parsley.
To choose good endive look for stems that are snowy white with light yellow coloring at the edges. Do not buy any that are showing brown. Endive is, of course, excellent with both vegetable and fruit salads.
Although Belgians are endlessly imaginative with their dishes, one does not always associate airplanes with good food. However, on the Brannif plane flying back from Belgium the Belgian chef had concocted something he called Chicken Breast Mascotte. It consisted of large pices of white chicken, oven-cooked with sliced mushrooms, tomatoes, and good seasoning. It was a delicious as in any restaurant.
A famous chicken dish from the Flemish part of Belgium is Waterzooi, which also may be made with fish. It is a type of chicken stew with leeks, celery, carrots, parsley, a bay leaf, ground nutmeg, and thyme. The chicken is cooked in chicken bouillon or veal stock. It is thickened with heavy cream and egg yolks, and seasoned with lemon, salt, and fresh pepper. This makes a wonderful winter meal, accompanied by crusty bread and perhaps a salad with the famous Belgian endive used as is this time.