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Sunday, July 14, 2024

Column: Waffling around

A friend e-mailed me last week and complimented my column. Sort of. He said my environmental one bored him. He wanted to hear about three things: the European Union, soccer and waffles.

Yes, it’s true; Brussels is basically the capital of the European Union. Brussels hosts the European Commission, Council of the European Union, European Council and the second seat of the European Parliament.

But I don’t really care about any of that. I’ve woken up and marched through the sea of EU employees, through the EU quarter, and I’ve even had a few beers among them. While the international politics thing definitely has a presence here, it doesn’t factor into my daily life.

Soccer is also not much of a factor. I’ve been to a match, and yes, it was a joyous occasion, even in the rain. Everyone was singing and drinking and waving flags. But the truth is, the Belgian team kind of sucks. I rarely hear anyone in Brussels talking about soccer for this reason – field hockey and tennis are far hotter topics.

That leaves waffles.

Out of the EU, soccer and waffles, there is no contest as to which is dominating my study abroad experience. It’s waffles.

Waffles are very popular in Brussels. In the touristy spots, you’ll see long lines for waffles buried under whipped cream, chocolate and strawberries. Downtown, you’ll see a businesswoman briskly walking to work with waffle in hand. In the super markets, you’ll find prepackaged assortments of waffles and waffle cookies.

But the image you have in your head of a Belgian waffle is probably wrong, because the term “Belgian waffle” only exists in America.

In Belgium, apart from the prepackaged cookie varieties, there are two types of waffles – the Brussels and the Liège.

The Brussels waffle is the most similar to the airy, crisp waffle you are picturing. They are perfectly rectangular, with deep pockets for catching powdered sugar. They’re light, thick and should be eaten sitting down. Eating them with more than just powdered sugar or butter – in other words, the mountains of cream, chocolate and fruit that make them taste so good – is unauthentic.

But the Liège is the waffle that has my heart. It’s the waffle that has everyone’s hearts, actually. It’s the waffle that makes travelers go home and say, “I LOVE BELGIAN WAFFLES.”

Imagine a waffle-cookie hybrid. It’s doughy, dense and chewy. It’s served warm. Its batter holds pearl sugar crystals, which then caramelize when baked, and can satisfy any sweet tooth. It’s perfect au natural. It can be made even more perfect with a healthy spread of melted Belgian chocolate. Or a slight dollop of whipped cream. Or vanilla-scented.

If you want to picture my Belgian diet, just consider what Brussels is most known for – waffles, French fries, chocolate and beer.

Belgians claim they invented the French fry in the 17th century, and I believe them. Belgians are way more into fries than the French. Belgians are way more into fries than anyone, for that matter.

Brussels is packed with friteries and various snack shops that primarily sell fries. A typical lunch is a cone of fries – double fried in animal fat and double salted – with a few dollops of sauce on top. The most popular accompaniment is mayonnaise, but friteries have long lists of mayonnaise variants, flavored with everything from curry to chili to cabbage.

The words “Belgian” and “chocolate” go together beautifully, as do “eating” and “pralines”. Godiva came from Belgium, and here it’s regarded as strictly mediocre. Think about it.

That leaves beer. Think about this: Stella Artois is probably the second most standard, boring beer in Belgium. The most widespread is Jupiler, but that’s at least what’s heavily consumed by locals. Each legitimate Belgian beer – even Stella, sometimes – is served in its own special chalice, designed so the beer can look and taste its absolute best.

For real beer connoisseurs, there’s Trappist beer. There are exactly seven Trappist monasteries in the world where the monks brew beer, and six of them are in Belgium. It’s rich. It’s special. Trust me.JANELLE BITKER is never drinking Keystone Light again. Ask her for beer recommendations at jlbitker@ucdavis.edu.



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