Mussels and More

The backbone of Flanders food is the local produce that's served fresh and presented simply—you won't find painted plates or veggies sculpted beyond recognition. Naturally, this is seafood country, with fresh fish shipped in daily to Bruges; the coastal towns serve authentic North Sea delicacies at terrace restaurants whipped by sand and salt air. Even in landlocked Ghent, some 50 km (30 miles) from the coast, locals snack on whelks and winkles (sea snails) as if they were popcorn. Flemings are mad about mosselen (mussels)—try them steamed, curried, or bathed in a white-wine broth accented with celery, onions, and parsley. Main courses are inevitably accompanied by a mountain of frieten (french fries), fried twice, making them especially crisp and delicious. For death by fries, buy them piping hot and salty from a stall, as the Belgians do, and dip them in the big dollop of accompanying mayo.

Paling (eels) are one of the region's specialties. The flesh is firm, fatty, and sweet, and served in long cross sections with a removable backbone. Paling in t'groen is eel served in a green herb sauce, a heady mix of sorrel, tarragon, sage, mint, and parsley. Sole and turbot are also popular main courses, served broiled, poached with a light mousseline sauce, or grilled with a rich béarnaise or mustard sauce. Herring is eaten maatjes (raw) in the spring. To sound like a local, try these tongue twisters when you order: oostduinkerkse paardevissersoep (fish soup) and dronken rog op Nieuwpoortse wijze (ray).

When the Flemish aren't eating their fish straight or in a blanket of golden sauce, they consume it in the region's most famous dish, waterzooi (a thick broth rich with cream and vegetables). The citizens of Ghent have a chicken version, as well as Gentse hutsepot (a casserole with carrots, onions, potatoes, and meat). For a hearty dish, look for vlaamse stoverij (beef or pork stew with onions, braised in beer). Paardenvlees (horse meat), with its sweet flavor and beefy texture, is considered a delicacy.

If you visit Flanders in springtime, look for memorably delicious vegetables, such as the tender white asperge (asparagus), served either in mousseline sauce or with a garnish of chopped hard-boiled egg and melted butter. These pale stalks are sweeter than the familiar green ones and are called "white gold" because the Flemings snap them up as fast as they arrive during their short season. In March and April, seek out the rare, expensive jets de houblon (delicate shoots of the hops plant).

A cheese course is often served before—or in place of—dessert, and there are hundreds of delicious local choices, many runny and pungent. Chocolate and whipped cream are favorite dessert ingredients, and homemade ice cream turns up on all kinds of menus in warm months. Local pastries include Gentse mokken (hard sugar cookies), lierse vlaaikens (plum tarts), and speculoos (sugary ginger cookies), all of which are often accompanied by coffee. Warm pancakes and Belgian waffelen (waffles) topped with fruit or syrup are available everywhere from sidewalk stalls to fancy restaurants. The famous crisp waffles, which have a vanilla flavor, are formed in cast-iron molds with presweetened dough.

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