My first and only visit to Belgium was with my brother Ryan about ten years ago. He and I were on a road trip through Germany and decided that we were so close to Belgium we simply had to take a detour and visit.We drove through the Ardennes, stopping at Bastogne, Foy, and other places I knew from my years of reading World War II history. Then we drove north, parallel to the Wanze area.
It was like driving through a picture book of stone churches, country cottages and tidy farms. As we drove through the rolling hills and dense forests, we were mesmerized by the beauty of the Belgian countryside and kept stopping for photos, chocolate-filled croissants and strolls along cobbled streets.
I smile to think of the Tour De France cyclists pedaling madly through those places now, and wish I was with them only going much, much slower.
Wanze, which means marshland, is in the Meuse Valley built along the River Mehaigne.
Wanze was first mentioned in 1127. Over the next several hundred years, it suffered through battles, sackings and burnings as the gentry tussled over rights of ownership and power. By the 1800’s things had settled down and in 1812 Belgium’s first sugar mill was installed. (See below) By the end of the century it was the largest in Europe, attracting immigrant workers from all over. Nowadays Wanze is home to BioWanze, the most innovating sugar refinery on the Continent.
Wanze is remaking itself as an eco-tourism destination with walking trails that wend their way to the ruins of an ancient castle and a Cycle Museum that features 160 bicycles from as far back as 1830.
When I think of Belgian food I think of two things: pomme frites (French fries) and endive.
French Fries actually originated in Belgium. A Belgian journalist noted in 1680 that country people in the Meuse Valley were making these fried potatoes. Allegedly they used to serve tiny fried fish with their meals, but when the river froze they substituted fried potatoes.
Belgian pomme frites are made especially crispy and delicious by double-frying. The first dunking ensures the potatoes are cooked. After they are salted and cooled, the frites are returned to the hot oil and fried one minute longer to brown and crisp. Although Americans traditionally dip them in ketchup and my Canadian countrymen douse them in gravy, Belgians dip them in mayonnaise. A decadent topping to be sure.
I had never cooked endive before conducting research for this post, and was delighted to find them in the specialty food section of the local grocery store.
One of the most popular Belgian endive dishes is a gratin.
I gently boiled the endive in salted water until tender, then let them drain and cool slightly. While they cooled I made a simple bechamel sauce with nutmeg and stirred in a small mountain of Swiss cheese. I wrapped the endive in thinly sliced ham, then nestled them into a buttered baking dish. I poured the sauce over and baked it for 20 minutes until heated through and bubbling. Pulling it out I topped it with more Swiss cheese and set it under the broiler until the cheese was browned beautifully.
I am now a huge fan of endive (or is it the cheese??). I was going to save it to use for my lunches this week, but it was so delicious I only have enough left over for one more meal.
Pop over to the other blogs featuring each stage of the Tour de France:
Stage Two: My Kitchen Treasures: Brussels – Spa
Stage Four: Strayed from the Table: Cambrai-Reims
This is my contribution to Wanderfood Wednesday.
Belgian Pomme Frites
3-4 potatoes, peeled, rinsed in salt water and patted dry
- Heat oil in deep saucepan over medium-high heat about 5-7 minutes.
- Place dry potatoes in oil and let cook for 5-6 minutes. Remove with slotted spoon and let drain and cool on paper towels. Sprinkle with salt right away.
- When cool, return potatoes to hot oil and cook for 1-2 minutes more until they are golden brown. Remove with slotted spoon and let drain on paper towels. Salt again if necessary.
Belgian Endive Gratin
6 endive, washed and outer leaves removed. Trim bottoms.
2 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp flour
1 cup milk
1/8 tsp grated nutmeg
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup grated Swiss Cheese
6 slices prosciutto or other thinly sliced ham
1/2 cup grated Swiss Cheese
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
- Bring pot of salted water to boil and cook endive 8-10 minutes until tender. Remove to colander and drain.
- In saucepan melt butter over medium heat. Stir in flour and keep stirring until mixture browns. Add milk and stir until mixture thickens. Add nutmeg, pepper, salt and first measure of cheese.
- Wrap each endive in one slice prosciutto. Lay in buttered baking dish.
- Pour cheese sauce over endive. Place in oven and bake 20 minutes.
- Top with remaining measure of cheese. Place under broiler for 2-3 minutes or until cheese is golden brown. Serve immediately.