You didn’t seriously think I was done with Belgium, did you? Yes, baking Jesus-shaped Christmas bread last month was fun and all, but I hardly did it justice in my eggnog-sodden state. Plus cougnou is more of a regional speciality, and I can hardly claim to have covered this country if most of my Belgian friends haven’t even heard of it. No. I live in Brussels and was determined to do right by my adopted country. Witness, then, the fabled moules-frites (or mosselen-friet, if you’re Flemish-speaking).
If ever there is a dish that the notoriously divided Belgians can call a ‘national dish’, it is this plateful of mussels and fries. OK, there are quite a few other candidates: we’ve eaten REALLY well since we moved here. British expats speak warningly of the “Brussels Stone” – the 6.3 kilograms (14 pounds) that attach themselves to your waist like magnets as soon as you step across the Channel.
If you think about famous Belgian foods, you might temporarily draw a blank…until you remember the waffles, the (misleadingly-named) french fries, and the chocolate. Can you already see the fat dripping down the page as you read this? And don’t even get me started on the over 1000 types of beer, each as deliciously refreshing as the last. Of course, Belgians are immune to the Brussels Stone, due to a little-known genetic mutation commonly found in countries with such tempting food.
So let it not be said that there’s nothing to eat here. On the one hand, you have all your French classics – my local supermarket is stuffed to the gills with charcuterie, smelly cheese, delicate pastries and baguettes so fresh they crinkle in your hand when you pick them up. On the other hand, there are also a local, more rustic cuisine. It’s here that you find your eel in green sauce, your beef stewed in ale, and your endives in ham and cheese sauce.
Moules-frites, or mussels and fries/chips, is somewhere in between these two extremes – undeniably Belgian, but also at home in the most sophisticated of Parisian cafes. This is what our Lonely Planet has to say about this lovely little dish:
Belgium’s signature Zeeland mussels are succulent and conspicuously larger than French equivalents…Forget forks – eat them local style using an empty mussel shell as a pair of tweezers…Invariably accompanying frites are included.
And the best thing of all is how easy it is to cook. Well, the mussels, anyway. They steam quickly and beautifully in a light broth that usually contains white wine and herbs. When you cook them that way, you call it moules marinière. But you can also add tomatoes and olives to make them Provence-style, with cream and garlic to make them moules a la Normandie, or even lemongrass and ginger for a Thai twist. Given my love for Belgian beer, I made moules à la bière. Recipes are not set in stone and I’ve thrown my own together, using an aromatic Hoegaarden-like ‘white beer’ that is popular for this dish.
Now for the frites – as tricky as the mussels are easy. French fries, you say? How complicated can potatoes and oil get? The answer: VERY. The secret to Belgian frites, apparently, is the fact that they are twice-fried, often in beef dripping. Our regular frietkot (roadside frites stall) makes the crispest, most delectable fries I have ever come across. Hell, I didn’t even like fries before coming to this country. I tried my best to mimic this technique, but to no avail. You need a thermometer, and a few other tricks up your sleeves. My fries were decidedly uncrunchy, and only rescued by a spell in the oven. I’ve included a link to a hi-tech ‘authentic’ recipe below, but also included my standby recipe for oven-cooked fries (or wedges, I suppose) in case you want something healthier or easier.
What Did I Need?
For the moules à la bière (serves 4 people, or a hungry expat couple):
- 2 kilograms of mussels in their shells
- 1 large stick of celery, chopped
- the zest of half a lemon
- 50 ml cream
- 5 sprigs of thyme (lemon thyme is even better if you can find it)
- 1 small onion (diced)
- 2 cloves of garlic (diced)
- 5 sprigs of parsley (chopped)
- a small bottle of beer (white or blonde beer is best)
For the frites:
Alternatively, for oven-baked fries, you’ll need:
- 4 large starchy potatoes
- a generous pinch of salt
- a generous drizzle of olive oil
How Did I Do It?
For the moules:
1. Rinse the mussels in a colander. Some recommend that you give each open mussel a firm tap on a hard surface, and discard those which do not immediately snap shut.
2. Using a large pot, fry the onions, garlic and celery in a little olive oil over medium heat. When onion is translucent and softened (about 3-4 minutes), add the beer and cream.
3. Add the mussels, herbs and lemon zest. Cover the pot and increase the temperature to high.
4. Leave to steam for 4 or 5 minutes.
5. Serve with frites, discarding any mussels that have not opened. Be sure to include some of the flavourful cooking liquid!
For the (oven) frites:
- Cut the potatoes into long sticks. This is a good method to use.
- Soak the potatoes in water for 10 minutes, then rinse to get rid of excess starch. Pat dry.
- Place the potatoes in an oven dish and drizzle with a glug of olive oil. Using your hands, mix the potatoes and oil until each frite is covered in a thin layer of oil. Pour of any excess.
- Sprinkle with salt.
- Place in an oven heated to 200 degrees celsius. Stirring occasionally, cook for half an hour, or until potatoes are crispy and golden brown.
- Serve immediately, accompanied by a generous helping of mayonnaise.
So How Did It Taste?
The moules were absolutely succulent. The lemon, herbs and celery left them so delicately aromatic, and the creamy beer sauce made for a perfect after-mussels soup! You can tell these are some of the largest and freshest mussels in the world – how lucky I am to be able to buy them two blocks from my house. Even Joe, a seafood sceptic at the best of times, loved them. This was the devastation we left behind:
The frites were a little annoying, however. No satisfying crunch, or at least not until we had put them in a hot oven for a while to crisp them up. Perfect frites will, henceforth, be relegated to street food status, while I’ll continue to make my perfectly yummy oven wedges at home. Joe was altogether more forgiving of this component of the meal, and I think his quote sums up perfectly the reason why:
Ah well, as an Englishman I have a much higher tolerance for soggy chips than you do. They taste fine to me.
No such thing as a bad french fry? I’m still not convinced. Maybe only when they’re accompanied by fat Zeeland mussels….