For the next few posts, I’ll be exploring the specialties in and around Brussels, for a variety of reasons. First, I live here in Brussels, and my current work schedule is quite hectic. Second, after ten days of more or less non-stop rain, much of Belgium – including the lovely Geraardsbergen that I visited in my last post - is flooded, which discourages me from venturing very far. Finally, and most importantly, there are some lovely treats to be found here in Brussels. Many of these desserts are virtually unknown outside of Belgium, and even I had never sampled many of them before beginning my research.
When planning my Destination Dessert blog it didn’t occur to me that my adventures could begin so close to my home, but upon further reflexion I realized that while I readily gorge myself with various and sundry desserts in other cities, I rarely seek them out in Brussels. Why? A few reasons come to mind: a) I don’t want to become obese, and so I need to retain at least a semblance of self-control b) dessert should be a special pleasure, and not an obligatory quotidian activity c) I often bake if I want something sweet and d) many of the desserts available in my neighborhood are simply not to my taste. Taste is, after all, intimately personal.
That being said, my first bruxellois destination, located just a few blocks’ walk from my apartment, is most enjoyable. Dandoy, located just steps from the famous Grand-Place, is a veritable temple of Belgian specialties. Delicacies available at Dandoy include a variety of cookies, such as speculoos, pain d’amandes, and dentelles de Bruges, as well as bread such as pain d’épices (gingerbread) and pain à la grecque, the subject of today’s article. My next post will also feature Dandoy, and two of my favorite goûters: speculoos and pain d’amandes.
Located in the heart of Brussels since 1829, Dandoy has enjoyed an excellent reputation since its opening. Apparently, even Charles Baudelaire was an enthusiastic client during his time in Brussels, which is most surprising as anyone familiar with Baudelaire will know that he simply loathed Belgium. Indeed, in his aggressively virulent pamphlet Pauvre Belgique, or Poor Belgium, he called the country a bâton de merde or in plain English, a sh*t stick. Given what truculent old Charles has to say about Belgium, his praise of Dandoy seems that much more impressive, no?
Dandoy has also endured throughout the years: during the Second World War, rationing meant that the production of pastries and most baked goods were forbidden, forcing most bakeries to close. Fortunately, Dandoy survived; the bakery was allowed to use flour for the production of their biscottes or zwieback biscuits. After the war, Dandoy resumed and expanded production of their various baked goods, becoming the internationally-known biscuiterie that it is today.
One of their most famous specialties, and one that I have never seen available anywhere else, is pain à la grecque, or, Greek bread in English. The name is quite odd, as the bread has nothing to do with Greece or Greek origins. Where does the name come from? I learned a bit about the history of the bread in an article from Le Soir. Pain à la grecque is quite simply a mistranslation from the Flemish Brusseleir dialect bruut van de Grecht. In the 16th century, Augustine monks from the nearby Wolvengracht (Wolfgrecht/gracht in Brusseleir, also known as Fossé-aux-loups in French) – today located next to the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie – distributed this bruut van de Grecht to the poor. Over time, as more and more non-Flemish speaking French speakers settled in Brussels, the bread became known as pain à la grecque, since to them grecque sounded like Grecht.
What is this pain à la grecque, then? The ingredients, a list of which Dandoy places in the display window of their shop, are very simple: flour, sugar, milk, butter, baking powder, salt, and spices (which include a generous dose of cinnamon). The fabrication also seems deceptively simple: the pain à la grecque is basically an inch-thick mini-loaf of sweetened bread, coated with layer of nib sugar and brushed as soon as it leaves the oven with a simple sugar syrup.
Ah, but the taste! A generous bite into the bread reveals a slightly chewy interior with a cautious explosion of cinnamon and brown sugar, a crispier exterior made deliciously flavorful by the sugar syrup, and a pleasantly crunchy top layer from the nib sugar. The end result is a satisfying and not-too-sweet treat that makes for a perfect afternoon snack. In the following post, you will see that I have included a recipe for the pain à la grecque, which I adapted from several recipes I consulted. I made the recipe myself, and though my homemade versions were certainly tasty, I found that I did not appreciate them as much as the pain à la grecque I occasionally purchase from Dandoy. Indeed, what I enjoy most is going to the shop on a sleepy Saturday afternoon, picking out a few pain à la grecque, and then happily munching on them as I stroll around the Grand Place and neighboring streets. I always purchase two of them, because after finishing my first, I immediately have a hankering for seconds. But then again, as the French say, jamais deux sans trois…..
There is a time and place for everything, I suppose, and sometimes the way a dessert is enjoyed can be equally important as the dessert itself.