This Country is Killing It in Carbs
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There should be an old saying, “If you’re gonna binge eat, binge eat in Belgium.” The Battleground of Europe is also the comfort food capital of the continent. Chocolate, fries, waffles, beer, etc.—name the carbohydrate and you can find it at its best in Belgium. It’s the ultimate destination for travellers looking to cheat on their diets, indulge before starting a diet, or celebrate the end of a diet.
According to the World Health Organization, approximately 50 percent of our energy intake should come from carbohydrates. If you’re on a 2,000 calorie a day diet, that’s around 250 grams of carbohydrates, or better put, one chocolate hazelnut truffle, a small serving of fries smothered in mayo and a Belgian waffle topped with strawberries all washed down with a big cold glass of Belgian beer. But it’s not just about the number of carbohydrates. It’s about quality, something Belgium—particularly its Flanders region in the north—serves without pretense.
Ghana isn’t the first place that comes to mind when we think “chocolate.” But in the 1880s, the Gold Coast was the source of the cacao beans that birthed Belgium’s most beloved chocolate brand, Cote D’Or.
Today, Cote D’Or’s bars are sold on every continent with stores. Still, they’re best enjoyed in Belgium where chocolate isn’t a sweet, it’s a staple. For example, if you order a coffee in Belgium, there’s a good chance it will come with a chocolate on the side. At a sit-down restaurant, it will probably be a praline—the first chocolate with a soft filling, invented in Belgium in 1912. At fast food places like Exki—a Belgian chain of healthy quick-service restaurants—it’s a glass bin filled with mini chocolate bars you can help yourself to. Belgians don’t abuse the complimentary chocolate. Again, respect quality, not quantity.
Belgium’s love affair with chocolate dates back to 1635 when the Spanish ruling Belgium brought back chocolate from South America. Today, nearly 8.5 percent of Belgium’s workforce is employed in the chocolate industry—home to more than 2,000 chocolatiers, according to the Association of Chocolate, Biscuit and Confectionery Industries of Europe. Belgium’s best known chocolatier, outside of the country, is Godiva, one of the official chocolatiers of the Royal Court of Belgium since 1968. But any serious chocolate aficionado knows Bruges is the motherland of mom and pop chocolate shops.
In Bruges, one of the most underrated European cities, travellers can suck on a chocolate skull from Chocolate Line, a newer-age shop known for unheard of flavors like Asian confetti, fried onion, sake, and Havana—a ganache reminiscent of Cuban tobacco leaves.
Bruges is also home to Dumon, a family-owned chocolatier serving an extensive array of Stevia-sweetened chocolates from a 400-year-old building. Just a four-minute stroll from Dumon, and also housed in a medieval building, chocoholics can travel back in time at the Choco-Story chocolate museum. It showcases the history of chocolate, from bean to bar, in a variety of exhibits and demonstrations that conclude with a tasting. Admission is €8, but for another €5, you can get a combo ticket that includes Choco-Story and the neighboring museum of French fries.
If you think French fries originated in France, blame the Americans. During WWI, American soldiers fighting in Belgium were introduced to the salty snack enjoyed by their Belgian counterparts. Since French was the official language of the Belgian Army, the Americans called them French fries, and a worldwide obsession was born. Today, it’s hard to walk down a main street block in Belgium without passing a fry stand or two. It’s even harder to walk by said fry stand without stopping for a cone of piping hot, twice-fried potatoes.
In Belgium, fries aren’t a snack. They’re an entrée. Moules-frites, or mussels served with fries, is commonly considered the national dish of Belgium. If a McDonald’s medium-sized fries has 48 grams of carbs, you can expect a small serving in Belgium to set you back at least 50 grams, or one-fifth of your daily allotment for carbs. The country’s more than 10,000 fry vendors are famous for their generous portions. At Maison Antoinne—one of Brussels most popular purveyors of fries—customers can choose to top them (€3 for a large) with more than 15 sauces including curry ketchup, Brazil, chicken sauce and every Belgian’s go-to sauce, mayonnaise. Of course, Belgian fries are so tasty you don’t need sauce (often €0.80 extra).
The fries are made from sliced Bintje potatoes, a Dutch heirloom variety characterized by a nut-like flavour and yellow flesh. Of course, the magic happens when the potatoes are fried, cooled, and then fried again, in hot vegetable oil mixed with beef tallow or duck fat for added flavor. It’s also worth noting that unless you want to get a glare of disgust, you should order your fries without using the word French. After all, France isn’t the country that boasts the world’s only museum dedicated to fries. A visit to Bruges’ Fry Museum will show you where potatoes come from (Peru), how they got to Belgium (Spanish explorers) and ultimately, how they ended up becoming a cultural icon.
Belgium may not be credited with fries, but when it comes to waffles, it’s the first country that comes to mind. However, before they were known as Belgian waffles, they were Brussels waffles. The name change was the result of an attempt to market them to the rest of the world. It worked. Today, it’s one of the most beloved breakfast dishes in Western countries, even though Belgians don’t eat them for breakfast. In Belgium, waffles are street food. And in Belgium, they’re so good they don’t require lakes of maple syrup or a tower of whipped cream.
The secret to Belgian waffles is the batter. While American Belgian waffles are made with baking powder, Brussels waffles, also known as the waffles of the north, are leavened with yeast. The final product is a lighter waffle with crispier edges. Brussels waffles are also smaller, usually rectangle as opposed to round, and they’re meant to be eaten with fingers, not forks. For every potato fryer cranking out street-side snacks for tourists in Belgium, there’s a waffle iron doing the same. The Liege variety, considered the waffle of the south, is made using brioche batter featuring pastry flour, not bread flour, and pearl sugar—sizeable chunks of compressed sugar crystals that don’t entirely melt during baking. Instead, they caramelize to form a sweet crunch.
To learn the art of making both varieties, visit Waffle Workshop in Brussels. Each 90-minute class includes a waffle-themed walking tour and a cooking portion where aspiring waffle-makers can mix their own batter including gluten-free and vegan batters. To simply enjoy an expertly made waffle, head to Brussel’s most beloved landmark, Mannekin Pis—a 61-centimeter bronze statue of a urinating boy—and walk 190 meters north to Maison Dandoy, ranked #1 of 247 waffle spots reviewed on TripAdvisor. Unlike some waffle stands that precook and reheat their waffles, Maison Dandoy serves fresh waffles made to order. Sure, you may have to wait 30 minutes in line, but they’re worth every minute and the higher prices. A waffle on the street costs about €1; at Maison Dandoy, a plain waffle starts around €2.70. Toppings cost extra, but again, unlike their American counterparts, these waffles aren’t a vehicle for added flavors and textures. They’re the main attraction.
Truffles, fries and waffles are filling; but when you crave liquid carbs, Belgium also excels at a culinary Olympics level. In fact, in November 2016, Unesco added Belgium beer to its esteemed list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
The country is about 2.5 percent as big as South Africa but it has approximately the same number of breweries, around 200. With more than 1,500 different beers available, you wouldn’t have to drink the same beer twice within a time span of four years. Belgians are so serious about what distinguishes one beer from the next that some beers have their own specific glasses, and it’s considered sacrilegious to drink the wrong beer in the wrong glass.
Beer in Belgium dates back to the Middle Ages when monasteries in Flanders began
brewing beer because Belgium’s climate wasn’t conducive to growing grapes for wine. Over the centuries, the monks perfected the art of growing hops, and their beer culture crossed into the mainstream. Today, Belgium’s six surviving monastic breweries—three of which are in Flanders—produce some of the most sought after beers—known as Trappist beers—in the world. According to Beer Advocate, the number one beer in Belgium, as rated by more than 6,000 beer reviewers, is Trappist Westvleteren 12. RateBeer.com deemed this complex dark beer the “best in the world.” Because the monks produce a very limited quantity—only enough to provide them with the income they need for the year (and monks don’t require a lot of disposable income)—one bottle of Trapper Westvleteren 12 can cost up to $300 ZAR on the black market. The monks only sell beer from their monastery so reselling online is popular, albeit discouraged.
Serious beer aficionados can best experience Belgium’s beer culture by taking a guided tour. Belgian Beer Me! offers more than 15 distinct beer tours specializing in everything from lambics to ales and seasonal saisons. It’s also possible to do your own bar-hopping tour as long as you hire a driver or take public transportation (Belgium has one of the strictest drunk driving policies in Europe). You can also do the beer museum circuit. At the Brewery Museum in Brussels, centuries-old methods of brewing beer in old tankards are juxtaposed with modern methods including using computer science to streamline filtration and automate bottling. At the Bruges Beer Museum, built over a brewery dating back to the 12th Century, visitors use museum iPads to learn about the brewing process. They also get to hold, smell and taste every ingredient that goes into beer. But, perhaps the most overwhelming beer museum in Belgium is the Museum of Belgian Beers in Lustin. The small museum boasts collections of more than 21,000 beer bottles and 20,000 beer glasses. You can also flip through a book containing more than 16,000 Belgian beers and information on their breweries.
Still, it’s not about quantity in Belgium. Sure, there endless opportunities to go carb-crazy in this tiny country. But the reason there are so many chocolatiers, fry stands, waffle shops and breweries is because the unparalleled quality in these specific categories incites an unparalleled demand. Suffice to say, there is no better place to properly cheat on your diet, self-indulge after a particularly rough breakup or simply relish carbohydrates in their most glorious forms. Your taste buds will thank you—and they’ll do so much louder than the silent protests from your mid-section.