EN VOYAGE – Postcard From Brussels

13 Jan 2004

The country of Manneken Pis, the famous statue of a small boy, is a place where you eat well—a place for ‘gluttons’ to use the language of Rabelais. You only need to look at Breughel’s work to see how Brabant-style feasting reigns supreme.

For centuries the Belgian capital has focused on trade, especially trade connected with indulgence in food and drink. Over a thousand years ago, the Senne, the attractive, fish-rich river of the future Brussels, formed several meanders enclosing small islands. Many water mills, dams and ponds were built on them, eventually leading to the economic, urban and social development of the city.
At the beginning of the Middle Ages, the Franks founded a farming village on these marshy islands, (particularly on the island of Saint-Géry) which became the nucleus of Belgium’s future capital.

Its inhabitants used the river for fishing and also for transport; from the 12th century the center of this large village, now assuming the aspect of a city, was a port. The town expanded over the years and trade flourished thanks to the local merchants living along the banks of the Senne.

Furthermore, Brussels gradually became an unavoidable staging post for all the goods moving along the trade route between Bruges, the largest port on the North Sea, and Cologne, the commercial center of Germany. The urbanization of Brussels intensified and in the 14th century there were many markets offering seafood, fruit and in particular, vegetables (such as endive and cauliflower) from the neighboring area of “Obbrussel” (the present-day Saint-Gilles-lez-Brussels).

Then, the 17th century saw intensive cultivation of the celebrated Brassica capitata polycephalos, the famous Brussels sprout, earning the inhabitants of this village the nickname of kuulkappers, or ‘cabbage cutters’.

The streets around the city’s majestic central square, the Grand Place, still bear witness to this commercial past. They have intriguing names: rue du Marché aux Volailles (Poultry Market Street), rue du Marché aux Herbes (Herb Market Street) and rue des Harengs (Herring Street), a street which in its time had its fair share of fish smells from the plentiful supplies of herring on the stalls of the fishermen’s guild. A document from 1315 in fact refers to this street with its Flemish name Haerinc strate.

The present rue des Bouchers (Butchers’ Street, which also includes the petite rue des Bouchers), was named ‘Vicus Carificum’ in a document from 1294, and referred to with its Flemish name Vleeshouwersstrate in 1364. In the Middle Ages this street was populated by merchants selling sausage, tripe and perhaps some authorized butchers, after an ordinance had expelled them from the tripe market (trade in beef was originally limited to the Grande Boucherie behind the Royal Palace, while butchers were only allowed to sell mutton).

From the 14th century, a large market occupied the Grande Place and its surrounding streets, giving rise to names such as rue du Beurre (Butter Street) and rue du Marché aux Poulets (Chicken Market Street), a food-focused tradition which continues to the present day, given that these streets are almost completely dedicated to restaurants and cafes.

The mixing of Walloon and Flemish culinary culture and traditions makes for a cuisine rich in flavors, found in dishes such as carbonnade flamande (Belgian beef stew), waterzooï chicken soup Ghent-style, trays of seafood or moules-frites (mussels with French fries), which in the rue des Bouchers can be found side by side with dishes with Eastern flavors and exotic aromas.

Brussels is a symbol of gastronomic culture and there are many examples of typical products, considering that Belgium is also a country renowned for cheese, chocolate and pralines, the home of tasty Brussels sprouts and a land of beer. The magnificent museum on the Grand Place reminds us that its annual beer production exceeds 10 million hectoliters, with a range unrivalled anywhere in the world, totaling 600 varieties, six of which are produced by Trappist monks. And then, of course, there are the frites, a national symbol of Belgian food consumption and with unquestioned standing, even if many parts of the English-speaking world insist on calling them French fries …

Frites are a popular and tasty choice of street food, served in a bag with a large selection of cold or hot sauces. The many covered stalls that sell them, baraques, are now part of Belgian cultural heritage. These baraques, usually made of wood and fitted with wheels to comply with planning requirements, are in fact a real expression of popular architecture. But whether resembling a cart or a small stand, they are threatened by urban redevelopment projects and are getting increasingly rare. It is a pity since it is easy to be enticed by the aromas issuing forth from these baraques à frites in Brussels, with their varying names: frietkot, friture or friterie.
Belgian artisan fast-food stalls are equally common, dominated by huge plastic buckets brimming with freshly sliced potatoes, and much appreciated by all three language communities (French, German and Flemish) in Brussels, a European capital of food delicacies.

Séverine Petit is a student of International Diplomatic Sciences at the University of Trieste .

Adapted by Ronnie Richards

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