Nobody knows this better than Brussels-based chef Nicolas Rivière and Ilse Duponcheel, head of Antwerp food advice agency Dolce Far Tutto and food magazine Dolce. The two chefs came to the conclusion that Belgium is unique in its custom of serving an appetiser with every drink: coffee and biscuits, beer and cheese, wine and crisps… That’s why they published Belgian Bites, a cookbook dedicated to aperitif food and drink pairing.
I leafed through my copy, drooled over the lush photographs and picked out three to try. Their recipes are upscale, beautifully presented and complex in their texture and flavour combinations. But making them, as I found out, is simpler than you might think.
What first struck me was the number of ingredients that I wouldn’t know where to find without going to speciality stores, such as dandelion vinegar and chestnut honey. Or the paired drinks, which include everything from Belgian bubbles to seaweed jenever. My solution was to not take the recipes too literally. Instead, try substituting the more obscure ingredients with the closest alternative you can find.
My first bite, Mariages des deux saints, calls for yellow turnips and nettle vinegar. I use regular white turnips and red wine vinegar; the result is still mind-blowing. This dish combines buttery scallops with turnips prepared in two ways: boiled in chicken stock, then chopped and mixed with fresh tarragon leaves and vinegar, and sliced raw turnips mixed with olive oil and tarragon. A mixture of beef stock, tarragon and lime zest gets drizzled over the scallops after searing them ever so slightly. A few leaves of rocket and a couple of turns of the pepper mill, and it’s ready.
Normally the paired drink would be a Saint-Idesbald Blond beer but I replace it with an equally strong and heady Omer Traditional Blond. The scallops are rich and sweet, the sauce beefy and salty, and the turnips both crunchy and soft, with a hint of acidity. The beer matches perfectly, too, with its hoppy bitterness and depth of malt flavour. An extraordinary starter.
Next up is a marriage of meat and wine. An earthy Belgian red is called for; I pick out a Côtes du Rhone instead, with hints of blackberry and liquorice. Angels Dark Dreams is a wonderfully simple and modern take on the traditional blood sausage with apple sauce. Instead of apple sauce, it sports a glaze of warmed apple juice and gelatine leaves. I slice the sausage into bite-size rounds and cook it briefly before dipping each piece in the glaze. The sweet and spiced flavour of the sausage is perfectly complemented by the tangy apple juice. A sprinkling of cayenne pepper not only looks nice, its spiciness comes back again in the wine, which is fruity and robust with a bit of kick.
The finale is Belgian Fishy Stick. Don’t be fooled by the childish name: This calls for some seriously daring flavour combinations. Barely cooked lime-marinated salmon is dipped in a glaze of reduced coffee and rolled in chocolate. It’s a real indulgence for the taste buds, with mingling sweet, sour and bitter nuances. The pairing is a dram of Belgian Owl whisky, but my 10 year old Speyside works just fine. www.dolcemagazine.be
Inspired to make your own Belgian Bites? We have 10 copies of the beautiful hard-bound cookbook to give away. Email email@example.com by Monday, 18 June, with “cookbook” in the subject line and your postal address in the email. Winners will be chosen at random and alerted the following day.