Say Belgium, and one’s thoughts turn immediately to lace and linens, the EU, Tintin comics, Jacques Brel and the Mannekin Pis. Say Belgian food, and one pictures waffles, chocolate, beer – and mussels.
The mussels I’m referring to are potfuls of steaming mollusks strewn with onions and herbs and glistening with juices redolent of wine and the sea. And it’s hard not to picture a heaping bowl of fries nearby, along with a side of silky mayonnaise and a foam-topped pils beer.
I had a meal of moules years ago in Brussels, but the reality hardly lived up to the fantasy. The fries were limp, the mayonnaise was tasteless and the mussels were sandy. Thank heavens for the beer! When I mentioned this meal – and the name of the restaurant – to my friend Serge Beaumarriage, a Belgian chef, he shook his head. “That place is for tourists. No Belgian would set foot in there.”
When I asked him where he used to eat mussels in Brussels, he said: “In season – months containing the letter R – we eat them in all kinds of places, from the top restaurants to the brasseries and little bistros. In the tourist season, we travel north to the small Flemish towns at the seaside. We’d order classic dishes like tomatoes with grey shrimp, moules casserole, frites and heart-shaped Flemish waffles.”
Born and raised in Brussels, Serge has made Montreal his home for over a decade, and like so many European chefs, he is intensely proud of his homeland and finds many of our local ingredients lacking. For that reason, he rarely prepares mussels at home.
When I asked him to teach me to make authentic Belgian moules and frites, he said it wouldn’t be easy. According to him, Canadian mussels are less meaty – better suited to soups and starters – and our potatoes are all wrong. But I knew deep down he was enthusiastic, for when I asked whether his recipe comes from one of the fancy restaurants where he worked in Brussels, he laughed and said no, he had learned to make mussels from his Flemish grandmother.
A proper moules-and-frites dinner can be made with basic kitchen equipment; all you need is a mussel pot for the mussels and another for the frites. Yet the proper equipment simplifies the undertaking, and Serge convinced me to track down traditional single-serving mussel pots with deep, round lids perfect for depositing the shells as you eat. Sold on every street corner in Belgium, here they are rare, but I did find two restaurant supply stores that sell them.
Chefs tend to show off when they come to cook in someone else’s kitchen. They arrive empty-handed, rustle through the cupboards, and next thing you know, they’re sharpening your knives, setting up colanders in the sink and unearthing odd-shaped pots you’d forgotten you had.
While I sat peeling potatoes for the frites, Serge plunged our P.E.I. mussels into cold water, and began pulling off the odd stray beard and tossing away any that were opened or cracked. Though my fishmonger told me this operation is no longer necessary with farmed mussels, Serge insisted on giving them a once over before cooking.
Next I watched him prepare a mirepoix, a mix of onion, celery, leek and carrot used to flavour soups, stews, sauces, stocks and steamed shellfish.
He then showed me how to prepare the frites (see below). If you want to test whether a cook is a born-and-bred Belgian, ask him to cut fries. Serge’s were perfect, every batonnet cut 6 to 7 centimetres long by 1 centimetre wide.
One of the secrets of Belgian frites is the blanching process, which involves frying the potatoes first and letting them cool before giving them a final blast in hot oil. Serge insists on lard for frying – not the healthiest choice but one that results in frites that are crisp, dry and delicious.
When it came time to prepare the traditional Belgian frites dipping sauce made of mayonnaise, mustard and cream, we agreed that starting with prepared Hellman’s made life a lot easier than whisking it up from scratch. And so good was the final mix, it tasted homemade.
With all the ingredients lined up in front of him, Serge sprang into action, starting by blanching the frites, then heating butter and oil in the two mussel pots. In went the mirepoix, followed by the mussels. He stopped for a minute to drain the frites, covered the mussel pots, then began gently shaking them over high heat. A few minutes before the end of the cooking time, he plunged the frites in for their final hot-oil treatment, and poured a cup of white wine over the mussels.
He then shook the crisp frites into paper-towel-lined serving bowls, placed the mussel pots on serving plates along with the bowls of mayonnaise and, just before serving, poured the beer. Not only was the process quick (about 30 minutes of prep work and 15 minutes of cooking), the results were outstanding.
At the table, there were a few more rules to follow to make the experience truly “Bruxelloise.”
Cutlery is out. Moules and frites is finger food, and the ideal method for eating is to pinch each mussel out of its casing with the aid of an empty shell. (Unopened mussels must be discarded).
To enhance the mayonnaise, Serge suggested we stir in a few spoonfuls of the mussel juices.
And once at the bottom of the pot, we were encouraged to slurp up the remaining juices with the vegetables. My pleasure!
Not only was this one of the easiest meals I’ve ever prepared, it was also one of the least expensive. This generous dinner, consisting of a pot of mussels, a dish of frites and a glass of imported Belgian beer, cost about $7 per person (plus the cost of the frying fat). Expect to pay about $10 for 2 kilograms of mussels, which should generously serve two as a main course.
We may not have started with all the authentic ingredients, but the results were uniformly delicious. Our moules-and-frites could never have hit the heights of the seaside restaurants of Serge’s youth, but they certainly quashed my memories of sandy mussels in Brussels.
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