All of us Belgians were born with a thoroughly sweet tooth. We enjoy 'babelutten', 'bonbons', 'gommetjes', 'nougat', 'spekken', 'veters' or 'karamellen'. Complete the list with our endless range of regional specialties and you are not far off compiling an entire volume of confectionary poetry.
You can go to any baker’s to buy 'koffiekoeken' or 'boterkoeken', 'appelflappen', 'éclairs' or 'frangipane', but in Ypres they swear by the katteklauw.
In Malmédy it’s a 'baiser', in Brugge and Veurne they prefer a 'kletskop' and Poperinge goes for the keikop.
Entire cities have built their reputations on their own sweet delicacies from the oven. The country takes pride in what it produces. Where would Antwerp be without its 'handjes', Dinant without its 'couque', Geraardsbergen without mattentaart or Hasselt deprived of its speculaas?
Sweet aromas waft from every street corner. In Liège the scent of waffles is never far away. No funfair is complete without a stand selling 'smoutebollen', 'beignets' or 'laquemant'. No market will be without its pancakes and when we’re at home we like to stick to our 'Limburgse vlaai', rice cake or cheesecake.
We might get them from the patisserie around the corner, go further afield for even better ones, or we just bake them ourselves. Is there anything more delicious than the smell of an apple pie fresh from the oven?
Appelflap / Chausson aux pommes
Yes this cointains apples. Picture a wallet for carrying your loose change or a folded-over, double calzone pizza. This is what an appelflap looks like. It is made with puff pastry and filled with a mixture of diced apple and cinnamon, possibly also with almond paste, currants and/or raisins.
The ‘flap’ is often doused in white granulated sugar.
The best appelflappen are made with real butter rather than margarine and for the finishing touch, just add a dash of grated lemon peel and a pinch of rum powder. Take note: don’t just use any apple.
The appelflap likes to fold itself around a Golden Delicious. And the good news is that this variety can be found all the year around. If you prefer an apple with more tartness, plump for the Schone van Boskoop, also known as Goudreinet. The flesh of this apple is slightly firmer and it will retain its shape and taste during baking.
Biscuits & More
You will not be surprised to learn that every town or region has its own type of biscuits – cookies or 'koekje' in Flemish. The 'Antwerps Handje' became famous thanks to its distinctive shape. This hand-shaped biscuit refers to the legend of Antigoon, the giant who terrorised the skippers on the river Scheldt.
He exacted a heavy toll. Non-payment of the fare resulted in having your hands chopped off. This went on until a Roman centurion called Brabo killed the giant, chopped off his hand and threw it into the River Scheldt.
The 'Antwerps Handje' is now made from short crust pastry based on a 1934 recipe.
The oval-shaped 'Bernardijnerkoekje' originates from the town of Fleurus and is made with almonds and white and brown sugar. It even has the colour of a Benedictine Monk’s robe.
Out of a roll of almond dough wrapped in crystallised sugar, the baker will cut a rectangular biscuit and garnish it with two halves of an almond. In Beaumont people are extremely fond of their 'macarons'. They are not the familiar rock cakes made with coconut. Rather, these cookies are more like a meringue, made with pure almond paste, both sweet and bitter, sugar and egg white.
'Stofé' is what they call their sweet cheesecake in Waver, or Wavre. 'Stofé' is Walloon for cottage cheese. The dry, fresh cheese is blended with meringue and almonds, both the sweet and bitter variety. They will be ground to a fine paste and mixed in with the cheese.
The mixture is spread over a bed of sliced apple – preferably of the ‘grijze Renet’ variety – and baked in the oven. Waver’s citizens have their cheese cake, but so do the citizens of Geldenaken (Jodoigne).
The 'blanke doréye de Djodoigne' looks somewhat bulkier than the 'stofé'. Its secret is cottage cheese again, albeit without apples and almonds. The filling of the 'blanke doréye' reminds you of a soufflé, with a small amount of sugar and a dash of vanilla, spread on top of a thin layer of mashed apples.
The topping includes eggs and sugar, chopped almonds and a small glass of rum but its unique taste comes primarily from the cottage cheese.
Couque de Dinant
The tooth-cracking character of a Couque de Dinant comes from the very high temperatures (300 °C) at which they are baked. The honey in the recipe caramelises at that temperature and hardens as the biscuits cool down. There is an art to eating Couque: break off small pieces and let them melt in the mouth like you would with a hard sweet.
The citizens of Dinant feed this cake to small children to help make their gums stronger. You have been warned. The Couque is made of two-thirds wheat flour and one-third honey. It takes a lot of experience to bake the perfect Couque.
The baker has to keep a constant eye on the baking trays to prevent the dough from burning. The Couque is flat and smooth and gleams with a very attractive golden colour.
In the past the Couques were pressed into the copper moulds for which Dinant was famous. More recently bakers have switched to wooden moulds made from pear or walnut tree wood.
Looks were important, it was felt, and the splendid baking moulds were works of art. The patterns were chosen by the city’s copper beaters or woodworkers, and very much depended on what they felt like doing on the day.
Dinant was once saved by its Couque. It survived on this cake during the siege of the city by Charles the Bold, duke of Burgundy, when the only supplies left were flour and honey.
Danish Pastries (Viennoiserie / Koffiekoeken)
'Koffiekoeken' are part of the coffee ritual and make a perfect snack when you’re on the go. That’s why you will often find them at street vendors or train stations right next to the rolls and croissants. 'Koffiekoeken' are made from puff pastry, with or without raisins chocolate.
Some pastries are square with a creamy custard filling. Some are round. There are rectangular ones with raisins 'or frangipane' (almond paste) and with cream or chocolate forming part of the pastry.
There are small ‘horns’ with 'bakkerscrème' (a creamy custard filling) and with cherries or pineapple baked into the pastry. ‘Dry boterkoeken' come without a topping but are still very buttery. Baking can also involve recycling. For example, stale bread can be soaked in a milk and egg mixture, pan-fried and eaten hot. Such a ‘lost bread’ (pain perdu) tastes delicious with a spread of jam or honey or covered in caster sugar.
'Broodpudding' or ‘bodding’ is another classic, bread pudding made with ground stale bread, croissants, cake, 'koffiekoeken' or other pastries soaked in sugared milk and well-beaten eggs, then baked with diced apple and flavoured with a glug of cold coffee and a dash of cinnamon.
Prepare this pudding at home or get it from your local bakery. There are endless variations on the basic recipe. Search your cupboards for dried fruits or cocoa or custard powder and design your own recipe. After baking, finish off with a layer of icing or chocolate.
Gourmets will rush to the baker’s at lightning speed if there is a fresh batch of éclairs on offer. A coincidence? Not really; as éclair means lightning in the language of Voltaire that colours the culinary alphabet here in Belgium. How this delicacy acquired its illustrious name remains a mystery.
What we do know is that it is a choux pastry, rectangular in shape, with a creamy filling and covered in a layer of chocolate or icing.
For the filling we normally use a creamy custard or whipped cream that can be flavoured with coffee, chestnuts, fruit or rum. The choux pastry is made using water, butter, flour and eggs.
Melt one part butter into two parts of water on a very low heat and add one part of flour plus a little more. Take the saucepan off the heat and slowly stir in two or three well-beaten eggs, depending on the weight of the other ingredients, into the batter.
If all this sounds far too complicated to you, just make a bolt for the baker’s. If no eclairs are on display in the shop window or the chiller cabinet, you are at the wrong address.
The hop capital of Poperinge offers an impressive range of regional products. In 1988 the town celebrated the 800th anniversary of its Friday market and this led to the birth of the Keikopje. This new biscuit presented quite a challenge for the bakers.
It had to be solid, but not as hard as stone - people shouldn’t break their teeth on it and give the local dentists a lot of extra work. The choice came down to a ‘macaron’ or meringue, prepared with egg whites, candy sugar and almonds with a pinch of cinnamon. You can now buy Keikopje at your local bakery.
This entirely new product was named after the derogatory nickname given to the citizens of Poperinge. The linen trade flourished here in the Middle Ages and the weavers of Poperinge and Ypres were great rivals. However, in 1322 Ypres was granted a monopoly and the weavers of Poperinge were not allowed to produce any more linen despite their hard-headed – or ‘keikoppige’ – resistance.
Legend has it that a man from Poperinge, seated back to front on a donkey and with a ripped up cobblestone as a missile in his hand, led the battle against Ypres. Thankfully, the dispute was peacefully resolved in the end, though the name “cobble heads” stuck. The importance of the linen trade has diminished over time, and in the polders of Poperinge where once grew flax hop plants now take root, their twisting tendrils giving much pleasure to the local brewers and the drinkers of their beer. This small town is still proud of its stubborn nickname. Just visit the Keimonument in the market square to see it celebrated.
It comes sliced, cubed or shaped into little balls. Figures moulded from marzipan are inseparable from Christmas and Saint Nicholas. 'Marsepein' is just as much a part of the end-of-year celebrations as chocolate, tangerines and 'speculaas'. But 'marsepein' – as we call marzipan - does not always have such a virtuous look to it!
Scantily clad voluptuous ladies, clowns, cars, Viagra tablets, little foxes, cartoon characters…The display at the patissier’s will exceed even your wildest imagination. His capable hands, busily kneading away, will create an entire world out of almond paste.
Admittedly there are very few bakers left who create their own raw ingredient from ground almonds and sugar. They prefer to use a ready-made basic product that is supple and can be used straight away. They have a wide choice of flavours, including mocha, pistachio, raspberry….
Any baker worth his salt will undoubtedly have sold pounds and pounds of marsepein during his lifetime and conjured up hundreds of small figures from his dextrous fingers.
The creation of marsepein figures is a trade like no other: it takes plenty of time and if you don’t keep your hand in, you will lose the skill. Bakers tend to use a number of basic moulds and then finish off the figures by hand.
Skilled artisans will know why they pick a particular type of marsepein or chocolate. For many bakers, the love of marzipan is for life, not just for Christmas.
Geraardsbergse mattentaarten are small round cakes, made from puff pastry and filled with ‘mattenbrij’, a sort of curd cheese. As is so often the case, an historic means of preserving food explains the origins of this pastry. ‘Mat’ is a name for curdled milk.
As farmers did not use to have fridges, they used to separate the raw milk on a piece of cheesecloth. First the milk was boiled. Buttermilk and a dash of vinegar were added so the milk would curdle. This substance would drain over a piece of cheesecloth and the solids that remained were called the ‘matten’.
These are then ground down and mixed with sugar, egg yolk and whipped egg white to produce the ‘mattenbrij’ filling, making the Mattentaart a sweet pastry with its light and airy filling. Mattentaart is not only baked in Geraardsbergen but the taart from this city enjoys a European Union label of origin protection (the PGI or Protected Geographical Indication) which fills the citizens of ‘Gisbergen’ with pride as they are only one of a few towns and cities in Belgium to have a culinary product which has been granted this label.
The historic recipes in the ‘Boeken van cokerijen’ (1510) by Thomas van der Noot include the oldest known Mattentaart recipe. These pastries were hugely popular in the late Middle Ages. Pieter Breughel the Elder immortalised them in his world famous painting The Peasant Wedding.
Oliebollen / Croustillons
Deep-frying is in Belgian genes as, after all, we live in the land of ‘friet’, the French fry, 'frite' or chip. Visit any fun fair or market and you are very likely to come across a stand offering sweet fried beignets swimming in oil. Apple slices are dunked in batter and then dipped into the hot oil. But the un-crowned emperor of the stand at the fun fair is indisputably the 'oliebol' or 'croustillon', also known as the 'smoutebol' in Flanders.
The stand where they are sold catches the eye straight away with its bright colours and a retro style that verges on kitsch. It is the Mecca for all those who need their snacks to be sweet. 'Smoutebollen' are crunchy on the outside, generously doused with caster sugar and come with a lovely gooey centre.
The first bite is so hot it almost burns your tongue, and if you are not careful you find yourself covered in caster sugar, but all this is part of the fun.
Those of a nostalgic disposition are transported back to their childhood to witness the miracle of the fun fair baker dropping his spoonful’s of batter into the hot oil to create the, more or less, round shapes of 'oliebollen'. The batter is usually made of flour, eggs, yeast, a pinch of salt and some lukewarm milk or buttermilk.
The yeast is sometimes replaced with beer, after all, we are in Belgium. The batter will be left to rise for an hour in a warm place to make sure that the final 'oliebol' is light and airy.
Pannenkoeken: every child wants them for their birthday. Give in to their pleas and it won’t be long before butter will be sizzling in the pan. Batter will be added and the frying pan swirled around until the bottom is completely covered. The skilled pancake baker will wait awhile until the top is dry and the pancake can move around the pan.
It is essential that the frying pan is hot enough so the pancake does not stick to the bottom. The pancake then has to fly high up in the air, without sticking to the ceiling, and be flipped over in the air to land back in the pan with the other side up. The first try is not always a success but this is how you steal the show in front of a gang of kids.
However, if you have added apples or raisins to the batter, the pancake will be heavier and this stunt is not to be recommended. Whether you take the aerial route or use a boring old spatula, it is soon time to tuck in. Rolled up, eaten by hand or using knife and fork, a pancake always hits the spot.
Some restaurants specialise in pancakes and have a wide range of sweet and savoury pancakes on the menu, all equally delicious.
Comparable to gingerbread but not the same The peperkoek can trace its Flemish ancestry back to medieval times. The city of Ghent used to decorate its peperkoek with a mixture of orange peel and almonds and the English went wild for it. Bruges, Roeselare and Kortrijk all launched their own versions.
In Ronse, the Lord of Wattripont, who gave the town and its people, the ‘Ronselaren, the freedoms and privileges of a city in 1240, used to receive a peperkoek every year as a gift from the town council.
The Baker’s Guild (yes, there are more guilds in the country than just the Belgian brewers) was in charge of who was allowed to make peperkoek, what it could contain and how it ought to be baked. ‘Peperkoekbakker’ became an officially-recognised profession in Antwerp and within half a century the city counted no fewer than 60 bakers of the pastry.
Hostelries in the Kempen region used to serve a slice of peperkoek with the obligatory New Year’s drink. Up until the Second World War, there were around 140 bakeries producing peperkoek in Belgium. Nowadays it's mostly industrial bakeries producing them and the number of artisan bakers of peperkoek can be counted on the fingers of one hand, perhaps because it takes so long so much effort to produce a batch - the dough has to mature for four weeks before you can even start.
The ‘mother’ dough consists of rye flour and sugar syrup to which leftover cuts of already baked cake are added. After kneading, the dough will mature in large basins for a number of weeks.
The enzymes do their work to give a full and rounded taste to the dough. Once matured, the dough is kneaded again. Rising agents, herbs and possibly honey will be added. The dough will be left to rise for another day and will then be baked in the oven for two to two-and-a-half hours.
Pies ('Tartes' & 'Vlaaien')
Pies are more than abundant in Belgium and come in as many varieties as the beer. The 'suikertaart' (sugar pie) is very popular in the south of the country and, as you’d imagine, its basic ingredient is white or brown sugar, usually in conjunction with a bread dough.
In Charleroi, granulated sugar is used and in Walloon Brabant the main ingredient is candy sugar. It’s delicious when eaten lukewarm, ever so slightly caramelised and unctuous with a real melt-in-the-mouth consistency.
In summer, the cakes will be adorned with all the colours of the orchard: cherries, apples, plums, rhubarb, strawberries, gooseberries, redcurrants and blueberries make for a spectacular rainbow finish. Our fruit tarts include the 'Limburgse vlaai' with its thin layer of pastry or square or diamond-shaped pastry lattice. Applepie is a true classic, almost everywhere you go in the world, and often made at home. Apples are peeled and diced whilst the dough is rising under a cheese cloth.
Dot the pie with butter before baking and then sprinkle with granulated sugar. You can also cover it with thick cream but don’t cover the cake when it goes into the oven.
To prepare a creamy ricetart, ('rijsttaart'), fresh milk is heated over a bain-marie in a large tub. Bring milk to the boil and then add rice, vanilla and cinnamon.
The mixture will cook for two-and-a-half hours with cubed sugar being added 15 minutes before the end. The rice mixture is transferred to a bowl in a cold room. The bottom of the pie is made out of bread dough on which the mixture is spread evenly. The cake will then spend between half-an-hour and three-quarters-of-an-hour in the oven.
Snoep / Confiserie
A quick rummage in the sweet tray yields a bountiful harvest. 'Neusjes' (cuberdons) look like small, rounded pyramids. These boiled sweets are made with raspberry syrup and gum arabic. The mixture is poured into moulds and dried in the oven at a low temperature.
They are slightly hard on the outside which prevents the sweets from drying out. Bite through the hard outer layer and the soft, tart centre of the sweet will explode in your mouth. 'Botersnoep', 'babbelaars' or 'babbelutten' were traditionally produced near the Belgian seaside, usually by fishermen’s wives.
They used the butter produced on the 'polders' and mixed it with sugar syrup. The 'Babbelaar' or 'babbelutte' refers to ‘babbelen’, the Dutch word for ‘chatting’, something that is very hard to do with a sticky babelutte rolling around your mouth. Each sweet has its own texture. 'Snoepveters' ("shoe laces") are long ribbons, made from liquorice.
They stick to your tongue so you can enjoy them for a lovely long time. Spekken are made with gum arabic, sugar, gelatine and occasionally chocolate. And let us not forget about bonbons. Have a 'Napoléon bonbon' from Antwerp for a lemon treat. A 'Mokatine' is made from Arabica coffee mixed with milk and sugar.
The most popular sweet in Namur is the 'biétrumé', a toffee caramel based on fresh cream and roast hazelnuts.
The best-known 'speculaas' is the thin, crispy and spicy biscuit that is often served with a coffee and, it has to be said, has now conquered the world. In Hasselt they have their own local version of this bake and the Hasseltse ‘spek-lââs’ is a sizeable chunk. But bite through the crispy outside layer and discover a tender centre.
It may be that at the start of the 19th century the Hasselt bakers found inspiration in the spéculation de Liège, a different type of speculaas with a very pronounced almond flavour. A good or ‘goeie’ speculaas is made with almonds; an ordinary without.
The origin of Hasselt speculaas is said to lie in the jenever (the Belgian national liquor) trade, another local specialty. The sugar that was left over from the distillation process took on a brown colour and the bakers used it to bake their speculaas.
Hasseltse speculaas is mentioned for the first time around 1830 when Belgium gained its independence. In other words, this biscuit is as old as the country. The ingredients of speculaas are butter, large-granule sugar, eggs, flour and cinnamon. The brewing village of Hoegaarden, known for its white beer, is the home of moutspeculaas.
The malt, roasted until it acquires a dark colour, adds its taste of caramel and spices. Sugar is another product of this region; the sugar town of Tienen is not far away and the local speculaas designs – a marquis and a marchioness – are beautifully crispy and mildly spicy.
No need to explain this country goes mad for waffles (wafels/gaufres). Which do you prefer: waffles from Liège or those from Brussels? The Liège waffle is heavier than its Brussels cousin and even uses crystallised sugar. This waffle is naturally sweet so it does not need a dousing of icing or caster sugar or a layer of whipped cream.
The two waffle types also differ in shape: the Brussels waffle is rectangular, the Liège version is diamond-shaped with rounded corners. It is made from a brioche dough with added pearl sugar, which will caramelise on the outside during baking. The Brussels waffle is airy and crunchy and can easily be baked at home.
They are eaten hot, sprinkled with powdered sugar and covered in a layer of whipped cream, syrup or chocolate. You can spot a Brussels waffle by its size, their rectangular shape and the large, deep square pattern made by the waffle iron.
These are also always eaten hot. The dough is made with flour, yeast, milk, water, butter, salt and whipped egg whites. Once prepared, the dough has to rise at room temperature for a number of hours before it can be used for baking. The Brussels waffle is light and crispy, ideally with a golden blonde colour, crusty on the outside and gooey on the inside. The whipped egg whites contribute to its airy character.
Lovers of waffles will put pen to paper to compose an ode to the delicate galet and the syrupy 'lacquemant'. First of all, the galet is a delicate rectangular vanilla waffle made with white sugar.
The citizens of Antwerp and Liège, however, plead their allegiance to the lacquemant, a type of super-waffle replete with sugar syrup, honey and perfumed with orange blossom. Beware, the result is really rather sticky. Désiré Smidts was a baker’s apprentice in the Lacquemant patisserie in Lille (Rijsel) in Northern France when he invented this new delicacy. In the waffle iron a dough ball was transformed into a round, flat cake that he filled with syrup. The waffle was named after its home.
This lacquemant became popular straight away and, 100 years on, it is part of the Belgian culinary dictionary. They can be found and enjoyed at each and every fun fair. Finally, the 'lukken' from Lo-Beauvoorde are so named because they are considered to be lucky.
They are traditional, often home-baked waffles, made with butter and often given out as presents. The dough is made with flour, granulated sugar, eggs, butter and salt. Commercially-made lukken may contain exotic spices. After rising the dough will rest overnight in a cool place and the next day the waffles are produced in a waffle iron with the characteristic diamond shape.
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