Today, June 21st, marks the Belgian National Holiday, or the „Nationale feestdag van België“, also called the „Fête nationale belge“ in French or „Belgischer Nationalfeiertag“ in German as the Kingdom of Belgium has three official languages: Dutch, French, and German. On this day, Belgians celebrate the separation of Belgium from the Netherlands in 1831, as well as the formal establishment of the Kingdom. Belgium had been part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands since 1815, but the majority of the population were Roman Catholic and increasingly felt the rule of King William I favored the Northern protestants. The discontentment was heightened by high levels of unemployment in the South. In August 1830, riots led to a wider uprising and calls for Belgium to succeed from the Netherlands. A London Conference of major European powers then recognized Belgian independence.
After Belgium asserted its independence from the Netherlands on 4th October 1830, the Belgian National Congress asked Leopold I of Saxe-Coburg to become king of the newly formed country. Leopold accepted and was proclaimed "King of the Belgians" on 26th June 1831. He swore allegiance to the new Belgian constitution in the Royal Palace in Brussels on 21st July 1831, thus becoming the first King of the Belgians. The king's vow marked the start of the independent state of Belgium under a constitutional monarchy and parliament.
As my devoted readers know, we have been to Belgium many times and it is one of our favorite countries to visit. I have written about the amazing city of Antwerp here, here and here. And about the incredible city of Brugge here and here. I have walked the cookie trail in a search for the best Speculoos cookies and the best Antwerp Hand Cookies (Antwerpse Handjes).
So what better occasion than today to celebrate a bit of that amazing Belgian cuisine. There is so much more to Belgian cuisine than the beloved chocolate, waffles and cookies and the incredibly good mussels and fries (moules frites). But, unfortunately, Belgian cuisine is not really that widely known. But there are a few dishes that you should definitely prepare. Among them is Gentse waterzooi, named after the pituresque city of Ghent, the historic capital of Flanders in northern Belgium. Gentse waterzooi or Waterzooi gantois (among the Francophones), is a classic stew of Flanders. Its name is Dutch, "zooien" meaning "to boil". It is a rich chicken stew made with vegetables and eggs and cooked in a rich chicken stock. Waterzooi can be made with chicken, rabbit, or fish. The original form is made of fish, either freshwater or sea, (preferably perch) though today Chicken waterzooi is more common. The most accepted theory is that rivers of Ghent became too polluted and the fish there disappeared. Waterzooi is very nice served with boiled potatoes or toasted French bread with some good, fresh Belgian butter.
Ruth van Waerebeek, a well known Belgian-born cookbook author, describes this famous Belgian dish in her amazing cookbook „Everybody Eats Well in Belgium“ as "a confusion of a soup with a stew, chock-full of herbs and vegetables". And the wonderful Julia Child named this as „the most interesting recipe she's clipped“. And inspired by these lovely ladies, I prepared my Gentse waterzooi with chicken and thickened it at the end with Belgian heavy cream and egg yolks. Enjoy!
- one whole chicken
- 2 fresh bay leaves
- 4 sprigs fresh Italian parsley
- 1⁄2 tspn dried thyme (I am know to use fresh thyme when I have it on hand)
- fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 3 tbsps butter, unsalted
- 2 white onions, medium, coarsely chopped
- 4 to 6 cups of fresh water (depending on the size of the chicken and your pot)
- 4 carrots, large, peeled and sliced into 0.5 cm rounds
- 5 leeks, medium, rinsed well, white parts only, sliced into rounds (of course, since Belgium is know for its fantastic leeks, I brought some back from Antwerp last week)
- 2 celery ribs, medium, sliced into 1 cm rounds
- 4 baking potatoes, large, peeled and cut into cubes or slices
- 1 cup heavy cream (of course, I used Belgian cream)
- 2 egg yolks (L), organic or free-range
- 1⁄2 cup Italian parsley, chopped
- Remove excess fat from chicken cavity. Rinse the chicken inside and out. Place 1 bay leaf, 2 sprigs parsley, and 1/4 teaspoon thyme in cavity. Season with salt and pepper.
- Melt butter in heavy Dutch oven over medium heat. Add onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until onions are translucent. This will take about 5 minutes.
- Place the chicken, breast side up, in the Dutch oven, on top of the onions. Add water to mostly cover the chicken.
- Cover and simmer gently over low heat for 30 minutes.
- Skim the surface to remove any foam and fat.
- Add the carrots, leeks, and celery. Add the remaining parsley sprigs, thyme and bay leaf. Cover, and adjust heat to maintain a slow simmer for another 30 minutes.
- Add the potatoes and continue to simmer until potatoes are done and chicken is very tender, about 20 or 30 minutes. Remove from heat.
- Remove chicken and transfer to a large plate. Use a slotted spoon or similar tool to remove parsley and bay leaves from broth. Let the chicken rest until it is cool enough to handle, then remove the skin and peel meat from the bones. Discard skin and bones. Slice or shred the meat into bite-sized pieces.
- Place Dutch oven with broth over medium heat.
- In the meantime heat the cream and the egg yolks together in a bowl. Take a ladle ful of hot broth and slowly add to the egg yolk mixture, while stirring. This tempers the yolks. Then, slowly stir the tempered egg yolk mixture into the larger pot of broth and vegetables. Do not boil or the egg yolks might curdle.
- Add the chicken. Garnish with fresh chopped parsley and some julienned vegetables OR the vegetables from the soup.
- Serve in bowls, making sure everyone gets equal amounts of chicken, vegetables and broth.
Now what would a Belgian celebration be without a lovely Belgian sweet treat. When visiting the the East Flanders city of Geraardsbergen (or Gramont as French-speaking Belgians would call it), true foodies simply cannot leave without having tasted the Mattentaart, a small, round, curd cheese pie that is devotedly prepared by the local bakers. It is a unique regional cake that enjoys great fame, even beyond the national borders. People living in the rich pastureland areas around Geraardsbergen claim that this particular pastry can be made properly nowhere else. Be that as it may, the production of these pies depends heavily on the Geraardsbergen area's main dairy produce, milk and buttermilk, that is used to prepare the unique, fine, dry curd for the cheesecake part. The Mattentaart was the first Flemish food product to be granted (in 2006) the much-sought-after European Regional Product status, meaning that a pastry can only be called Mattentaart if it was actually produced in Geraardsbergen (or the city's neighbouring village of Lierde) and made using the traditional, ancient recipe which dates back to 1510, while also using milk from the region.
Although little is know about its origins, those involved in Geraardsbergse Mattentaart marketing contend that it goes all the way back to the Middle Ages. The words “matten” or “maton”, means coagulated or curdled milk, and the word is often found in old German, French and Flemish dialects. The quality of the “matten” is determined by the quality of the milk and indirectly by the dairy cattle’s fodder. Local bakers know for certain that the soil cultivation is of major importance in the mattentaart production. The curd is made with 8 litres of whole milk to which 3 litres of buttermilk are added. The curds are drained in muslin and hung to dry. The dried curds are finely ground and the egg whites are beaten with sugar, the yolks are added to the curds, and then one mixture is folded into the other to make a lovely tangy fresh cheese filling for these wonderful tarts.
- 1.5 liters whole milk (I recommend using organic and/or farm fresh, whole milk here)
- 0.5 liters cups fresh thick buttermilk (again, I recommend farm fresh and/or organic here)
- 2 eggs (L), organic or free-range
- a pinch of fine sea salt
- 55 grams ground natural almonds (or almond meal)
- 50 grams white caster (superfine) sugar
- a few drops of natural almond extract
- 300 grams good-quality puff pastry (feel free to use homemade)
- You will have to plan a day ahead: Bring the milk to a boil in a heavy pan. When it is boiling, carefully add the buttermilk and stir well. „Matten“ or curds will start to form in the whole milk immediately as you stir.
- Remove the pan from the heat and prepare a fine sieve by lining it with a linen dishtowel or double layer of cheesecloth. Place the sieve over a deep pot and pour the curd mixture through it. Allow to drain in a cool place for at least twelve hours. (Stir or loosen the curds occasionally if necessary to help them drain.) The curds should be as dry as possible.
- When the curds have drained, separate the egg yolks from the egg whites and whip the egg whites to stiff peaks with a pinch of fine sea salt – make sure the container you use is completely fat free.
- In a food processor, or with an electric beater, beat together the curds, egg yolks, almonds and sugar. Fold the egg whites carefully and evenly into the mixture until completely incorporated.
- Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius.
- Butter your tart/pie pans. And cut the puff pastry to fit your pans., thereby lining the bottom of the pan with the puff pastry, then adding the curd mixture. Then place the second layer of puff pastry on top of the filling. Make several incisions on the upper pastry layer.
- Put the tarts in the preheated oven and bake at 200 degrees Celsius for 10 minutes. Reduce to a 175 degrees Celsius and bake for additional 15 minutes. Then raise the oven heat to 200 degrees Celsius again for a final 5 minutes of baking.
- Remove the Mattentaart pies from their pans and allow to cool before serving.
If you are lucky enough to come across a genuine Mattentaart, you are in for a treat. The addition of eggs and a touch of ground almond and pure almond extract to the cheesecake mixture produces a flavor that is surprisingly complex for something so simple. The taste of the Mattentaart filling is not unlike that of the French Tarte au fromage blanc or the German Käsekuchen. And the puff pastry adds a delightful, tender crunch, far better in its way than the usual cheesecake crust. Even when you use milk and buttermilk from your region!
I took the liberty to serve the Mattentaart with fresh dark burgundy, sweet cherries and tangy red currants that I brought back from Belgium when visiting last Saturday. And served the Waterzooi as well as the tarts on my beloved vintage plates from a Belgian manufacturer (Boch La Louviere). Could not have celebrated this wonderful country and its rich culinary traditions in a more delicious way!