As someone who believes food exemplifies the titular sentiment, the food of Belgium was no exception. During our short but eventful study-abroad in the Belgian region closest to the North Sea, our group relied primarily on local restaurants and the occasional fast-food joint to meet our dietary needs. While eating out proved more costly, these restaurants revealed to us an array of either hearty or aquatic cuisine. Based on the prior reading of a provided cultural guide, I entered the country knowing the national culinary identity of northern Belgium consisted of Flemish stew, meatballs, mussels, fries, waffles, and chocolate.
I had the opportunity to try a hearty and warming Flemish stew while visiting one of the few restaurants that sold the world-renowned Trappist ale West Vleteren 12. Days later, I would have homemade meatballs at a smaller family-owned restaurant. Our instructors scheduled these meals, so I had the privilege of sharing lunch with my peers. In a way, these hearty meals reflected the influence of Belgian beer culture. The complex, dark, and fruity Belgian Dubbels and Quadrupels paired excellently with the simple, yet savory stews and beef-based meals. The simplicity of these meals reflected the spotlight beer receives in Belgium. The combination of beer and food seemed refined by time, developing together throughout the history of Belgium. However, the true star of Belgian cuisine originated from the North Sea.
In yet another lovely plaza in Bruges, two kilograms of mussels found their way to our table, dwarfing the Leffe Braun I ordered. Only twenty miles from the North Sea, the freshness of Belgian seafood was evident. Cities with direct waterway access to the sea, such as Bruges and Ghent, had an abundance of wonderful fish, shellfish, and mollusks. This surplus enabled me to try not just mussels for the first time, but also escargot, razor clams, and a basket of regionally caught fish and chips. The French fries caught me off-guard with how prevalent they were and how well they were prepared every time. Whether alongside fish, a steak, or a stew, the Belgian-made French fries routinely impressed. After each of these magnificent meals, my peers and I made concerted efforts to locate either a waffle shop or a chocolatier for desserts.
These treats, while delectable, were also highly customizable. Any number of toppings can decorate a waffle, and assortments of truffles and pralines line every chocolatier’s front window. I opted for a banana and Speculoos cookie butter waffle and had praline assortments from multiple artisan chocolatiers in Leuven and Brussels.
While our group often had a structured breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert, the wait between the meals was an adjustment. As someone accustomed to eating every two and a half hours with snacks throughout the day, I often found my stomach growling while on tour across Belgium. The six-hour advancement from Eastern Standard Time to Central European Time exasperated the issue. I adjusted quickly, however, and my increased appetite only made the already-delicious food taste that much better.