Wallonia is a land of welcome, transit and meeting places. Down the centuries it’s been crisscrossed by numerous invaders who have left their mark in different ways: on the language, on the convivial nature of the people, on the quirky comic books and surreal art, and on the table - the heart and soul of daily life.
The last of these may come as a surprise to some, because Wallonia is not internationally celebrated for its gastronomic excellence. Yes, the French-fries are double-dipped and served within a millimetre of perfection; the veal is uniquely rich and succulent; the woods of the Ardennes are teeming with plump wild game, and whatever is put on the plate can be washed down with the world’s finest range of beers. But ‘haute gastronomie’? That expression is usually reserved for celebrated chefs from the likes of Catalonia, Denmark, France or Tuscany – not Wallonia.
And yet, for visitors who make the effort to discover the hidden corners of this ever-surprising region, there is a local speciality waiting to be discovered at the end of every off-the-beaten track.
Wallonia’s cuisine is genuinely cosmopolitan because its traditions and flavours have roots that spread all over Europe. Throughout history it has so often been at the edge of a frontier, open to the rest of the world. Many Walloon chefs have come from overseas, producing a very Belgian interpretation of fusion cooking. For example, Italian cuisine in Wallonia has been subtly altered, little by little, to suit local tastes, while even North African recipes have been given a Walloon makeover. Added to this are the tastes and flavours of all the nations which have passed through, either in war or peace, which have imperceptibly dripped into daily life.
Virtually every village, town or city has a wonderful bar or restaurant – places where you eat simply and wholesomely, without hoopla or publicity, and experience a Walloon version of a dish that almost certainly originated somewhere else. Verviers, for example, is rightly proud of its rice tarts – but the recipe probably came from Mediaeval Venice. Don’t tell the restaurateurs in Chimay, but their famed escaveche – a fish dish subtly marinated in vinegar and spices – was first concocted in ancient Persia.
What is important in Wallonia is not where the original recipe came from, but how the locals have adapted and modernised it to make it their own. Talking of modernisation, Wallonia has responded to the ‘fast food’ revolution of the 21st century by developing new age offerings such as the mitraillette, an irresistible French-fries sandwich that has become a right-of-passage for teenagers.
Best of all is the good old Sunday lunch, served in a typically simple and homely restaurant, where the menu quietly features the latest in fashionable food. In the kitchens through the back they have no time for the latest fads such as ‘locavorism’ or carbon zero consumption. For the chefs of Wallonia, sourcing as many local ingredients as possible is what they’ve always done.
So there is no need to go to a three-star restaurant to find a delicious and original meal. You can enjoy an unforgettable repas in the most unlikely places. Walloon cuisine has unashamedly borrowed the best bits of our two principal neighbours. It’s as original, varied and unexpected as you’ll find in France – and you will be served as generous a plate as any in Germany. The only difference is that in Wallonia they don’t make a song and dance about it.