The Gastronomy of Wallonia.
I should know from experience to expect the unexpected in Belgium. And, even the idea of wine from Belgium, the theme for this short break to Wallonia, seemed just a little off-piste, though of course, Belgium is not far from France or Germany, both of which produce excellent wines. As is generally the way, there was more than wine to explore. In my next piece I’ll be covering the vineyards and wines we tried in addition to providing some recommendations for local restaurants.
As a precursor to the wines, we explored a little of Namur at the start of our trip. And, it was probably our first stop that provided the inspiration for the oldest and most influential of the winemakers we met during our stay. Hidden in the vaults of Namur Citadel are the wines of Grafé Lecocq, one of Belgium’s leading wine ‘negociants’. Of course, the wines are predominantly French – an amazing collection from the most important regions of France. Here, they have a history of bottling wines themselves. And, it was here that Philippe Grafé, the winemaker we met at his own vineyard in Domaine du Chenoy, worked until he was 65, when he ‘retired’ and started his vineyard.
In a way, that set the tone for the rest of the trip. Belgium has an enviable habit of taking what it sees being done well elsewhere – and doing it themselves.
At Le Safran de Patr’Ann we met with Patrick Rolain who quit his job as a central heating engineer to follow his heart just over five years ago.
Why saffron? Well, chance as much as anything as his sister happened upon a saffron farm on her travels and suggested that he should try.
But, when you learn of the intricacies of saffron production it’s easy to wonder why. A labour intensive process, with a notoriously difficult harvest, producing saffron is entirely done by hand. The flowers, Crocus Sativus, appear between September and November when the days are warm and the nights are cold.
They have to be harvested and then processed quickly to ensure that the precious saffron stamens are not spoilt. Hand-picked at specific times of the day to make sure that the flowers are in the best possible condition, the stamens are then removed and dried briefly before being packed, all within 24 hours. It takes roughly 150 flowers yield 1 g of saffron, and the work is very labour intensive – so most saffron producers are artisan businesses.
We learnt that it took five years for the business to turn a profit. And, that during that period Patrick was supported by his wife. But, despite that, Patrick has established a business which supplies local restaurants and has its own range of products for sale including saffron jellies, honeys and more.
The story of Corinne de Wulf, the owner of Ferme du Vieux Tilleul and producer of Petit Gris snails is similarly quirky. Her husband was in the army and she wanted to farm. But, as she said, it would have been hard for a woman to manage cows by herself. Instead, she picked a smaller type of livestock in the form of Petit Gris snails.
The snails are cultivated in wooden pens, fed on turnips and then harvested, before being processed carefully.
They have to be purged in salt water, then boiled and then bottled in sterilized jars. They are sold to some of the top restaurants in Belgium, including Michelin starred Comme Chez Toi in Brussels. And I liked them so much I ended up buying both a jar and a vacuum-packed plate of snail filled mushroom caps. Delicious.
It’s another family business. Corinne’s husband has now retired from the Army and helps with the business, as do her two sons. They have extended their product range – I was impressed with the pre-prepared dishes using snails and would have bought more if I hadn’t been travelling back to the UK. I’m not entirely sure what the customs officers would think about the import of snails in any form other than in a jar. Smuggling in one vacuum pack was as far as I’d go in terms of risk.
Smaller than the more common Bourgogne snails, the Petit Gris is a real delicacy. Instead of becoming rubbery, they are tender and succulent. My companion tried to guess what she was eating one evening and thought it was perhaps a mussel. I’ve eaten the snail stuffed mushrooms and am now looking forward to creating something with my jar of snails and seeing which of my friends I can fool!
Corinne explained that ‘cheap’ snails are often imposters – parts of a much larger mollusc from Africa that are cut up into small morsels. The Petits Gris are genuinely delicious with a texture that is tender and succulent.
Apart from these two unusual products, we also enjoyed a number of regional specialities. I can’t eat strawberries, but the region is famous for the Wépion variety and even has a strawberry museum.
And, we enjoyed all sorts of cheeses and meats – a delicious local black sausage.
Beer of course and tasters of a Genever – the precursor of Gin that is well known throughout the low countries and was the drink the English adopted as their own after the 100 years wall – ‘Dutch courage’.
Finally, we spent a sunny afternoon exploring the gardens of the Citadel of Namur and learning more about foraging from Lionel Raway of Cuisine Sauvage. We managed to find plenty for a feast – from nettles to garlic roots, pennyroyal and more. The Citadel is a fortress, originally from the Roman era, though what you can currently see dates from around 1692. And there’s plenty going on in the grounds – from foraging to tennis!
It’s somewhere to come for a great view of the city of Namur too…
It’s a charming medieval city where you can yet again expect the unexpected, like the architecturally stunning Eglise St Loup which was originally built by the Jesuits as an extension to the college they had founded. The church was dedicated to Saint Ignatius, the founder of the Society of Jesus. The architect, Pierre Huyssens is regarded as the master of Belgian baroque. Sadly, he did not see its completion, as funds ran out the construction, which started in 1620 lasted for over 20 years, with the church being finished in 1641.
But, on this occasion, we had more than enough on our plates (and in our glasses) exploring the wine and food of the region. Look out for my next feature covering the vineyards of Wallonia.
Thinking of travelling to Belgium soon – why not pin this post for later?
I was a guest of The Wallonia Tourism Board. For more information see their website
I travelled by Eurostar from London to Brussels. Fares start at £29 one way and the journey takes just over two hours