Think the Benelux countries. Think food. What comes to mind? Chips and waffles? A smoke and a pancake?
This summer I’ll be heading across the Benelux region to disprove these very myths.
The Benelux Economic Union formally came into being in 1944 but, historically, there’s a common heritage of local produce and traditional recipes to bond the three Benelux countries together.
And, as part of a new joint initiative between the Holland, Flanders and Luxembourg tourist boards, they’re ready to tell the world there’s more to lowland Europe than hackneyed stereotypes.
Traditional Benelux recipes, such as salt water fish waterzooi (a broth of fish and eggs) and Hustepot (braised pig trotters), have been passed down the generations from the Middle Ages. They draw on the farming tradition and seasonal produce of the region.
We still find them today but, in a region increasingly known for Michelin-starred restaurants, organic markets and celebrity chefs, they come with a contemporary twist – a common heritage blended with external influences.
That’s the angle I’m planning to explore.
It’s not the first time I’ve covered this region from a food angle. I’ve just writen a piece for The Independent about the cheese trail in Holland (watch this space for more details) and I wrote a story for the Financial Times a few years ago about the frituur culture (pictured above) of Flanders.
Here’s an extract – there’s no working link online:
The Flanders region of northern Belgium is home to the very finest frituurs, a simple, informal eatery and a Belgian institution, where master friars prepare superior fries and serve them in a paper cone. The best fries are prepared from Belgian Bintje potatoes, cut to a length of 11mm and fried twice for extra crispiness.
Antwerp alone boasts over 200 frituurs and they are seen as a place where people from walks of life can come together amongst Formica tables and plastic sauce dispensers to chew the fat.
“As a country with no obvious symbols of nationalism, the humble and improvised frituur is our only symbol. It reflects the ad-hoc nature of the Belgian personality, our indifference to aesthetics,” says Paul Ilegems, an art historian, who has devoted 25 years of his life to collecting images of the fried potato throughout history.
“Fries are originally Belgian with the term ‘French fries’ a corruption of the word,” he explains, handing me copies of his books to browse, amongst them Frietgeheimen (Secrets of the Fries) and Het Volkomen Frietboek (The Complete Fries Book). “The American slang term ‘to French’, meaning to cut into thin strips, was only brought to Europe by American troops after World War I,” he adds.
Keep reading for more details of commissions and trip plans. Meanwhile, please post your favourites place, top foodie tips and suggestions for places to visit or dishes to sample below.
I’d love to crowdsource some suggestions.