Did I ever tell you that I lived in Belgium for a year on exchange? If I haven’t, well, I spent a year in Belgium between high school and college as an exchange student.
Coming from a small town in Texas, let’s just say my eyes were opened.
In addition to learning a completely different language [French, not “Belch” as many joke] I learned about a culture similar to my own, but different in just as many, if not more, ways.
When most people think of Belgium, they probably mostly think of food: chocolate, waffles, fries, mussels, and most of all, BEER. These things are indeed quite wonderful…
Mass-produced chocolate Côte d’Or is as easy to find in Belgian supermarkets as Hershey’s is in the U.S., but with an ingredient Hershey’s forgot to include: flavor.
Street carts and sidewalk cafes serve waffles so crunchy on the outside and chewy on the inside, with bits of candy sugar on the inside with a hint of sour.
Fries, oh the fries! Fries are double fried, once to cook the fries, followed by a second time to crisp up the outside. They are then served with mayo or one of 10 or so sauces in cornets.
Mussels [enough said] are best eaten in the Marinière style with a side of fries.
There’s also a bit of a culture around beer in Belgium. Trappist breweries are home to monks who have been brewing beer for hundreds of years. Many abbeys brew beers in the Belgian styles [Abbey ales, golden ales, dubbel, tripel, quadrupel, to name a few]. One of the interesting things I find is that each beer is so important that it must be served in its own glass. To do otherwise is a heresy, as they say.
I was fortunate enough to live in one of the towns known for its Trappist breweries: Rochefort. In Rochefort, I was able to see past the stereotypical Belgium of chocolate, fries, mussels, and beer.
This Belgium is home to Jean et Anne, Alain et Christine, Vincent et Dominique, Josiane et Luc, Gaëtan et Delphine, Miriam et Atilla, and all of their children. These people were my host- or near-families, and when I think of Belgium, I think of them.
[OK, and the chocolate and beer too.]
My first trip back to Belgium came a couple of years ago with Elizabeth, so I won’t belabor those details. You can read about them here.
During that trip, we learned that Simon [aka “Sim”], my best friend from Belgium who is currently living in Australia, was going to get married the following year in Australia and would be back in Europe for the Belgian wedding celebrations in 2017.
I promised I’d be there, and thus marks the inspiration behind my journey.
I decided to turn this visit into a full reunion tour, visiting my 3+ host families and their extended families.
My first stop in Belgium was Montzen, childhood home to Sim, where I spent the weekend passing time with Sim’s new wife Giulia, his parents Josiane and Luc, and Giulia’s parents, Jim and Elena.
On the “wedding day,” 35 of Sim’s closest friends and family gathered for the festivities. We shared a nice Crémant [well, several of them] and kicked off the wedding feast with dessert! The main course was both surprising and exciting: an assortment of about 30 different cheeses. As one says in French, “On a bien passé le soir.” Which can best be translated as: “It was a night well spent.”
My next stop was Aywaille, home to Gaëtan et Delphine and their wonderful family. Gaëtan was actually my inspiration to choose Belgium as my exchange destination, as my family served as his host family when he was on exchange in my home town of El Campo during my high school years.
We caught up on life, upcoming life changes, and ran off to the local fry shop for fries and meatballs to satisfy that fry itch everybody gets when in Belgium.
Stop #3 was to see Christine and Alain, whom I hadn’t seen in well over 13 years. Despite all of that time, I still recognized the homey smell and layout of their house and felt a close bond with both of them.
While staying with Christine and Alain, we enjoyed a special dinner with members of my third host family, Dominique and her daughter Caroline. We also spent some quality time with Alain and Christine’s daughter Noémi, her husband Jérome, their one-year old daughter Edith, and their three-year old niece Marine. [I’m hosed for sure.]
My last official stop of this trip was chez Jean and Anne, fitting as that was the first stop of my Belgian journey so many years ago. I only had one evening with them, but we spent many a good hour at the dinner table talking about life – past, present, and future. I even got to see their son and daughter-in-law, Florent and Pauline, and their grandchildren.
Sadly, after a week in Belgium, it was time to prepare for the journey home.
Fortunately, while overnighting in Brussels in preparation for my 6am flight, I had one last family “farewell”. Two of Alain et Christine’s daughters, Bénédict et Clothilde, live in Brussels, so we met up at Jérome’s favorite restaurant for a “quick” 2 hour meal. We laughed, had fun, and slipped effortlessly [some more effortlessly than others] between French and English before saying “until next time.”
There’s a saying in Belgium: “On se plie en quatre pour les autres.” Which could be translated to: “Bend over backwards, twice for others.”
In Belgium, politeness is so deeply rooted in the culture that instead of agreeing or disagreeing with others, they simply respond with “Could be” and a pensive expression. Everybody is greeted with a hello upon arrival, and everybody is presented with a farewell upon departure.
Perhaps this is why Belgium has such a special place in my heart, and why it feels like home.
One thing I do know is that it won’t be 13 years before going back. Everybody is excited to meet Elizabeth and the new Baby Frels.
We are too.
Ham-Wrapped Belgian Endive
One of the meals that I remember the most from Belgium is one that we had fairly regularly at chez Jean et Anne. I remember it fondly for two reasons. 1) We had it quite often, but more importantly, 2) It had endive, something that I had never eaten before. It’s a pretty simple recipe and can be prepped rather quickly. I’m going to officially call this dish “Ham-Wrapped Belgian Endive with Béchamel and Cheese.” While we didn’t eat this dish during my most recent trip, I definitely made sure to get the recipe from Anne so you can give it a shot. Celery is a great substitute for the endive if 1) endive is out of season, or 2) you don’t like endive. For a more untraditional take on the dish, asparagus or broccoli could also work.
1 lb. endive or celery
1 lb. Black Forest deli ham
1/2 lb. grated Fontina cheese, divided [Gruyere also works]
- 4 Tbs. butter
- 4 Tbs. flour
- 2 1/2 c. hot milk
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1/4 tsp. nutmeg
- Preheat oven to 400-degrees.
- Steam or microwave endive until it’s soft and pliable, about 15 minutes on the stove.
- Meanwhile, prepare the béchamel sauce by melting the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add flour and cook until it begins to smell nutty, about 3 – 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Slowly add hot milk, continuing to stir between additions. Once incorporated, add half of the grated cheese in small amounts, stirring with each addition until melted. Mix in nutmeg and salt. [The sauce should pour but not be too runny.]
- Roll endive in ham – one slice of ham per endive bunch – and arrange in a 9×13 casserole pan. [If you are using celery, chop stalks into thirds and wrap 3 or 4 stalks in one slice of ham.]
- Pour béchamel over endive. Top with remaining cheese.
- Bake for 20 – 25 minutes until cheese is melted and béchamel is bubbly. For bonus points, you can throw it under the broiler immediately prior to serving.