IN ASSOCIATION WITH THE BELGIAN TOURIST OFFICE

The Traveller's Guide To: Food & Drink in Wallonia

In a nation full of master brewers and chefs, Michael Jackson has the feast of his life


WALLOON CUISINE IN A NUTSHELL?

French quality and German quantity, say devotees. The Walloons don't brag about their cuisine. They know that it is discourteous to speak with one's mouth full - and, given the superb local dishes, they are very often to be found eating.

Wallonia is defined by natural features. Its main suit comprises the giant's share of the Ardennes - mostly forested hills. The word "Ardennes" derives from Arduinna, the name of a Celtic goddess. The highest point in the Ardennes (and Belgium as a whole) is the 694m (2,276ft) Hautes Fagnes, east of Liège near the German border, but much of the south and east of the region is over 500m (1,640ft).

Meanwhile Wallonia's rivers have created deep, winding valleys through the plateaux. Most notable is the Meuse, which flows from the French Ardennes and waters a deliciously fertile stretch of land, meandering on to Namur and Liège. But the Lesse, the Ourthe, the Lienne, the Semois and the Amblève are also important. All in all, this terrain provides excellent ingredients for food and drink.

WHERE DID THEY GET THE RECIPES?

Initially, from Rome. Monasticism made a major contribution to dairying, baking, brewing and agriculture; Trappist monks still produce beers, breads and cheeses. The abbey of Orval (00 32 6131 1261; www.orval.be), is a symbol of art, architecture and nationhood. It is located in the village of Villers-devant-Orval south of Neufchateau. The abbey is open 9.30am-6pm, admission €4.50 (£3.20).

The Duchy of Burgundy once extended across the Ardennes and headed on toward the delta of the Meuse, Schelde and Rhine. Today, the Walloons love their meat and wine red, and still call their beers "burgundies". Someone who visibly enjoys all three is dubbed "a Burgundian".

HOW DO I BECOME ONE?

Qualifying as a Burgundian is rather like becoming a barrister in Britain, but with much better food. When you are accepted, you may find that lunch and dinner are separated like two halves of a play, with a quick drink in the bar in between. I have more than once been coaxed from the table, with the taste of the digestif lingering, and been conducted to the bar for an aperitif before dinner.

I'LL SETTLE FOR A GLASS OF WATER

The Romans took a fancy to the local water. Devotees of spring water know that the word "spa" originates from the town in the Ardennes. The springs there were known to Pliny. The term has been suffixed to many towns, but there is only one Spa, with a capital "s", and that is the original, in Wallonia.

Spa has at least 250 springs. Several bring forth water that is rich in iron and carbonic acid, and this has over the years been taken, both as a bath and a drink, by people suffering from anaemia, gout and rheumatism. Other springs in the town pour water that is unusually pure. The mineral water that has been sold commercially for 100 years in bottles with the label "Spa" has a far lower level of dissolved solids than any of its principle competitors. There is another celebrated source at Chaudfontaine, near Liège, and its waters are also available commercially bottled.

IS WATER AN IMPORTANT CULINARY INGREDIENT?

Yes, in the making of a basic stock. Bouillon is named after a regional capital in Wallonia. Bouillon stands in a loop of the river Semois and is crowned by a castle. Here, the Archeoscope Godefroid de Bouillon (00 32 61 46 83 03, www.archeoscopebouillon.be) is a hi-tech museum focusing on the crusades. Godefroid was a crusader who took time out from his travels to invent the broth that is so essential to casseroles - and soups, for which Wallonia has a passion. Leek is the most popular ingredient for soups.

SOUNDS LIKE WALES, NOT WALLONIA

The two are linked by more than their first three letters. Leeks are grown in similar terroir and landscape in the hilly province of Hainaut. These lands graze sheep, too: another link with Wales.

Leeks are sometimes sautéed in dark, abbey-style beers, especially as an ingredient in the flamiche. This is a rich, cheesy, counterpart to the quiche of Lorraine, south across the border in France. The finest of flamiches is cooked over a wood fire. A flamiche festival is held in early September in the town of Dinant, near Namur, on the river Meuse, but this lovely town is worth visiting at any time of year. Handily, it is served by direct trains from Brussels. Dinant's onion-domed church of Notre-Dame is made particularly impressive because of the setting, against a curtain of rock with the citadel above. About 1km away, the Rocher Bayard is Belgium's Lorelei - an imposing rock, steeped in legend. Dinant was also the birthplace of Adolphe Sax, inventor of the saxophone. For more information, contact Dinant's tourist office (00 32 88 22 28 70; www.dinant.be).

WHAT DO I DRINK WITH A FLAMICHE?

Near Dinant is the world's only wood-fired brewery, Caracole, at Falmignoul. The brewery, revived by enthusiasts in recent years, is a commercial operation. In flavour, its amber ale has the maltiness to face the flamiche. If the food-drink partnership reminds you more of the American pizza-and-beer, you might prefer your flamiche with a beer named for Monsieur Sax.

COULD WE CUT TO THE CHASE?

If you are a chasseur, you will love Wallonia. Its hills and forests are breeding grounds for game, especially wild boar and partridge; you will often see the latter wandering across rural lanes. Also popular is venison, smoked ham (jambon d'Ardennes is a salt-cured version) and the celebrated Ardennes paté. Ardennes sausage, a melange of smoked veal and pork, may appeal.

Salads are taken very seriously; the salade liégeoise is a staple throughout the region, rich with green beans and warm bacon pieces. The chicon, or Belgian endive, is locally grown in dark, damp cellars and is often served raw as a very crisp salad (or it may be braised, creamed or served au gratin, usually with fowl or game). Recently, the hop has been revived as a salad vegetable. Pliny, who is cited as an early visitor to Wallonia, described the use of hop shoots as a salad in his Natural History.

Hops were grown in Wallonia until about the start of the 20th century; they were reintroduced in 2005 by a schoolteacher-brewer named Alain Brootcoorens, in the village of Erquelinnes, across the border from the French town of Maubeuge. Today, hop shoots (jets d'houblon) are served as a seasonal delicacy, like asparagus. Their natural season is late February and early March, when the grower has to thin the shoots. At that time, they are nutty and juicy. Out of season, cultivated under glass, they can be woody. The classic recipe is to blanch the shoots and serve them with poached eggs and a mousseline sauce. There are plans for a hop festival in Erquelinnes, probably in the August/September harvest time.

WILL WALLOON HOPS ALSO BE USED IN BEER?

Yes, but not the hop shoot. The hop cone, or "blossom" is the part of the plant used in brewing. It imparts aroma and dryness, and acts as a preservative. Before brewers settled on the hop, other herbs, spices and fruits were used - and spiced beers are still more widely produced in Wallonia than anywhere else. The peels of bitter oranges, from the Caribbean island of Curacao, are popular; this dates from the days when most of Wallonia was part of the Netherlands, which colonised Curacao. Brootcoorens has a beer spiced with bitter orange and juniper, named La Sambresse, Bière de Tendresse.

ISN'T THAT A RATHER FEMININE NAME FOR A BEER?

There's more. A beer called Sara is produced by the Silenrieux brewery, in the oddly named Vallée de l'eau Heure, an area of lakes and reservoirs, where water-skiing is popular. This appetisingly bittersweet beer is made with buckwheat. A paler, and more fruity brother brew, called Joseph, is made from spelt. Both crops were once grown in the area, and have now been revived.

BACK TO THE MEAL. WHAT'S FOR PUDDING?

Dessert is equally rich: tarts topped with fruit (especially rhubarb) or sugar are popular. With no Caribbean colonies, Belgium developed a beet sugar industry. Pale and dark "candy sugars", derived from beetroot, are a distinctive ingredient of some strong beers; dark candy sugar gives a rummy taste to some Belgian Trappist ales, especially the Abbey "Dark Double" type.

WHERE CAN I TASTE ALL THIS FOOD AND DRINK?

You could enjoy a wide range of dishes in the upmarket restaurants of Brussels, but happily Wallonia is full of excellent places to eat - many of them in the capital of Wallonia, Namur, upstream from Liège. Here, the Meuse meets the Sambre in dramatic fashion; a medieval citadel tops the outcrop of rock at the confluence of the rivers. The cobbled city centre has been restored, with traffic-free areas and there is a range of excellent shops and restaurants. There are also plenty of country houses where dining is an all-day and/or all-evening affair. An excellent specimen is the Domaine des Forges de Pernelle - a manor house hotel/restaurant set in a valley 2km south of Couvin on the Rue de Pernelle (00 32 60 34 66 06).

Additional research by Simon Calder and Jack Seymour. Michael Jackson is the author of 'The Great Beers of Belgium', which can be ordered from www.beerpassion.com

FIVE BURGUNDIAN BREWS

Orval (6.2 alcohol by volume)

World-class. The most intense and dry of the Trappist brews. Arguably the most complex, too. Very aromatic. Lean, firm, malty. Dry, aperitif, hoppiness, with a hint of lemon zest; and the hessian-like character of semi-wild yeast (Brettanomyces). Burgundian architecture on a 1,000-year-old site, near Florenville, in the province of Luxembourg. Rochefort 10° (10-11 abv)

The town of Rochefort is at the heart of Ardennes' comestibles country. The sweeter delights of Wallonian gastronomy, from game dishes with prunes to chocolate desserts, are well-matched with the darker and sweeter of the Trappist brews: a case for investing in some chocolatey, raisiny, Rochefort 10°.

Saison Dupont (6.5 abv)

Farmhouse brewery producing a classic beer. The summer Saisons are a speciality of the province Hainaut. A fine, sustained, bead; a rocky head; a cork-popping, liveliness and a refreshing sharpness. The Dupont descendants' Moinette farm is in the village of Tourpes, near Leuze.

Abbaye des Rocs (9.0 abv)

Jean-Pierre Eloir worked in his local town hall, determining council taxes. He established his brewery 25 years ago at home in Montignies-sur-Roc. It is now run by his daughter Nathalie. Their Abbaye des Rocs is made from six specifications of malt, three varieties of hop, and ten spices: the spiciest beer in Wallonia.

Bush Prestige (13.0 abv)

The family Dubuisson translated its name to Bush at the end of the First World War to honour the British battalion which liberated their brewery. Its specialities have long been variations on British style barley wine. That term suits Bush's vinous, vanilla-tasting Prestige, matured in French oak barriques.

Michael Jackson

A DRINK WITH THE LOCALS

Marc Stroobandt is the Belgian beer ambassador and a master beer sommelier.

Why did you first get interested in beer?

I started law school and to fund my studies I worked in a specialised beer house.

I decided that was more interesting than law.

How does one become the Belgian beer ambassador?

Drink a lot! In Belgium I did courses with a lot of different brewers and gained a lot of knowledge by working with them. When I moved to London I worked for Belgo restaurants to help develop their Belgian beer concept but then they became a plc and I was made redundant. I decided to be an ambassador because, having been the link between the Belgian brewers and the sellers here in Britain, I could see that there was a need for someone to bridge that gap.

Do you travel a lot between London and Belgium?

I have just got back from Belgium where I met with the Belgian Brewers' Federation. Every time I go back there are always new beers being created.

What is the beer like in Wallonia?

It's so varied. You've got the Ardenne region, where the beer tastes so different to anything else, and the various Trappist monasteries that hold all sorts of possibility and variety.

Do you only drink beer?

Both in England and Belgium a trend is starting where people will go to a restaurant, start off with a beer, have a bottle of wine and then finish their meal with a beer. That's great - the drinks are complementary and shouldn't compete with each other.

Interview by Dan Poole

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