It's not every day that I get to say that I've recently traveled to a new country. This month, however, I am fortunate enough to have been able to explore 2 different cities in Belgium!
Living in Lille, France, Belgium is about a 45 minute drive away from my house. With public transit choices such as trains and buses, visiting the beautiful country of Belgium can be quite easy and inexpensive.
At the beginning of May, I explored the Brussels (Bruxels in French) and mid-May, I came back again to explore the incredible city of Bruges (Brugge in French). Both cities had nice little charms of their own, but what I really want to share with you about my experiences is something that's very near and dear to my heart: FOOD!
All joking aside, anyone who knows me knows how much I truly enjoy food. When I travel, I don't only make lists of important places that I want to see, but since my trip to Italy, I started making lists of foods that I want to try from each place that I visit. This has been incredibly successful for me, despite it putting on a bit of extra pressure to find exactly what I am looking for, but it has really given me an opportunity to literally get a taste for the culture and it's food - How cool is that?!
Here are the top foods that Belgium is famous for and what my experience was like, trying them:
I'm sure you've heard of "Belgian waffles" before. When you hear this name, I am curious as to what image comes to your mind. In France, a gaufre (waffle) refers to an extremely thin kind of waffle, which they often cover with a sweet spread then add another waffle on top. This is eaten as finger food or snack. The big, thick waffles they refer to as "gaufres Belqiue."
Belgium itself is famous for two specific types of waffles: the Liege Waffle and the Brussels waffle. Within the popular tourist areas, waffles seem to be sold on almost evey street corner.
The Leige Waffle was the first waffle that I tried in Brussels. I purchased one for €2, shortly after I arrived, and it was given to me in hand with a paper towel to hold and eat it, while I wandered around the city. It was much thinner than the Brussels waffle and seemed to be a bit more crunchy, with crystallized sugar inside. It was a nice, inexpensive treat to walk around with. In Bruges, I tried another Leige waffle, but this time I bought it topped with warm cherries and cream, which turned out to be another delicious way to eat it!
I purchased the Brussels Waffle the second day of my trip in Brussels. I bought it from another waffle shop in the main tourist area. The waffle shops displayed incredible looking waffles in the windows, to show off the different kinds of toppings available. For each customer, they warmed the waffles and added fresh toppings. The cost of the waffle itself was €2.50 and every topping that I added was an extra €1.50. I decided to add fresh cream and spéculoos flavoured sauce, bringing my waffle to €5.50. It ended up being too much cream for me to digest and I had wipe off about half of it, but it sure looked nice and tasted pretty darn good! I searched for Brussels waffles again in Bruges, but couldn't find any, which left me thinking that perhaps, in relation to the name, maybe they are only made in Brussels.
The final waffle that I tried isn't a famous one from Belgium, but rather one that I had read about online. It was a waffle with lunch-like toppings baked into it, called the Lunchwaf. I bought it from the Waffle Factory, which also happens to sell the regular waffles. The Waffle Factory is a food chain which I discovered is even in Lille, France. After a lot of exploring and desiring to grab something quick to eat, this waffle was the perfect choice. The one I ordered was called "The Texane," and it was filled with bacon, barbecue sauce, honey, cheddar and mozzarella. Yum!
I'm now questioning why us North Americans call fries "French Fries"? This is a very curious thing, as the origins of fries actually date back to Belgium. The second place that I stopped to pick up food in Brussels was a wee fast food restaurant called Manneken Frites. (Manneken, named after the famous fountain in the city of a little boy peeing, called "Manneken Pis") I can honestly say, that these were the best fries that I have ever eaten in my life! No wonder Belgium is famous for their fries! Unfortunately since then, I have been sadly disappointed by every other fry that I have tried. I bought my fries here for about €3 and it came with my choice of sauce. Upon asking for a recommendation I was suggested to try the tartar sauce. It was an interesting choice, not my favourite and there was a TON of it (I think they go big or go home in Belgium, with their portions of toppings: sauce, cream etc.) but beyond that, I can honestly say that the fries were just incredible. I had had some fries at a restaurant in Belguim another night, but they were nothing compared to the fries I tried on that first day. I think that if you are searching specifically for good fries, I would recommend going to a place that seems to specialize in fries or maybe has the word fries (frites) in its name.
Belgian chocolate: I know you've heard that one spoken about before. Chocolate and how it's made is very important to this country. As I wandered the streets, it seemed that no matter where I went, I could find chocolate shops everywhere. I went to a chocolate museum, which wasn't incredibly interesting to me, but it did, however, include a live demonstration on how to mold chocolate pralines (with a taste at the end of course). My favourite quote from the chocolateer was, "When you eat this chocolate don't just pop it into your mouth. Use your senses; smell it, listen to the sound when you bite into it, taste it. I made this chocolate with love, eat it with love."
Looking up what kinds of chocolates I must try, I read about 3 different "must tries," pralines, truffles and eclairs. The trend, with purchasing specific chocolates, is that you pick them and weigh them to find your final price. They seemed to range between €4ish-7ish per 100 grams, depending on where you went, so I took up the challenge to buy less from each store, but to purchase from multiple stores, so that I ended up with a bit more variety and more chocolates in the end. This gave me the chance to experience how each company made their chocolates. In Brussels I found a great deal where I could fill a box to the weight of 250 grams for about €7 - what a steal! Pralines are basically a hard cover of chocolates with a filling of some kind - cream, a liquid filling, caramel, and what seemed like a list of limitless possibilities. I also quite enjoyed the truffels that I bought - which again have a very unique flavour and make than the pralines. Before I left Brusses, I managed to buy a chocolate eclair, but I didn't love it as much as the pralines and eclairs and wouldn't necessarily include it on my list of must-try's.
"Mussels and fries, mussels and fries," was what I kept hearing about Belgium. It was like they were an inseparable meal, and despite not being a HUGE seafood fan, I decided to give mussels a try. During my search for a restaurant, I heard someone calling my name, and I turned around to see a friend of mine from Canada. We ended up finding somewhere to eat dinner together, and opted for a restaurant that sold both mussels and fries, along with a more "North American friendly" menu, called "Drug Opera". I had never, ever had mussels before in my life, so I had no idea what to expect. I found them to be okay - I didn't love them, didn't hate them, but also had no reference point as to what they were supposed to taste like. The fries were nothing, compared to what I had tried from the fry shop, but despite all this, I was very glad to get in my "mussels and fries' experience in Belgium!
Along with everything else, Belgium is also very famous for its beer. Delirium Café in Brussels, has made itself famous and in 2004 was entered in the Guinness Book of World Records for having 2,004 different kinds of beer available. I think the list has now grown to over 2,400. Wow, that's a lot of beer! Although beer is not one of my favourite things, I decided I would still get my "taste of the culture" and buy myself a little fruit flavoured beer from a bar that I found - I believe it was sour raspberry flavour. In Belgium, you can take your beers to go in a plastic take away cup, so I brought it along with me as I continued to explore the streets of the city. As I entered the bar to buy my beer, I was greeted by an Irish guy who worked there. After chatting for a few minutes, we discovered that we were both living similar lives; moving to a French speaking country, working in a bar, traveling Europe and experiencing the culture. There is something so unique about meeting someone who understands a portion of your life that so many others can't fully grasp.
There you have it! All of the famous "must-tries" of Belgium. It's a little bit hard to choose what I liked the most, but I think if you only have time to try one of these things, I'd say go for the waffles. You can get a lot of these things almost anywhere, certainly not at the same level of quality, but there are very few places that prepare and serve their waffles with such quality and with such variety of toppings as those incredible Belgian waffles. If you have the time though, I'd say you should try it all! Have you tried any of these things before? Tell me about your experience in the comments below!