Go on, have a look at your bookshelves. How many cookery books have you got on Belgian cuisine? None? Doesn't surprise me one iota; but thinking about it, isn't this a bit strange when Belgium "boasts more three-star restaurants per capita than any other nation, including France"?
I can't say I know Belgium especially well, but I found it interesting. A few years ago, before the joy that was marriage to Mrs Aitch, there was the most marvellous holiday- perhaps the best holiday I have ever had- driving through the Graveyard of Europe: destination Heidelberg via Alsace-Lorraine.
With hindsight 'driving to Germany' might seem a trifle eccentric (most Brits head off to the Dordogne, Brittany or the Loire), but the adventures along the way certainly didn't let us down: there was an especially amusing dinner party at a crumbling château in the remote, bleak and dusty werewolf country of Lorraine, which included amongst the guests (bizarrely, and by occult coincidence) someone I had worked with years before at Bonhams Chelsea, now in the process of some form of elopement (girl plus van); and a Dutch couple of tangerine hue and late middle age, both in polyester turquoise jumpsuits, on their way back to Eindhoven from their villa on the Côte d'Azur. This they liked to remind us of at every possible moment. The main focus of the conversation (pigeon Franglais and sign language) seemed to focus on the strange fact that we were touring Lorraine in the first place, a region, apparently devoid of tourism. This was met with miscomprehension and utter disbelief.
Anyway, to get back to Perfidious Albion we had to drive through Belgium, which included- oh great excitement on my part- a stop off at the battlefield of Waterloo, and the châteaux of La Haye Sainte and Hougoumont. Those of us who spent a large proportion of our childhoods toiling over the Airfix kit will remember them well.
It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking there's nothing more to Belgium than decent dark chocolate, moules, fries, mayonnaise, trappist monks, beer and Tin-Tin; as the place as some sort of a mini-France, and of course, this is completely wrong. Once you cross the Belgian border, things change; the driving is insane for starters and I gather, possibly as a consequence of nineteen months of non-Government, weeds grow in prolifiation through the broken concrete of the autoroutes. I gather that Belgium didn't introduce a driving test until 1960 and so the noble tradition of free-style driving continues: the roads are populated with meandering vans driven by long-haired Goths.
But the food there is noticeably very good indeed, and even your bog-standard local restaurant will sell you a well-presented dish, cooked to a high standard and with care. The food is Flemish with a Gallic twist, or indeed, Gallic with a Flemish Twist. Thow in some Nordic influences for good measure, and you're beginning to get an idea of what Belgian cuisine is all about. Which brings me to Ruth Van Waerebeek's The Taste of Belgium, first published in America in 1996, and very recently re-published in a handsome hardback edition by Grub Street with evocative photographs by Regula Ysewijn.
It's a brilliant new addition to the cookery bookshelves, plugging that worrying gap; and so we have: Sweet-and Sour Cucumbers with Chives, Bay Scallops on a Bed of Belgian Endives, Fish Stew from the North Sea, Mussels with Snail Butter, Waterzooi of Chicken, Braised Partridge with Cabbage & Abbey Beer, Gratin of Brussells Sprouts, Chocolate Mousse, and- of course- the definitive recipe for authentic Belgian fries. By now, you will have got the drift: lots of Northern comfort stuff; we're in home-cooking territory here, and the receipes are relatively easy to make, too.
Having said that I made the Waterzooi of Chicken, which is a soupy stew of fish or chicken bound in a creamy stock, thickened with egg. I didn't read the recipe properly and ended up over-cooking the chicken to a stringy mess. Completely my fault. If I had made it as Ruth Van Waerebeek had instructed it would have been delicious.