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26 Jan

Eupen. Look at all that ice!


For quite some time, I had wanted to visit the Ostkantone, or the Eastern Cantons, home of the Deutschsprachige Gemeinschaft Belgiens or the German-speaking community of Belgium. First, I had heard that a trip to this tiny region of 80,000 inhabitants, located adjacent to the German border, was quite dépaysant, a useful French expression which conveys far more than its English translation, a change of scenery. Second, I have been taking German lessons for the past few months, and I thought that a quick trip to the German-speaking portion of the country would give me a chance to flex my linguistic muscles. And most importantly, I chose to visit the Ostkantone because they were holding their annual Weihnachtsmarkt, or Christmas market; Christmas markets originated in German-speaking areas and I was excited to discover my first, what I expected to be, echt or authentic market. Furthermore, Eupen and surrounding areas, including the German city of Aachen located just over the border, are known for a Christmas-time specialty called Printen, or, in the one bakery that I visited, Beschwipste Printen, a variety of Printen that have been macerated in alcohol.

Christmas market.


Before I tell you about Printen, I’d like to tell you a bit more about Eupen and the Ostkantone. Originally a part of Germany, the 9 communes that form the German community of Belgium were annexed by Belgium in the Treaty of Versailles, following the First World War. Belgium had a rather tenuous hold on the region, and soon after annexation, Belgium actually discussed selling the region back to Germany for financial profit, in an effort to improve the finances of the rather cash-strapped country, though the deal never took place. This all became a moot point anyway, when Germany took back the region in 1940. Following the Second World War, the region returned to Belgium and has been Belgian ever since, and the Deutschsprachige Gemeinschaft Belgiens is now one of the world’s best-protected linguistic minorities, enjoying a fair amount of autonomy, with their own parliament, government, and so forth. It is often said that the German community is the happiest of the three linguistic communities in Belgium, as they do not take part in the hostilities between the French-speakers and the Flemish.

While I look forward to returning to the region for the famous Rosenmontag festivities just preceding Lent, I must say that I didn’t visit Eupen on its best day. It was hideously cold outside, covered with fog, and the trip began poorly when I slid and slipped on the ice-covered train platform. Unfortunately, the streets were so slippery that I walked around like an old, infirm man who had lost his cane, testing out the ground for black ice before I put each foot down. Though I confess I didn’t see very much of Eupen, the town seemed quite charming, with any number of Tante-Emma-Läden, or small shops selling local goods, to be found on its winding cobble-stoned streets.

Market and shops, complete with icy cobblestones.


What’s more, I found the Weihnachtsmarkt to be quite disappointing. While I was expecting a large market thronged with tourists and stuffed with stalls/ decorations in the manner of the famous German markets, I actually happened upon a small market filled with locals: one stall was occupied by the local massage parlor selling essential oils and offering gift-certificates for various therapeutic treatments, another sold doilies and bedding for old ladies, and so on. I had the impression that I was the only ‘outsider’ there, as everyone, market seller and market goer included, seemed to know each other! Fortunately, the market had two wonderful places that ‘redeemed’ its interest in my eyes: a delectable-smelling bratwurst stall selling piping hot sausages (mmmmm) and another stall selling hot white wine, cooked over a roaring fire and laced with Cointreau. In the bitter cold, a large glass of the hot white wine accompanied by a huge sausage, slathered with Curry-ketchup, was heaven itself.

Hot wine with Cointreau!


Sausages. I know it isn't techically a dessert, but who cares! mmmmmmmm.


Temporarily sated from my visit to the market, I set out to look for Printen, and soon found the most famous bakery in the Ostkantone, Kockartz, known for Printen. Indeed, there were oodles of them, in all kinds of flavors: the Beschwipste Printen macerated in alcohol, orange-flavoured, almond-flavoured, chocolate-covered with hazelnut, general spice Printen, and so on. A bit overwhelmed with the great variety of Printen, I purchased the plain Kraüter Printen (with just a mixture of spices) and also the chocolate-covered variety. So what are Printen exactly? Printen are a type of soft spice cookie in the Lebkuchen family, a type of German cookie generally associated with Christmas. Though, as I’ve stated, many varieties exist, the Printen are usually flavoured with a variety of spices, including cloves, aniseed, nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon, und so weiter.

Printen, including the Kraüter Printen and chocolate/hazelnut-covered variety.

The Printen look slightly similar to speculoos in both texture and shape, and I must admit that I was highly disappointed to bite into what I thought would be crunchy and delicate but what turned out to be rather mushy and uninspiring, with a rather bitter aftertaste from the mixture of cloves and aniseed. Taste is, after all, an intimately personal affair, and while I have no doubt that these Printen were well made, I didn’t enjoy eating them at all. For me, it was an unhappy middle ground between gingerbread or pain d’épices – which can be lovely, especially when grilled with melted butter – and speculoos – which I adore. I lost no time in finding friends on whom to palm off my Printen, marketing them as an exciting Christmas treat. Fortunately enough, my friends, accustomed to me stuffing them with desserts on a regular basis, seemed to enjoy my offerings. What’s more, I found a cookie that I don’t actually enjoy: one fewer fattening temptation for me!

Jedem Tierchen sein Pläsierchen, to each his own!


Liège (Belgium)

27 Dec


First of all, I’d like to apologize to my faithful blog readers for the lack of articles published recently. As December is concert-going season, I’ve been quite busy playing opera most nights, and my days have been more or less filled with the usual holiday odds-and-ends, and especially with baking. Mmmmm. Combine a hectic schedule with prolonged wintry weather, and suddenly mobility – as well as time to write – comes to a halt. That being said, I was able to visit two dessert destinations this month, Liège and Eupen (stay tuned for the Eupener post).

I must admit that my trip to Liège was more or less completely unplanned, as I had very little desire to go there. Having never visited the German-speaking portion of Belgium, I was more excited about the Weinachtsmarkt in Eupen, but I discovered that the market didn’t open until mid-afternoon and I needed to go somewhere in the mean time. Liège, the only stop on the train from Brussels to Eupen that I hadn’t already visited, was the logical place to hang out for a few hours, whilst I waited for what I thought would be a bratwurst- and küchen-filled Germanic paradise. I’m thrilled that I made this unplanned stop in Liège, as I quite enjoyed the city, and the trip to Eupen proved to be most disappointing (but more on that in another post).

For those of you unfamiliar with Liège, or with Belgian politics, let me just explain that Liège – or Lièèèèèèèèèèèèètch, pronounced with the rather rustic local accent – does not at all enjoy a positive reputation. A former industrial powerhouse having been subject to urban decay for the past 50 years or so, Liège is known to most in Belgium – especially those from Brussels or from Flanders – as a complete dump. Second largest city in French-speaking Wallonia after Charleroi, the city is and always has been run by the notoriously corruption-plagued Parti Socialiste. The alcohol-infused speeches of Liège’s most famous and popular politican, Michael Daerden, known in these parts as Papa, do not help matters much, especially as YouTube has made Daerden famous around the globe. Here’s an example:

Despite the negative things I might have heard about Liège, the city is quite famous for its food (anything with the word liégeois in the title, such as café liégeois, gaufres liégeoises or salade liégeoise, usually is extraordinarily unhealthy but quite tasty!), so I decided to walk around the city for a few hours before heading to Eupen. The cité ardente, or ardent city, is also well-known for its high consumption of alcohol, so I thought, well, at least I could have a waffle and maybe a beer or two before heading on to something better.

Pèket, a type of Jenever, available at the Liège Christmas market.


I could not have been more pleasantly surprised. My first impressions of the city were excellent. The newly renovated Liège-Guillemins train station, designed by the world-famous Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, is quite simply breath-taking. It is difficult to describe the sensation of airiness and space that one feels in the station, but to me arriving in the station felt like I was heading directly into a highly-structured cloud, bizarre as that may sound. In any case, I could NOT stop taking pictures of the station, both from inside and out.

The fantastic Liège-Guillemins station.


Once I managed to tear myself away from the gorgeous station, I decided to head to the pedestrian heart of the city, the central part of which is known as the Carré (square, in English), a 100×100 meter maze of streets. Gently strolling down the long hill upon which the station is situated, I soon came across the lovely Parc d’Avroy, complete with pond, and flanked by handsome apartment buildings. This was not the dank, unpleasant city that I had so often heard about! Ambling quite happily through the park – in spite of the glacial wind – I soon came to the heart of Liège, bustling with holiday shoppers.

Parc d'Avroy and nice buildings.


As I wandered through the festively decorated pedestrian streets, another of my preconceptions about the city was immediately proven wrong. First and foremost, I was surprised that there were so many Flemish people wandering about. If I were to believe the francophone Belgian media, Flemish people never deign to enter Wallonia, except maybe to go on vacation in the beautiful forests of the Ardenne(s) or perhaps to experience the Charleroi Adventure, a safari through Wallonia’s largest city, believed by the Flemish to be the ugliest city in the world. However, almost everyone around me on a cold December Saturday was babbling away in Flemish! Most of them happened to be older women, and so I suspect that they were in town to see the Christmas market, one of Europe’s largest, but I was nonetheless highly surprised to hear so much Flemish spoken in what is often known as a bastion of Francophone culture.

A representative selection of the Christmas market shoppers.


For, I had always been told that Liège is quite ‘typically French.’ To quote Flemish chef Ruth van Waerebeek’s cookbook Everyone Eats Well in Belgium,  “So much is francophile Liège influenced by Paris that many Belgians feel that visiting Liège is almost as good as going abroad.” Though I think that both her cookbook and her viewpoints are much more Flemish than Belgian, she is correct: Liège felt very different from the other places I had been in Belgium. However, rather than believing myself to be France, I had the sensation that I was in a French-speaking Germany, the city’s rather stylish pedestrian areas and main square, the Place Saint Lambert, reminding me of the German Fuβgängerzonen and its architecture looking decidedly teutonic. Indeed, the German border and the large city of Aachen are located only a few kilometers away from Liège, so this Germanic impression is quite logical.

Charming and Germanic-looking Liège.


However, I’m pleased to report that the one positive stereotype I’d heard about the city – its wonderful food – was entirely correct. Though my stay in the city was a short one – and believe me, I’m looking forward to another trip to Liège – I was able to taste a variety dessert specialties, including the world-famous Liège waffles, a type of crèpe known as boukète, two types of marzipan (massepin cuit and lettres farcies), and melocakes, found throughout Belgium. This post is simply an introduction to my trip to Liège, as I prefer to devote a post to each one of these desserts. In the meantime, I’ll simply say that I left Liège with a smile on my face and a pleasantly full stomach.

Everything IS good in Liège! (well, as far as food is concerned!)


Sometimes, unexpected pleasures are the best!

Be careful not to eat or drink too much in Liège, or else.....

Smoutebollen (Belgium)

5 Dec

The Brussels Winter Wonders festival

Christmas is rapidly approaching, and in this part of Europe, December also means Christmas market season. Over the next few weeks, I will head to a few of the more well-known holiday markets, namely those of Eupen (Belgium) and Liège (Belgium), but I’ll begin my Christmas market travels just a stone’s throw from my apartment, where one of Europe’s largest and most distinctive Christmas markets is to be found. The Brussels Winter Wonders’ Festival – surrounding the Place Sainte-Catherine, the Bourse, and the Grand-Place –  is truly gigantic, with more than 240 market stalls, an ice-skating rink, a ferris wheel, a light show, a luge, several concert venues, and in a particularly bizarre holiday spirit – by now, you’ll have realized that Belgium is a most unusual country – a gigantic child-eating inflated dinosaur designed to scare the living daylights out of passersby.

The scary dinosaur. Christmas carols, anyone?

Unfortunately, the weather has been absurdly miserable this year, and I haven’t spent as much time at the market as I would like. A recent snow-and-ice storm, accompanied by bitter, damp cold, has made spending time outdoors a most treacherous and unpleasant activity. I’m told that more reasonable temperatures will return in a few days, and I welcome them wholeheartedly, but for the moment time is best spent inside, shivering under a blanket with a warm drink and a few tasty desserts to improve the general mood.

Horrible winter weather in Brussels. Brrrrr.

That being said, Christmas markets are a wonderful place to discover local specialties, as many of the vendors travel from villages across the country and northern Europe. In particular, several desserts are mostly consumed around this time of year, namely (and stay posted for future articles) bouquete in Liège, beschwipste Printe in Eupen, cougnoux throughout Wallonia, and so forth. These sweets are happily gobbled up on stools and bar tables in front of market stalls, the seductive smells and beckoning warmth having attracted frozen customers like moths to a flame.

Today I’d like to tell you about one such Christmas specialty, found throughout Belgium, the Netherlands, and even the north of France. But nowhere is it more common than in Brussels: the smoutebollen, literally translated from Flemish as ‘lard balls.’ Though the name might seem unpalatable – and indeed, the smoutebollen are alternatively known as oliebollen (oil balls) or in French, as croustillants, (crunchies) – the smoutebollen are extraordinarily tasty, the perfect antidote to freezing winter weather.

Waiting for my smoutebollen. MMMM.

Sometimes simple pleasures are the most enjoyable, and the smoutebollen are indeed not at all complicated: they are simply balls of dough – anywhere from the size of a golf ball to that of a tennis ball – that have been deep fat-fried and doused in powdered sugar, to be devoured whilst they are piping hot. The dough itself is perfectly straightforward: flour, egg, baking powder, sugar, butter, and – the secret ingredient – blond pils-type beer, which adds depth of flavor and a hint of yeastiness to the batter. In recent years, tarted-up versions of smoutebollen can be found in the Brussels Christmas markets, including those stuffed with a variety of fillings, from apple to chocolate to speculoos (see photographs of the speculoos-filled smoutebollen).

Smoutebollen. Note the golden color.

Though these ‘sophisticated’ versions of the smoutebollen are indeed pleasant, I very much prefer the plain examples. A simple bite, and an orgy of taste descends upon the tongue. A crunchy, greasy outer layer yields to a dense core of buttery dough. The whole thing is so lip-smackingly delicious that you’ll soon be reaching in the cone-shaped bag for another; careful though, don’t eat too many! These little balls of fat expand quickly in your stomach, and the combination of fat and oil aids digestion, if you catch my drift….

Nonetheless, accompanied by another traditional Christmas market item, some vin chaud or mulled wine, the smoutebollen are a wonderful way to survive the winter chill, and, enjoyed once a year, will bring holiday spirit to even the most determined of Christmas curmudgeons. Bon appétit and joyeux Noël!

Speculoos-filled smoutebol. Yum.

Smoutebollen recipe
You’ll need a deep-fat fryer for this recipe. Almost everyone in Belgium has one.

  • 200g sifted flour
  • 15g baking powder/baker’s yeast
  • 10cl blond beer (pils type)
  • 750ml whole milk
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp caster sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 25g unsalted butter
  • powdered sugar

Melt the butter in a small pan. Take off the heat and set aside.

Place the milk in a medium-sized pan and heat it on low. Make the milk luke-warm, and then dissolve the baking powder/yeast in the milk. Then add the flour bit by bit and stir vigorously with the help of a whisk. Set aside.

Separate the egg yolk and white. Set aside.

Then add to the milk mixture: salt, caster sugar, egg yolk, beer. Whisk. Once the mixture is smooth, add the butter in installements. Beat well. Set aside.

Whisk the egg white with an electric mixer or by hand until it forms soft peaks. Then fold the egg white into the batter in several installements with wooden spatula. Make sure everything is well-mixed.

Cover the dough and let it sit for approx. 90 min. The dough should double in size.

Then heat the oil in the deep-fat fryer to 180°c/360°F. Mix the dough again after it has had time to rise.

With a tablespoon, form small balls of dough and place them one by one in the fryer. Let them fry for about a minute. After a minute, turn them over with a strainer and let them fry for 1 more minute. Once they have turned a nice golden color, remove them from the fryer and drain any excess oil. I recommend placing them on paper towels to soak up any extra oil.

Then cover with powdered sugar. Enjoy.

Me, shivering in the cold, with a package of delectable smoutebollen. Eyes on the prize!