Let's discover one of the most representative dishes of Belgian gastronomy, where the passion for beer joins the popularity of these mussels, and relaunches with a whimsical and greedy combination, with french fries
From the coasts of Belgium to the streets of Brussels, the traveler encounters large steaming pots everywhere, filled with mussels in a white wine or beer sauce, seasoned with fresh herbs and vegetables. It's moules, mussels. which are very popular here and, in the famous version moules et frites (mussels with fries), also called Belgian-style mussels, true national pride.
But when and how did mussels become a great classic of Belgian cuisine? In addition to local ingredients, national dishes usually contain a bit of history and a pinch of geography. Mussels are very popular in Belgium and are served almost everywhere.
Location is everything
In addition to pointing out numerous canvases, such as Le Combat de Carnaval et de Carême (1559) by Pieter Brueghel l'Ancien, where it is clear that mussels represented a very important food of the Belgian tradition since the Renaissance, historians have discovered a Flemish manuscript of the 1781 which tells the history of the dish. With a recipe very similar to the current Belgian specialty, mussels were prepared in Belgian homes, especially during the winter when there was a shortage of fish. Abundant along the North Sea coasts, they were an economical alternative and were thus quickly adopted by the families of the territory. This somewhat nullified the French claim on this Belgian gem, but on the other hand it introduced another country into the tale: the west coast of the Netherlands is the perfect place for young molluscs to grow. Since mussels tend to live on exposed coasts in intertidal waters, the vast coastal area of the delta formed by the Meuse, Rhine, Schelde and Elm rivers was an ideal habitat.
So how did they come to be a Belgian national dish? The answer lies in the historic canals that brought seafood daily to the heart of the city. The Willebroek canal, which connected Brussels to the Schelde River and then to Antwerp and finally to the North Sea, completed in 1561, arrived at Place Sainte-Catherine. At the time, mussels were considered the meat of the poor, and spread in Belgium very quickly. Today they are sometimes referred to as "black gold". Connoisseurs say the best come from the Scheldt, a shallow river that connects western Belgium to the Netherlands.
Why they come to Belgium accompanied by french fries remains unclear. It seems that the moules-frites, as they are called, were born in Belgium back in 1875 when a German named Fritz Krieger, who worked in the kitchens of a restaurant in the Liège fairgrounds, rose to the honors of the culinary news for the whimsical combination.
Tradition or confusion?
The mussel season runs from June to February, depending on the year. But there are those who say that they offer the best of themselves after July 15. There are several theories about it, some almost cabalistic: if for some mussels are eaten only in summer, according to a very followed tradition the oysters of Ostend, due to their French name, huitre, Yes can only eat in the eight (huit) months that contain an "r", i.e. in French janvier, février, mars, avril, septembre, octobre, novembre et décembre (January, February, March, April, September, October, November, December). For still others, the good months are only the months that end in "bre" that is from September to December (the latter theory seems to date back to the period of Louis XV, a great enthusiast, where for reasons of hygiene and conservation the mussels could be eaten only in the last four months of the year, the coldest).
There are many Belgian-style mussel recipes, in addition to the most famous – the moules à la biére, cooked in beer and cream – we find the moules marinieres, marinated mussels, le moules à la crème where the broth is thickened with flour and cream, the moules au vin blanc where the sauce contains white wine instead of beer (preference should be given to dry white, while red wine is to be avoided due to tannins), moules à la provençale, with tomato. There are interesting proposals, including the unusual combination with Roquefort. Common among all is the flavoring in a sauté of shallots, celery, parsley, butter and beer: cooking them well is a true art, as they should not be too cooked or too raw.
But which beer? Particularly suitable are white or light beers with low alcohol content, very light, drinkable and characterized by spicy aromas. But there is no shortage of experiments: always speaking of Belgian beers we can range from gueuze, spontaneously fermented, to high-alcohol Trappist tripels. In the moules à la biére de Maredsous, the mussels are cooked in the dark Maredsous beer.
An all-Belgian touch
When your steaming mussels arrive on the table, do it the Belgian way: replace the fork with an empty shell of mussel, and use it to open a new shell and thus obtain the juicy coral.
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