How about a culinary trip to Belgium?
We spent a week in the Hainaut region trying to find the traditional tastes and dishes - the best local cheese and chocolate and of course the famous beer they produce here. We found them all, and also got surprised by some local produce that we didn’t know was made in this area.
Through meeting lots of the local people in the food industry, we also learnt a lot about the high focus of keeping the locally made, artisan and traditional food and drink culture alive.
Hainaut is a region for food lovers and beer enthusiasts!
During our trip, we stayed in the city of Mons at the Van der Valk Hotel. To make it quick and easy to get around to all the different parts of the region, we hired a car in Mons. Mons is situated only an hour drive from Brussels by car but you can easily get to Mons also by train directly from Brussels airport. Mons is situated in the middle of Hainaut, which makes it the perfect base for exploring the region through daytrips. If you prefer to do a roadtrip with multiple hotels in various locations, you will find a huge selection of cosy villages, historical city centres and more urban surroundings throughout the whole region with a huge selection of hotels.
As we had a full week to explore the region we also included lots of activities and plunged into the culture and history of the area. You can find those experiences in two separate videos from our trip.
But let’s start with our culinary exploration in Hainaut. Of course, you cannot come to Belgium without sampling some of their amazing beer. Everything in the bars and restaurants is local and there is an increasingly impressive craft beer scene (or artisan beer). To get an overview of the beer scene we stopped by the Drink Factory for a lesson in beer brewing and a tasting session.
Visiting the Drink Factory
The Drink Factory was one of the places that surprised me in Belgium, and it made me realize how much they support their artisan breweries. The Drink Factory is essentially a warehouse size off-license (or liquor store) selling all different kinds of alcohol from the region, and even includes an organic shop. At the weekends it opens its doors to local breweries to set up small stands, sell their beers and offer tasting samples to the public. There’s also live music all day and traditional food on sale. We even found a demonstration of a home set up for brewing your own beer, something Scott was particularly fascinated by, as becoming a brewmaster is a long-term ambition of his.
Stopping by the Drink Factory to try some of the local beers was a perfect start of the trip, and it made me wish that we did more of this back home. It had a great social vibe, friendly atmosphere and supports the local community. You’ll find the Drink Factory just outside of Mons, if you head East along Chaussee du Roeuix.
Tasting traditional food at Ces Belges a Vous
Our first stop to really get into the Hainaut food scene was at the Ces Belges a Vous where they serve traditional food - homemade style. In order to get a culinary overview, we decided to test 5 different local dishes, and got them all served in the middle of the table for a tasting session. All the dishes were made from traditional recipes with local produce and ingredients.
The five dishes we tasted included:
- Chicons gratines au fromage à la flamande which is a dish of endives and ham gratinated with local cheese from an abbey nearby. The dish was served with mashed potatoes and was rich in taste. All the delicious melted cheese also made it quite heavy.
- Carbonade de boeuf a la flamande was small pieces of beef and carrots cooked in a gravy made with beer and sugar. This dish was served with traditional belgium fries. The meat was slowly cooked, making it tender and soft, and the ingredients in the gravy made the dish quite sweet.
- Escaveche de Chimay is a dish containing eel pickled in vinegar served cold with a thick white cold sauce on top. On the side there was a mixed green salad. The locals said that this dish was either love or hate, and I kind of fell down on the hate side. It tasted a lot like vinegar, but hey, if you like vinegar this might be something for you to try.
- Boulet de liege sauce lapin was a huge meatball served in a sweet sauce made of beer, carrots, onions and raisins. This sauce was also kind of sweet, yet not as sweet as the Carbonade de boeuf sauce, and served with fries.
- Filet de porc a la bredouille was a dish made of pork filet with tomatoes, estragon, mustard, shallots, white wine and flour. Probably because of the estragon in the sauce, it tasted very similar to a classic bernaise sauce. The dish was served with fries.
The Ces Belges a Vous restaurant is situated in the city centre of Mons, facing the Grand Place.
After a long and tasty food session it was time to move on to learn about, and taste some more of the famous local beer.
Visiting the local brewery Brasserie des Légendes
The first real brewery we visited on the trip was Brasserie des Légendes, in the town of Ath. The name itself is born of two breweries combining to effectively become the ‘Brewery of Legends’, with each beer holding a story from one of the original sites. We were surprised to learn that this an artisan beer (Craft Beer), as it looks too big at first. However, this was explained to us by the Brewmaster himself, Pierre Delcoigne. A craft beer is a brewery that completely controls the process from the ground to the bottle, overseeing and taking control of it all, especially the barley malt. The end result is a totally natural and unique beer, with the care and attention to every detail.
We only visited the Ath site, but we had a complete tour which I highly recommend. Then of course came the tasting, and this beer is amazing! Each beer and variety has its own tale to tell, from the Quintine beer which references the Witch of Quintine who was burnt alive in Ellezelles in 1610. To the Goliath, one of the famous giants in the Ath legend of David and Goliath. They have the perfect blend of blonde beers and dark beers, and a fantastic gift set for loved ones back home. The Brewery is located just outside of Ath, which hosts the famous festival of David and Goliath, read more about that in our article about the culture in Hainaut.
Tasting Moules-frites at La Chimassiette
No trip to Hainaut is complete without having a big portion of Moules-frites, or mussels with fries, and thats exactly what we did in the city of Chimay at the La Chimassiette. Opening the lid of the mussels pot and just inhaling the delicious steam is something you must experience. I guarantee it will make you even more hungry than you thought you were.
Moules-frites is one of the classic Belgian dishes and the mussels are steamed in a big pot together with white wine, herbs and vegetables. Mussels are served in Belgium from July to mid-April the following year these days, but traditionally they were considered as winter food to replace fish during the months of shortage.
Discovering the La Manufacture Urbaine or Lam-U in Charleroi
Our next stop was the town of Charleroi, a former industrial town which has been completely reinvented as part of a regeneration project for the area. It’s been a real success story, with unemployment and poverty decreasing, and tourism and business booming. One of the places we visited was Lam-U, a really interesting bar, restaurant and coffee shop. Here they brew their own beer, roasts their own coffee and bake their own bread! Even more impressively, you can effectively brew your own beer here, giving the brewmaster your conditions, ingredients and of course the name.
The upstairs is open for private functions and parties, so imagine this; your own private function with your own unique beer! Amazing. We of course named one Travel Dudes and sampled a few of the beers on offer. I really liked the trendy laid back atmosphere at Lam-U and could see myself hanging out in a place like this often.
Experience the real Belgian Fries with Mayonnaise
Belgian fries has been mentioned a few times in this article as a side dish to various other dishes, but to really get into the Hainaut fries tradition, you need to enjoy it on it’s own. The real Belgian fries are thickly cut and after being fried once, they have a short break cooling down before being fried once more. This process makes the Belgian fries really crunchy on the outside, while they remain soft on the inside. For a real Belgian fries experience, stop by a fries place or a food truck and get it served the traditional way - in a cone. Also remember that Belgian fries should always be enjoyed with a huge chunk of mayonnaise on top!
During our stay in Hainaut we learned that it’s quite common to go out for a hot portion of fries on Friday nights. The special fries shops and food trucks will normally have a long line of people waiting to get their weekly portion of Belgian fries with mayonnaise just as the weekend begins.
Tasting Belgian cheese at Ferme la Bailli
Belgium is famous for its cheese as well, and to see why, we made a stop at the small cheese farm Ferme la Bailli. Belgium cheese tradition can be explained as something between the French and Dutch traditions of making cheese.
The Bailli farm has 180 cows and has been making cheese for over 30 years using traditional recipes. In case you didn’t know, in Belgium tradition it’s common to add flavours to the cheese during the production. At this farm they are producing a variety of both soft cheese and hard cheese, but to their most famous cheese, the Pave de soignies, they are usually adding flavour by using nuts, peppers, herbs, garlic and even ash to create new tastes and appearance of the cheese. Another specialty developed on this farm is to add flavour to the cheese by washing the cheese wheels with beer or wine in the last two weeks before it’s ready for the stores.
The cheese farm is located in Soignies, only a short drive from Mons.
A visit to the Legast Artisan Chocolatier
No trip to Belgium would be complete without tasting the local chocolate, so we stopped by the artisan chocolatemakers at Legast. Legast is run by the couple Thibaut Legast and Patricia Forero, and they run it like a true 'bean to bar' style of chocolatier. To make sure they get the high quality, sustainable cocoa beans, they are monitoring and in control of the whole process. From dealing with local cocoa bean farmers in Latin-America, to roasting and grinding the beans and getting the finished chocolate ready for the store. The recipe has proven to give the perfect piece of chocolate as in 2018 they won 4 awards in the international chocolate awards, including a gold medal for best European and best Belgian chocolate.
It was a real pleasure visiting the shop and learning about the process from cocoa bean to finished chocolate. And of course, we could taste as much chocolate as we wanted!
Legast Artisan Chocolatier is located in the small town Braine Le Comte around 30 minutes drive from Mons.
Tasting superior sparkling wine at the Chant d’eole winery
Did you know that they produced superior sparkling wine in Hainaut? I had no idea they even produced wine in this country of beer, so our curiosity was very much alive when we went for a sparkling wine tasting during our stay. The vinery Chant d’eole has been producing sparkling wine only since 2010, but with carefully selected grape varieties, a former Champagne wine maker and excellent location for the vines, the winery has quickly become known and loved for their products. To get the right flavours and bubbles they use the traditional Champagne method when making their sparkling wine. We tasted both varieties they produce at the winery, one traditional white sparkling and one rose sparkling, and I must admit, it was absolutely delicious.
The Chant d’eole winery is located just a 15 minute drive south of Mons
On our culinary exploration trip to Hainaut was surprising, educational and very tasty. We expected the incredible chocolate, cheese and beer but we were also surprised about how great the local food was. Also the focus on sustainability and keeping the traditions alive was something we really appreciated.
Hopefully this was just the first in many trips to the region, there's still lots of food, cheese, chocolate, beer and sparkling wine to be tasted!