I will be the first person to admit to my embarrassingly meager knowledge of Belgium before I moved here. On the other hand, maybe I shouldn’t feel so bad. The Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme didn’t even know the Belgian national anthem and once memorably burst into La Marseillaise instead of La Brabançonne. But the more time I spend here, the more layers I discover to this tiny but complex country. It features three official languages (Dutch, French and German), has more cheese varieties than France, the world’s best beer (according to the international beer pundits) and the world’s best chocolate (according to me). The two latter points make up for the fiendishly convoluted bureaucratic system, lots of rain and plethora of EU officials.
There are many more reasons to visit Belgium than beer and chocolate. You have the Gothic treasures of Gent, edgy fashion of Antwerp, fairy tale ambiance of Bruges, quirky charm of Dinant, and surrealism of Brussels. The Flemish and Wallonian lands are so distinct culturally that a trip from Knokke to Namur will feel like a visit to two different countries. But while the politics often overemphasizes the rift, the truth is that north or south, Flemish or French speaking, Belgians know how to kick back and enjoy their glass of wine or beer. The best souvenir you will bring back is the memories of tucking into moules-frites after walking through the same rain streaked streets that inspired painter Rene Magritte.
As far as other more tangible mementos go, my favorites are the ones that satisfy the senses. Whenever I go back to the US, my suitcase is stuffed with chocolates, gingerbread, and perfumed soap. If you’re after the more traditional souvenirs, consider the local crafts such as woodcarvings from Spa, ceramics from Dinant or tapestries from Tournai. Belgium is also renowned for its exquisite lace, and you will find many shops in Brussels, Gent, Antwerp or Bruges offering traditional handmade designs. When Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier of Monaco in 1956, her wedding gown was adorned with yards of Belgian rose point lace, and as you can gather, the price for these gauzy, lacy trinkets is quite luxurious.
You gotta love a country where the favorite snack is a piece of buttered bread with crumbled cookies. A few years ago, some enterprising soul devised the ultimate addictive substance. It’s called Speculoos Spread (or Speculoos à tartiner). Speculoos are fragrant cookies made with brown sugar and spices; I shared a recipe last year. I found it hard to believe that Speculoos Spread could be that good, but within days of arriving to Belgium I got hooked. Imagine the texture of peanut butter with a decadent caramel, cinnamon and nutmeg aroma.
Lotus brand is famous locally, and I especially recommend the crunchy spread with little bits of cookies left intact. You can find it at any supermarket. There are lots of other variations: flavored with different spices, chocolate and made with organic ingredients. Just make sure not to put the jar in your carry-on, because the airport authorities classify it as a “dangerous liquid item”. Since I have no control over myself within the vicinity of speculoos spread, I sort of see their point.
Dandoy Gingerbread and Speculoos
Speculoos are the ubiquitous cookies in Belgium, and if you order a cup of coffee or tea, it will invariably be accompanied by a little spiced morsel. Unless I make them at home, I head over to Dandoy, a Brussels patisserie that has been baking speculoos and other sweet delights since 1829. Speculoos and gingerbread come in all shapes and sizes, and you can even custom design your selection and pick the box and paper for your gifts.
Besides crunchy speculoos and soft gingerbreads, Dandoy is famous for its pain à la grecque, a uniquely Bruxellois specialty of buttery pastry garnished with cinnamon and caramelized sugar. Another distinctly Belgian treat is cramique aux raisins, a sweet brioche like bread stuffed with raisins. Cramique can also include little nuggets of sugar which turn to fudgy caramel in the toaster. There are several Dandoy stores in Brussels, but the location at Rue au Beurre 31 (at the appropriately named Butter Street) is the most visited. It’s around the corner from the splendid Grand Place.
I could write a tome about Belgian chocolate, since in the name of research I have sampled tirelessly. Neuhaus, Lady Godiva, and Leonidas are among the popular Belgian brands that have standard quality across the board. Since they’re available the world over, I would seek smaller, uniquely Belgian outfits. The most famous is Pierre Marcolini, a chocolatier that’s renowned for controlling every aspect of his production. He selects cacao beans, travels to find the best spices, and blends flavors in a beautifully obsessive way that makes me think of great perfumers. I recommend everything without reservations, but especially his Grand Cru selections that feature single squares made from single origin beans. In this way you can have your own private chocolate tastings at home.
Laurent Gerbaud has a shop at Rue Ravenstein 2 D in Brussels, and a trip to his store/cafe is a memorable sensory experience. You can enjoy a cup of hot chocolate and then create your mix of favorite bonbons. I love the chocolate dipped figs, apricots, candied ginger and almonds. The 75% Ecuadorian/Madagascan chocolate is also outstanding. The selection is seasonal and changes frequently.
If you want to taste the same chocolates eaten by the Belgian royal family, head over to Mary. This 94 year old maker has several stores in Brussels and Bruges (check the website for more details), but one of my favorites is located at 73 Rue Royale in Brussels. The store is decorated like Madame de Pompadour’s salon, and the assistants will helpfully guide you to select from their array of marzipan, hazelnut, caramel, and ganache-filled pralines. All chocolates are made at their small factory in the suburbs of Brussels and they are as fresh as can be.
Please note that Belgian pralines contain fresh cream inside a delicate chocolate shell, so they are highly perishable. It’s best to ask at the store which chocolates travel well without refrigeration.
Beer is cheaper than water in Belgium, and you can select among 500 types currently in production (or out of 800, as some sources claim.) Either way, it’s a lot of beer. The best of the lot is considered the Trappist variety produced by the monastic orders. Strict rules regulate how the brewery can attain the Trappist title, and currently there are only six monasteries in Belgium (also, one in the Netherlands and one in Austria) that sell their beer as Authentic Trappist Product. I never considered myself a beer aficionado, but I must be, because I visited all six Belgian breweries: Orval, Chimay, Achel, Rochefort, Westmalle and Westvleteren. A taste of Rochefort 8 with its distinctive chestnut honey flavor or the fruity-floral Orval will convince even those who prefer wine to beer.
While Belgium doesn’t produce as much honey as France or Italy, it has an impressive number of honey shops. In Brussels, Desmecht at Rue de l’Ecuyer, 38-40 is worth a visit. It’s a traditional apothecary crossed with a honey store, and if you’re after almond blossom, thyme, pine or cherry flower honey, you can find them on its shelves. Desmecht also offers a range of interesting soaps (including my favorite Marius Fabre), natural beauty products, spices and teas.
I have never seen such a variety of sugar at the supermarket as I have discovered in Belgium. There are sugars of all sizes, colors and purposes. You can buy tiny caramelized bits that taste delicious baked into shortbread cookies. Or pearl sugar of all sizes to garnish cakes and desserts.
My favorite is Basterdsuiker. It’s a very dark raw sugar sold mostly on the Flemish side. It’s not at all bitter like some brown sugar varieties, but instead has a heady aroma of caramel, cinnamon, and honey. When I asked the shop assistant what she did with it, she mentioned that she likes it on yogurt. She then sighed and had such a dreamy look in her eyes that I bought two packages. Yes, it’s heavenly sprinkled over yogurt, rolled inside crepes, or baked with tart apples. It’s often called for in traditional speculoos recipes.
Like France, Belgium has pharmacies on every corner. The prices are slightly higher than in France but nowhere near as elevated as in the US for brands like La Roche-Posay, Bioderma or Avène. I wrote a detailed post about my favorite pharmacy products: French Pharmacy Finds (the recommendations also apply to the Belgian pharmacies). Look for the soap brands that feature distinctive herbal scents and ingredients like egg white, red clay and chamomile.
If you’ve traveled in Belgium and have your favorite Belgian souvenirs, please share!
Photography by Bois de Jasmin