Tag Archives: Christmas market

Eupen

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!

Advertisements

Boukète, Liège (Belgium)

28 Dec

Boukète, next to the crêpe with Nutella.

 

After my brisk walk from the Liège-Guillemins station to the center of Liège, I was feeling a tad peckish and in need of a nice mid-morning snack. The streets of the Carré and surrounding areas were in holiday mood, and the Village de Noël was in full swing, so I decided that the best place to find something tasty would be at one of the many market stalls, found either surrounding the holiday ice-skating rink in the Place de la Cathédrale or a few streets away in Liège’s main square, the Place St Lambert.

While many of the Christmas markets I’ve been to seem to specialize mostly in selling cheap tat, I was pleased to discover that in Liège, the market was quite different. I thought to myself, Liège has the right idea, for the city’s reputation as a food-and-drink loving place was certainly à l’honneur here: the stalls seemed to simply ooze with a mind-boggling collection of fattening foodstuffs and heavily alcoholic beverages. Though I arrived at the market at a mere 11 o’clock in the morning – in most places, even in Belgium, considered a bit too early to tuck in to a hearty portion of fries or to down the first beer of the day – the stalls were filled with market-goers happily guzzling beer and pekèt, a locally distilled jenever mostly served in shot-glass form. As these customers imbibed, they also availed themselves of the many foods available at the market: huge sausages served with onions, giant portions of fries, smoutebollen (here known as croustillants), waffles, crêpes, churros, empanadas, massepain….

 

Traditional Liégeois waistline.

 

Though I tried to convince myself that I should follow the locals’ example and have a nice heavy dish, I was more in the mood for a light snack to tide me over until I could sit down for a more hearty lunchtime meal. I decided that a crêpe would be perfect. But not just any crêpe: a boukète, a Liégeois specialty, would be my selection of choice. Typically consumed either at the Fête du 15 Août, the traditional celebration of Liège, or around Christmas-time, the boukète is a simple buckwheat-and-egg crêpe, pan-fried with a bit of lard, and covered with plump Corinthian raisins and dusted with cane sugar. Alternatively, the boukète is filled with sirop de Liège, a form of apple and pear butter that I find to be diabetes-inducingly sweet, but fortunately there was none to be found in the delicious crêpe at the Christmas market stall.

 

Preparing the boukète.

 

Formerly known as the ‘boukète à rètchon‘ or ‘spit crêpe’ in Wallon, referring to the rather disgusting way that crêpe makers used to spit in the pan to make sure it was hot before pouring in the dough, boukète is derived from the Dutch ‘boekweit,’ or buckwheat in English. Often used in savory crêpes in France, buckwheat creates a mixture much less sweet than the traditional crêpe dough, made using plain flour, milk, butter, eggs and sugar. Pairing the more savory buckwheat with a dusting of sugar is a lovely combination, as the sugar provides just a smidgen of sweetness, without becoming overpowering. Though I’m not at all a fan of raisins (see my post on the cramique bread), the Corinthian raisins in the boukète I tried were plump and juicy, and did not have the gnarly, chewy texture that I so dislike. Indeed, they burst with flavor in such a way that I suspect that they had been soaked in liqueur for a few hours, which is generally the only way that I’ll even consider eating raisins. The boukète is thus simple but tasty, and I very much enjoyed the subtle layering of textures: the eggy smoothness of the crêpe, the juicy, yielding flesh of the raisin, and the oomphy crunch of the cane sugar.

As the crêpe mixture used to make boukète is fairly standard, I will not provide a recipe here. If you desire to make boukète at home, simply substitute regular flour for buckwheat in your dough, soak juicy raisins in liqueur (preferably rum or a white eau-de-vie) for as long as possible, and dust the whole thing with brown sugar. Voilà!

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!