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A peculiar little cookie

It’s the subject of heavy debate from time to time. Like today…

Lunchtime. A news item on Flemish TV about another Belgian delight which is about to conquer the world: speculaas.

Huh? What was that? Speculaas, right, I heard it correctly. And yet the item was dedicated to speculoos instead, illustrated with footage from Lotus Bakeries, Belgiums biggest speculoos manufacturer.

It may be a detail to the blissfully unaware… but there’s a significant difference between speculoos and speculaas. Oh yes, siree! Let me explain.

Speculaas is a typically Dutch (as in Holland) spiced biscuit made with flour, a dark brown sugar called basterdsuiker or cassonade and so-called speculaas spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, kardamon and white pepper. This forms a dense, rather dry dough which only rises by adding baking powder, which is then baked in special speculaas moulds. Some  of these date back to the Middle Ages. The oldest known mould in Holland was carved around the 1600′s. Speculaas is commonly found in a large variety of shapes and sizes around the name day of Sinterklaas (Saint Nicolas, December 6).

Note: l will elaborate on the story of this childfriendly saint in one of my future posts.

source: Bakkerijmuseum.nl

In fact Belgium and Lotus Bakeries are not known for speculaas at all. What we make is called speculoos. According to our chauvinist neighbours from across the north border, it is nothing but a variation to their speculaas. Do not be fooled, however, for speculaas is a truly Belgian cookie, much more sophisticated and refined than its Dutch counterpart. In the USA these are known as Biscoffs: a combination of words Biscuit and Coffee, simply because their caramel flavor and crisp texture make these cookies the perfect accompaniment to a cup of coffee or espresso drink.

So once again, a fine Belgian product is fighting its way out of the shadows and into the international spotlight… Not with the help of our fine local media though.

But hey, that’s just the way the cookie crumbles, isn’t it?

 
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Posted by on September 25, 2012 in No category

 

Sugar Beans

It’s a small step from chocolate to more sweet stuff, right?

So here’s one of the things I’m really passionate about: sugar beans. Now, I know they are virtually unheard of outside of this country. In fact, I guess it’s just people in Flanders and part of Holland who will know what I’m talking about.

Let me explain…

Ever since my children were born, I’ve been looking into our Flemish/Dutch tradition of presenting family and friends with a small gift to celebrate the birth of a new baby.

It seems the Romans already had a similar custom, where honey coated beans were offered as a kind of birth treat. The upper classes in medieval society covered their “birth beans” or “baptism beans” with a thin layer of sugar. But it took until the 19th century for this custom to become widely spread among people from all walks of life.

A so-called sugar bean is actually a (colourful) sugar coated almond. Nowadays we mostly come across a version where the almond has been replaced with a chocolate filling.

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Vanparys: the best known sugar beans maker

Manufacturers of these sugar beans, confectionery items and sweets have teamed up with printing and others specialist companies in offering complete collections consisting of birth announcements and a variety of exquisitely packaged birth favors.

Pericles Forest owl themed packaging by BB Collections

birth announcement by LS Doopsuiker

Phillippine bamboo “tree” with handmade paper cones (supporting Fair Trade)

Sugar beans are still popular, but some surprising alternatives have recently found their way to the homes of new moms and dads, ranging from spirits (because men hate to admit they love sweets!), to miniature soap bars or bath salts, all types of candy or even homemade jam or personalized fruit!

sugar beans assorted with creamy vanilla “jenever”

homemade jam as a birth favor (source: Tinne Slegers)

engraved apples!

While in most other countries this tradition seems to be non-existent, I created a website called Sugar Beanz to share it with people all over the world.

 
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Posted by on August 8, 2012 in Food, General

 

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tʃɒklət… or should that be spelled “chocolate”?

For those who are wondering how on earth one could write three entries in a blog about Belgium and not go into detail on chocolate… Here’s what you’ve been waiting for!

Actually, Belgium rarely gets full credit for some of its best features. Take chocolate for example. Aren’t the Swiss claiming to be the best chocolate makers in the world? Or the French even? But what have they got to show for compared to the Belgians?

True, there are some wellknown Swiss brands, like Suchard and Lindt. And the Swiss invented some machinery for chocolate making.

But Belgium has done so much more with raw cocoa. We own a whole series of globally renowned trade names to start with, such as Côte d’Or, Chocolade Jacques, Callebaut, Godiva, Neuhaus, Leonidas and Guylian.

What’s more: the Belgians came up with the concept of the praline (not to be mistaken for praliné, which is a chocolate filling made with hazelnuts), an individual chocolate bonbon with a filling. As well as its traditional packaging, under the patented name ballotin, which is a rather simple, heavy duty paper box.

My personal n°1! Many have tried to copy it, but Leonidas make the one and only Manon!

Suzanne by Neuhaus, with raspberry ganache

Guylian, renowned for its “seashell chocolates”

Signature Lait Café by Godiva

Apart from the bigger manufacturers, Belgium boasts hundreds of chocolate artisans. Nearly every self respecting town has its own chocolatier. One of them is Bruges’ supertalent Dominique Persoone who owns two exclusive chocolate boutiques (Bruges and Antwerp). The Chocolate Line is one of only three chocolate shops featured in the prestigious Guide Michelin. He is a member of Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck think tank and works closely with other top chefs such as Ferran Adrià (chef of former 3 Michelin star restaurant El Bulli)

Persoone’s creativity reaches sky high. He created a gimmicky chocolate sniffing device called the Chocolate Shooter for Rolling Stones Ron Wood and Charlie Watts’ birthday party.

Watch the video here (his accent is pretty awful, but who cares, the guy makes great chocolates!):

Dominique Persoone demonstrating his Chocolate Shooter

His first book CACAO – de chocoladeroute (in English: CACAO – the roots of chocolate) was internationally welcomed as best book about chocolate in 2009.

The second one, Shock-o-latier, has a much more extravagant feel to it, featuring somewhat “controversial” photos and being judged too edgy by US and Canadian publishers.

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Persoone is a chocolatier and a rock star in his own right. However, he is also a man who takes his business very seriously. He draws on scientific research to look for new flavor combinations and uses only top quality ingredients. Most of us wouldn’t dream of mixing chocolate with bacon, curry or cauliflower. But Persoone’s strange combos work… and are a hit among foodies everywhere.

My personal favorite from the Chocolate Line is Marrakech, a praline filled with white chocolate ganache and fresh mint leaves.

Marrakech by Dominique Persoone

Here are some more Belgian chocolate makers worth checking out on your next visit (or I could also bring some of these goodies on my next overseas trip of course): Chocol@Pierre MarcoliniDaskalidès

HOT TIP: try googling “chocolatier” and “België/Belgique” and you will find literally one in every city or town!

 
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Posted by on August 1, 2012 in Food

 

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Nicky who?

The last picture in my handbags post features a bag created by Nicky Vankets, a Belgian fashion designer who now has his own line of jewelry, accessories and shoes as well.

Vankets’ work is mostly extravagant and glamorous. He started out as a bridal wear designer and created Kim Clijsters‘ wedding gown, among others. At times, his style is almost costume-like.

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For more than ten years his work was very popular with many Flemish celebrities and Vankets was almost traditionally chosen as the designer of Miss Belgiums gala and other outfits for the Miss Universe and Miss World pageants. In his own style, he set out to incorporate a typically Belgian characteristic in some of them.

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On one occasion Vankets even teamed up with Belgian chocolatier Dominique Persoone to create a dress made out of chocolate for Justine De Jonckheere (Miss Belgium 2011). She wore it to the opening of the Choco-Laté Festival, an annual celebration of chocolate in all its shapes and forms.

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Since his own wedding in 2011 Vankets’ bright star in Flemish fashion industry and showbizz has somewhat faded. Nevertheless he remains one of those people who succeeded in brightening our dull little nation with their sparkling personalities. But that’s just my opinion, of course!

20120725-141426.jpgNicky Vankets (r) and husband Koen at the Nacht van de Vlaamse Televisiesterren Gala

 
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Posted by on July 24, 2012 in Fashion & Style

 

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Bags galore

Some further research shows that Belgium is a paradise for all of you handbag aficionados(-das) out there!

Apart from the world renowned Delvaux, we found some more excellent Belgian designers. Feast your eyes on these (and start budgetting already!).

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Posted by on July 23, 2012 in Fashion & Style

 

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Nearing that time again

It was actually a tweet by Tori Spelling (@torianddean) that triggered the idea for a blog about all the best things from Belgium.

Because it turns out we have more than a couple of great quality items in this country.

And with summer holidays nearly halfway, this seemed like a good start: school bags.

Lilliputiens is a supercute brand for baby, toddler and preschooler stuff. They have some really neat, colorful school bags like these.

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Older kids and teenagers will definitely like an other wellknown brand: Kipling. I bet a lot of people didn’t know it is in fact Belgian in origin.

In 1987, three friends in the fashion capital of the world (Antwerp rules!) decided that women needed high-quality bags that were iconic and chic and feminine and fashionable and… not boring! So they created a line of casual and colourful bags that were affordable, sporty and functional, packed with attitude but never serious or stuffy or stuck-up. In a word… FUN!

They named the brand Kipling, after the well-known and well-travelled author Rudyard Kipling. (source: http://www.kipling.com)

From handbags they went on to school apparel, shoes, watches etc. The design of the Kipling schoolbags is fairly straightforward but highly practical and extremely durable.

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All items – bags as well as other stuff like toys and clothing – from both brands are readily available for the US and worldwide market (eg Amazon).

 
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Posted by on July 21, 2012 in Fashion & Style

 

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Three kisses

July 21st… a bright and sunny morning – one of the few in this part of the world lately. And, as it happens, a small spot on the world map celebrates its National Holiday today.

The perfect opportunity to start a blog about a country that is virtually unknown to the rest of the world, other than for its beer and chocolates. A peculiar but tasty combo and that’s no surprise, as you will gradually learn in these pages… ;)
A country divided and at the same time held together by political and linguistic differences, reflected by a climate which is just as capricious.

It is where I was born some 37 years ago, a place I’m still struggling to feel ‘at home’ in, to be honest.
But nevertheless a country with its own particularities, packed together on a surface area roughly the size of the state of Maryland.

Welcome to Belgium! (and we greet people with three kisses on the cheek here, hence the name of this blog)

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Posted by on July 21, 2012 in General

 

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