In continuing our French Around the Globe series, we’re going to take a microscope to one of Europe’s smaller, but no less well-known, nations: Belgium. Here we outline some Belgium traditions in food and languages, including some Belgian French phrases.
Let’s start with the basics of Belgium. According to Britannica, Belgium is one of Europe’s smallest and most densely populated countries. It is bordered by the North Sea, France, the Netherlands, Germany, and Luxembourg. Its location has meant that it has been the ground of many major battles, including the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 and both World Wars.
Belgium’s population is currently around 11.5 million people. Its capital, Brussels, is home to a tenth of the country’s population, with around 1.2 million people. A majority of Brussels’ residents are French-speaking.
Brussels is also the home of the headquarters for the European Union and NATO. As such, like most other countries in the EU, its currency is the Euro. Brussels is also a member of the Benelux Economic Union with the Netherlands and Luxembourg.
Belgium is known for its picturesque Medieval towns and Renaissance architecture. While many in North America think of Italy or France for classical architecture, the beauty of Belgium cannot go unnoticed.
Languages of Belgium
Belgium is a multilingual country, home to speakers of French, Flemish, and a small number of German-speakers.
Residents of the five southern provinces, the region called Wallonia, speak French. This is known as the Walloon ethnic group. If you travel to southern Belgium, all of the signs will be in French. Brussels, the bilingual capital of Belgium, has signs in Dutch and in French.
In contrast, if you travel North to the Flemish-speaking regions, you’ll find all of the signs to be written in Dutch. These are the five northern and northeastern regions of the nation, home to around half of the population.
Finally, in the east there is a small German-speaking population.
Belgian French Phrases
As in English, phraseology in French changes from dialect to dialect. As such, Belgium will have different common phrases than those found in France or Quebec.
As we’ll see below in exploring the culinary Belgium traditions, the Belgians love their fries. So their take on the English “he’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer” or “not the brightest bulb” is actually about fries. The phrase is: “Ne pas avoir toutes ses frites dans le même sachet.” In English it literally translates to “He doesn’t have all his fries in the same bag.” Belgians can also be quite sarcastic, with one phrase “Non peut-être” meaning literally “no maybe” but is the sarcastic equivalent of “yes” in answer to an obvious question. On the other hand, “oui sans doute” is a similarly sarcastic way of saying “no”.
As greetings and farewells are common stock, and important to know, you’ll want to know how to say farewell in Belgian French. While generally it’s the same as in French, one different one is the literal “see you later.” Rather than say “À toute à l’heure”, Belgians say “À tantôt”.
You may think numbers must be the same from one dialect to the next? Well, not quite. In Belgian French, 70 and 90 are both a little different than in other dialects. “Soixante-dix”, or seventy, becomes “septante” and “quatre-vingt-dix”, or ninety, becomes “nonante” in Belgium.
If you were lost in a rural area while visiting Belgium after you started driving “à pouf” (Belgian slang for “randomly” or “at random”), you might say you were “à Houtesiplou”. This fun little phrase means that you’re in the middle of nowhere. However, you may also use this to refer to an imaginary place.
Finally, we’d recommend watching the film Dikkenek if you want to learn a bit about Belgian culture and humour. The title is from the words “dikke” and “nek” which means literally “fat neck” but is slang for a big mouth, or a braggart. This runs with Belgian stereotypes - as you’ll learn from the film. This will also introduce you to the accent. The Belgian French accent (or accents!) is rather different from French or Quebecois accents. Traditionally, it has been stereotyped as more exaggerated than others.
Belgium Traditions: Food
The Belgium traditions relating to food are similar in some ways to French, but often with their own twist. Being on the North Sea, this country’s culinary fare often includes seafood. And as you’ll see, each dish’s ingredients boasts both Dutch and French influence. Each one has a French and Dutch name, too!
Crevettes grises, for instance, are common. These are tiny grey shrimp that are sourced from the North Sea and they are eaten absolutely everywhere in Belgium. If you see ‘garnalen krokketten’ or ‘croquettes aux crevettes grises’ on a menu, expect a croquette filled with crevettes grises. These are often paired with a rich sauce, usually béchamel, coated in breadcrumbs, and then fried. Truly delicious, and worth a try!
Another common way to serve crevettes grises is with tomatoes and mayonnaise, often as a sandwich filler. Sometimes these little shrimps are used as a stuffing for whole tomatoes.
Anguilles au vert are eel served with a herbed sauce, usually with sorrel and chervil. While eel may not be incredibly common in North America, it has a nice thick texture and a meaty sweetness. If this is too outside of your comfort zone, North Sea mussels are probably a better bet. These are served in a soupy sauce, with varieties depending on the restaurant, and are served with fries on the side to dip in the sauce. The dish is called moules-frites, or mosselen-friet if you’re in the north.
On that note, frites, or fries, are just a regular, well-beloved dish! These are served crunchier than can be found in Canada or the States and the sauce is just as important as the fries themselves. While mayonnaise is a common one, andalouse - a sauce made from mayonnaise, tomato paste, and peppers - is also a favourite. Head into a fritures, a shop that serves only fries, to get the best frites and sauces.
And of course, no visit to Belgium would be complete without gaufre (or wafel) - waffles! Similar to Belgian fries, Belgian waffles are crispier than Canadian or American waffles, but are much less doughy. The grooves are much deeper as well, which makes them perfect carriers for the traditional toppings, usually Nutella, fruit, or whipped cream.
We hope you learned a little something about Belgium today! Keep an eye out for our next French Around the Globe blog. We’re heading to Madagascar next time!