Does beer – and by extension also food – really form the glue which holds Belgian society together? Alan Hope investigates.
Former Belgian prime-minister Yves Leterme once said Belgium was an accident of history, with the only thing holding its disparate communities of inhabitants together being beer, the monarchy and the Red Devils national football team. Leaving aside the football team, whose current good fortunes do seem to have inspired the whole country, and the monarchy, of whom the same can hardly be said, Belgian Beer & Food magazine decided to ask the question: does beer – and by extension also food – really form the glue which holds Belgian society together?
Amid all the many problems which seem to divide this country, from politics to culture, could it be that gastronomy is the one unifying factor? The answer seems to be: maybe.
Evert Van Wijk is a Dutchman now living in West Flanders, who specialises in media training on the differences between the Belgians and the Dutch. As such, he has a useful outsider’s eye on how Belgians are in themselves, and how they differ from others.
“The Belgians – the Flemish and the Walloons – have this in common, that they are both interested in good food, good beer, good wine,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean they have anything else in common.”
Nevertheless, the love of gastronomy does appear to transcend cultural boundaries. “I live close to the coast, in fact 15km away from Sluis. When I draw a circle I have about 25 different Michelin starred restaurants in my vicinity, and those restaurants are filled with all sorts of Belgians – Flemish and French-speakers. They both like good food, and it doesn’t make a difference whether you come from the north or the south of the country.”
There’s no doubt whatsoever that “Belgian beer” is a valid concept recognised across the world, but can the same be said about “Belgian cuisine”? Philippe Limbourg, communications director for the restaurant guide Gault & Millau, doesn’t think so. I put the question to him, and he has to think long and hard before being able to answer.
“Is there such a thing as Belgian cuisine? Okay, there are Belgian dishes, yes of course. But to go from there to saying there’s a Belgian cuisine is a very complicated question. Belgian cuisine is the mirror-image of Belgium itself, that is to say rich and complex. It’s made up of various influences, and today it’s built around a terroir which is being rediscovered and readopted by chefs, under an international influence. So there’s a kind of movement grown up around that terroir. You could say we’re in the process of redefining and reconstructing what you might call Belgian cuisine. But that’s not the same as saying there you are, this is the Belgian cuisine. It’s almost as if it varies with each individual chef and his particular producers and suppliers.”
The notion of terroir – the dependence on local, seasonal products and minimal interference – is not particular to Belgium, however. He agrees when I suggest that the identifying characteristic of Belgian cuisine is its lack of any identifying characteristic – other perhaps than its openness to outside influence, doubtless a consequence of the region’s long history of being occupied by one imperial power or another. Agnes Goyvaerts is a food writer and restaurant reviewer for De Morgen. For her, Belgian cuisine is a domestic matter.
“If there is such a thing as ‘Belgian cuisine,’ then it exists in the domestic setting, and it differs from French bourgeois cuisine in the use of products typical of Belgium: I think of the most well-known, like grey shrimp in shrimp croquettes and tomate-crevettes; chicory or witlof, rolled in ham and cooked au gratin in the oven; or asparagus Flemish-style with boiled egg and melted butter.”
Apolina Fos ran a French-Belgian restaurant in Brussels, and now gives classes in Indian cuisine, as well as running a food blog (http://bombay-bruxelles.blogspot.com). She’s convinced there is a Belgian cuisine – of sorts. “In fact it’s Flemish cuisine, because even when you cross the border into northern France, around Lille, you’re in French Flanders and they share the same cuisine, so it’s a regional thing. Things like carbonnadesflamandes are something Belgian that strays over into the north of France. So it’s a cuisine not from Belgium as a country, but Belgium as a region – Flanders, Wallonia and the Flemish region of the north of France.” The Belgian prides himself on his appreciation of good food, but is there, then, such a thing as a Belgian palate?
Here, opinions differ rather less. Philippe Limbourg: “No. And I’d go even further: there is such a thing as a Flemish palate and a Walloon palate. And it goes beyond the palate. In fact the particularity of gastronomy in Belgium is that the Fleming goes out to eat in a restaurant to have something elaborate, refined, something chic.
The Walloon, on the other hand, goes to the restaurant for the event, for the moment he’s about to spend in the restaurant, the pleasure of sitting at the table in a group. He needs to have enough to eat on his plate, even if the food is more simple. He wants authentic tastes, such as he tasted in his grandmother’s house. That’s very general, but it’s a difference that really exists.” Agnes Goyvaerts: “I don’t think there is such a thing as a Belgian palate which differs in any real sense from the French palate. Although a Belgian abroad will always long for a good steak-frites or a beef and ale stew, and he’ll remain convinced that nowhere in the world can they make frites as well as here.”
Apolina Fos: “Belgians like to eat food and they appreciate good food. One particularity might be their tendency to like bitter flavours, and that’s very logical, and comes from the fact that they’re beer drinkers. They’re always prepared to go into bitter flavours, which is something that’s rare to find in France, apart from certain liqueurs like Chartreuse.”
There’s a good deal more unanimity when it comes to beer-drinking. Across the country, the standard draught pils – with a few very local exceptions – is likely to be Stella Artois, Jupiler or MaesPils; the first two brewed by the world’s largest brewer, AB InBev, and the latter by Alken-Maes. Now that may simply be the effect of industrial homogenisation, but the same thing goes for some speciality beers. You’re as likely to find customers in De Panne and Maaseik – the two extreme ends of Flanders – drinking Chimay or Orval as you are to find patrons in Mouscron or Arlon enjoying Westmalle or Duvel.
So is it at least true, as Yves Leterme suggested, that beer is something Belgians share regardless of language affiliation, I asked Sven Gatz, former director of the Belgian Brewers’ industry association and currently minister for culture, youth, media and Brussels in the Government of Flanders? “I can certainly confirm that is the case, and I’m not only saying that because of my function as director of the Belgian Brewers,” he replies. “It is the reality. Belgian beer is something that gives people a feeling of national pride, whatever their views on chauvinism or nationalism or whatever it might be. Naturally there are beers from Wallonia and beers from Flanders and beers from Brussels, but the fact that it’s Flemish beer or Walloonbeer is absolutely secondary to the fact that they’re all Belgian beers. And that’s how they’re seen in other countries, too. We have a certain number of very well-known brands, but the brand “Belgian Beer” is stronger than any individual brand.”
Not only are Belgians happy to drink each other’s beer while at home, he says, it also provides them with something to be proud of when they travel abroad. “A lot of Belgians travel, and we find more and more Belgian beers available wherever we go, and that’s an agreeable experience for Belgian people – a sort of validation, to show what we signify to the outside world, even if it’s only a matter of the appreciation our beers receive from other people all over the world.”
Gatz, of the Flemish liberal Open VLD party, has never been any sort of separatist, but even so his enthusiasm for unity through beer strikes one as bordering on zealotry. Stop considering him a politician, however, and see him as a beer-lover, and he becomes more convincing. I put it to him that there is no consideration of internal divisions when it comes to what’s in the glass.
“Indeed, that’s the way the matter is regarded. There’s little or no attention paid to those questions. And that’s also true for the story of beer culture: you can quite rightly speak of a “Belgian school” of brewing. We have taken things from everyone: we have Belgian interpretations of British ales, of pils, then we have our own creation – the beers of spontaneous fermentation in Brussels and the surrounding area. We have the seasonal beers of Hainaut, the old brown beers from the south of East and West Flanders, white beers in Brabant. And in fact our beer culture is extremely varied for such a small country, thanks to the fact that we find ourselves on the borderline between the Germanic and Romance cultures. All of those influences had a role to play in creating what can legitimately be called a Belgian beer culture which is larger than merely the sum of the Walloon, Flemish and Brussels beer cultures. Beer and beer making know nothing about the language divide.”