While living in Europe, we try to taste the local flavors and dishes of each country. We have tried some fantastic eats like fondue in Switzerland, and tomato bread in Spain. When we made it to Belgium, we knew we had to try their long list of famed delicacies: chocolate, waffles, beer, and French fries.
Our first stop in Belgium was Brussels, a modern business city widely known as the capital of the European Union. We didn’t have a specific reason for choosing Brussels, other than the fact the train tickets were cheap, and we could visit on the weekend. Leaving after work on Fridays like we usually do, we hopped on the train and arrived in Brussels four hours later.
We started our Saturday morning with a brewery tour in the outskirts of Brussels at the Brussels Gueuze Museum. Lucky for us, the tours previously canceled due to COVID had finally restarted the weekend we were in town. It is a family brewery over 120 years old, and its building is sandwiched between two other buildings, making it almost unrecognizable. There was limited signage, and we almost thought we were in the wrong place until someone pointed out the door to us!
During the tour, we learned why this working brewery was also considered a museum. Founded in 1900, Brasserie Cantillon was on the edge of bankruptcy in the 1970s. The owners had one last creative shot to save the brewery: by turning it into a museum. The reason for this? Museums received funding from the Belgium government, so while beer sales may have been down, the extra money could help the brewery stay afloat. An application and approval later, the Brussels Gueuze Museum was born.
The tour guided us through multiple floors to learn about the brewing process. One thing that makes Brasserie Cantillon famous is because it’s the only brewery in Belgium still producing beer through spontaneous fermentation. Spontaneous fermentation is when the brewery allows whatever yeast and bacteria are in the air to mix with the beer instead of adding a specific controlled yeast. They are opening the doors and saying, “Come on in, Mother Nature! Make our beer delicious.” The output of the spontaneous fermentation process is a lambic style (slightly sour) beer. We were lucky to try a couple of samples at the end of the tour.
After learning more about the world of Belgian beer, it was time for a snack. And what’s a better snack than french fries? Although in Belgium, they are just called fries.
Did you know that french fries may be called “French” fries by mistake? Many believe that french fries originated in Belgium, not France. The origin story of fries is a little hazy, and I’ll share all the variations I’ve read:
- Origin: Belgium. Many believe Americans discovered this delicious side during World War I while stationed in Belgium. And because they were in the French-speaking part of Belgium, the Americans called them “French” fries. And I guess the name stuck because we still call them by the same name one hundred years later in the US.
- Origin: Belgium. While Americans may have only discovered it in the past century, french fries have been around long before this. Historians believe that Belgium has been serving up fries since the late 1600s. Villagers would catch fish in local rivers during the warmer months and would fry them up for dinner. In the winter months, fishing would be inaccessible when the river froze, and the villagers had to get creative. Here, the villagers turned to potatoes, frying them the same way as they did the fish.
- Origin: France. Maybe Americans discovering french fries while stationed in Belgium during WWI is a myth. Many believe that Thomas Jefferson should receive credit for introducing the french fry to the United States back in the late 1700s. Jefferson was stationed in France for five years while serving as the American Minister to France. He compiled a recipe book of over 150 dishes during this time, including fried potatoes or “pommes de terre frites.” Because of Jefferson, fried potatoes became a staple in many cookbooks as early as the 1850s.
- Origin: France. But who cares when fries were introduced to Americans, right? As records show, street vendors were selling fries in Paris back in the late 1700s. Before then, France reserved potatoes for the pigs. The country even outlawed the consumption of potatoes in 1748 because they thought it caused diseases like leprosy. Thirty years later, France determined potatoes were safe to eat, but many people were still wary of trying them. Many credit Antoine-Augustine Parmentier, a French army officer, for making potatoes mainstream in France. He hosted high society dinners with notable names like Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI to convince them potatoes were the next big thing. Others credit a famine as the reason potatoes became popular in France, as residents could not be picky to survive.
Complicated history for a potato, right?
Regardless of where the french fry originated, I think we can mostly agree: they are delicious. Fries are always my go-to item when I am under the weather or nauseous from transportation. It’s my ultimate comfort food. And it seems like it’s comfort food for Belgium, too, as they consume more fries per capita than any other country in Europe.
Brussels had a variety of friteries, or fry shops, throughout the city. The secret to Belgian’s fries is in how they prepare them: they are double-fried. For our first fry experience, we chose a small stand with a handful of high-top chairs and tables outside.
We were eating fries in place of a proper lunch and ordered two servings. The server asked us what sauce we wanted, which was the hardest decision of the day. The shop had 15 sauce variations available to order, mainly with mayonnaise bases. Belgians traditionally eat their fries with mayonnaise instead of ketchup, like in the United States. Feeling adventurous, I chose the Andalusian sauce, a mix of mayonnaise, tomatoes, garlic, shallots, and peppers. Jordan stuck with the tried and true ketchup because, to him, there’s nothing worse than mayonnaise.
We may have overestimated how hungry we were, as the portion sizes were huge! Fries filled our tray, exploding out of their paper cones. We received a small fork-like pick to help eat them. In my experience, Europeans use utensils for everything. Americans have “finger foods,” and Europeans just have food. With my first fry on the pick, I tested it without the Andalusian sauce. It was warm and tender with a slight crunch, but not overly so. They were even better with the sauce, adding a little zing to each bite. Honestly, double frying fries is the way to go.
After refueling with some of the best fries I’ve tasted, we spent the rest of the weekend exploring Brussels. Our first stop was to see one of the city’s most famous tourist sites is Mannekin Pis, a bronze statue in a fountain of a little boy going to the bathroom. Yes, Mannekin Pis translates from Dutch to English as “little pissing man.” When we saw it, it felt like Mannekin Pis was the Mona Lisa of statues. The statue was smaller than expected, with hoards of people crowded around it trying to get the perfect shot.
The Belgians make Mannekin Pis “fun” by dressing the statue up in different costumes. On the day we went, it was Russian National Day, and the statue wore a uniform of an officer of the Imperial Guard of the “Preobrazhensky” regiment. Mannekin Pis has two statue relatives throughout Brussels, Het Zinneke (a dog) and Jeanneke Pis (a girl). While the locals love these statues, we weren’t particularly eager about finding the other two. Instead, we decided to wander to see what Brussels was all about.
While wandering, we saw numerous tributes to Belgium’s famous comic, The Adventures of Tintin. Shops displayed the comics in store after store, and there’s even a dedicated store just selling Tintin memorabilia. Large art murals on the sides of buildings proudly showed Tintin on a mission. There are even two museums in Brussels, one for comic books and one for the creator of TinTin. As we aren’t Tintin enthusiasts, we didn’t go into any shops or museums, but it was fun to see the art murals throughout the city.
As we walked through Brussels, we saw more and more people in Belgium’s black, yellow, and red. We figured there must be a soccer game that day. Our intuition was confirmed later in the evening when we stumbled across an impromptu parade of excited fans going down the street. We determined Belgium won the match when we walked back to the hotel from dinner and passed one of the city’s pedestrian squares. Fans filled the area, celebrating their victory with the sounds of loud music and cheers.
On Sunday, we explored other iconic must-see places in Brussels, like the 600-year-old Grand Palace, before taking our train back to Lyon.
In my honest opinion, I did not love Brussels other than tasting the food and beer. I’m not even sure I could say I liked Brussels. I felt like most of what Brussels had to offer was visiting old buildings and marveling at how old they were. Don’t get me wrong, this can be amazing in many cities, but Brussels felt stale and uninteresting. Maybe that’s why their most popular tourist spot is Mannekin Pis? And it’s absolutely why I’ve been writing this blog post for five months and have never been able to finish it.
To get past my writing block, I am considering my Brussels post completed, so I can move on to write about places I did love, like the dreamy romantic city of Bruges. Come back for part two of our Belgium trips, and I’ll share more about the chocolate and waffles! But for now, enjoy all the photos of things I did not write about.