Renowned Belgian chef, award-winning sommelier, wine journalist and founder of the Food and Wine Academy in Brussels, Eric Boschman gives us his introduction to the many flavours of Wallonia, and shares some of his favourite recipes from the region.
Gastronomy is never, ever a question of nationalism nor politics. It is,
by definition, borderless, stateless, without frontiers. Just imagine,
that the moment you season a piece of meat you are stepping outside local
boundaries, because here in Wallonia, for example, you are not going to
find many exotic pepper plants growing on the rolling hills of Quenast or Petit-Rechain. And I have not even begun to ask where
the salt comes from...
To begin with, let us start talking about its accents, its dialects. There are as many accents as regions in Wallonia, as many flavours as accents. People that come here for the first time have the impression that the locals here have roots which grow in their throat, just behind their taste buds. And it is the flavours and tastes from their various regions that little by little, form their words for them when they speak. Few people know, but, like many ethnic groups, the Walloons have a unique way of saying certain letters in their French-speaking alphabet: the inhabitants of Liege breathe out the H, the “caroloregiens”, as the people of Charleroi are known, pronounce the A in a different manner, while the “borain tamboureur” accent of people living around Mons, tends to roll their R’s. So the Walloon language is different but equally is also the same. Why? Because here in our country, everything always happens around a table, a bar, a mug
of beer, a pint, a drink, a cup of coffee or a “vitoulet” veal meat ball.
Wallonia is a land of welcome, transit and meeting places, which throughout the ages has been crisscrossed by numerous invaders who have all left their mark. But to its great profit, the region has successfully transformed what could have been indelible scars into unique tastes and flavours. So in the same way that the Walloon language has been influenced by different migrant groups, so has the traditional gastronomy here. That said, when Wallonia first comes to mind, let us be honest, people do not immediately think about gourmet cuisine. The far more likely responses are the people’s wonderful sense of conviviality, the love of partying, festivals, surrealism, beer, woods prowling with wild game. But not ‘haute gastronomie’. That august term is reserved for the chefs of Catalonia or Denmark, the ancient traditions of Tuscan cooking, certain regions of France. And yet, for visitors that make the effort to discover the hidden corners of Wallonia, there is a local speciality waiting to be discovered at the end of every off-the-beaten track, a tempting aroma wafting out the window of a kitchen.
The cuisine here is surprisingly cosmopolitan because the region’s traditions
and flavours have roots that spread all over Europe, because Wallonia is
above all eclectic, a committed European, almost always at the edge of a
frontier, open towards the world and all neighbours. And this openness has
produced a culture of hedonism that is a permanent fixture in people’s genes, so much so that many would risk
eternal damnation just for a good meal! Why? Because here in our country, everything
happens around a table, a bar, a mug of beer, a pint, a drink, a cup of
coffee or a “boulet” meatball in a rabbit sauce .
Walloon gastronomy is built on a foundation of incredible richness, something utterly rare, authentic, and unique. This is because the “saveurs”, the tastes and flavours of our cuisine, are both local and cosmopolitan, because Wallonia is at the crossroads of dozens of different influences and trends from across the whole of Europe. Travelling around the region there are wonderful bars and restaurants in every small village or big city, places where you eat simply and where the menu features essentially local specialities. This is what our French neighbours have christened the cuisine of the “terroir”. But, here in Wallonia, there is no way that “terroir” refers just to the geographical location. For us, “terroir” is not limited to the climate, a specific place, the ground, or even what is beneath the ground. Here we understand the soil, but for us, “terroir” is above all a human concept.
Many chefs here are Belgians who have immigrated from overseas, and it this capacity for integration that is one of the strengths of Wallonia. This is something that you witness every day at mealtime around the table in dishes that have a very Belgian interpretation of fusion cooking. So to start with, Italian cuisine in Wallonia has been subtly altered, little by little, to suite local tastes, while even North African recipes have been given a Walloon makeover. And added to this there are the influences of all the different nations that passed through here over the centuries, which have imperceptibly dripped into daily life. That is why it can be so difficult to explain, for example, to an inhabitant of Verviers that the origin of his rice tart recipe probably comes from Venetian cuisine, or to try and tell a chef from Chimay that his escaveche comes from Persia. You will probably find yourself in the midst of a furious uproar with everyone jabbing toothpicks, raising their fists, and accusing you of the heinous crime of daring to question the local origin of the dish. What is important in Wallonia is not where the original recipe comes from, but how the locals have adapted it and made it their very own. Why? Because here in our country, everything always happens around a table, a bar, a mug of beer, a pint, a drink, a cup of coffee or an “avisance” minced sausage in pastry.
Although Walloon gastronomy still has to achieve the ethereal heights of ‘haute cuisine’, there is a band of talented chefs who have started along that long, tortuous road, shining a beacon into the future for the next generation. Unfortunately, there just is not that essential intellectual component that is so necessary to achieve international recognition for what these brave chefs are doing. And there are even a host of interesting things to discover in what can only be called Walloon fast-food, such as the “mitraillette”, an irresistible French-fries sandwich, that has become a veritable cultural symbol for teenagers. But best of all is the good old Sunday lunch, served in a typically unpretentious restaurant, where the menu features the latest in fashionable food, but without all the hoopla and publicity generated by anorexic press attachées dressed all in black, even if she isn’t wearing Prada high heels. What these simple, homely restaurants have been practising for decades is the now hip term known as ‘locavorism’, or more commonly, carbon zero consumption. But for them it is nothing exceptional, it is just daily life. In the town square of Nivelles everyone eats chard flans “Al d’jote”, while over in Saint-Hubert, the local speciality is charcuteries from the Ardennes. It is all so obvious. Why? Because here in our country, everything always happens around a table, a bar, a mug of beer, a pint, a drink, a cup of coffee or a “pipe gaumaise” dry sausage.
Once you get to know the flavours of Wallonia you will love them and never forget them, because you have discovered these unique tastes, they stay with you, impregnated on your taste buds. The person who has never sipped an Orval beer on a rainy day in autumn, sitting beside a warm fireplace, his elbow resting on a thick black wooden table, wearing a sopping sweater after a walk in the beating rain, does not really know what our region is all about. The person who has never devoured a “truite au bleu” poached trout, accompanied by a glass of dry white wine, maybe from the nearby vineyards of Luxemburg, on a spring day when an elusive sun hesitates to dart its rays for fear their tips will be frozen off, does not really know where our area is. The person who has never heard the rat-a-tat of a carnival drum echoing from wall to wall through the narrow streets of a small town on a freezing cold morning on Shrove Tuesday, before eating, shivering, a “pistolet à l’américain” beef tartare sandwich, does not really know what is a true carnival. Because here in our country, everything always happens around a table, a bar, a mug of beer, a pint, a drink, a cup of coffee or a Gille de Binche.