Belgium: Explore a crossroads of flavours

By Harriet O'Brien

Harriet O'Brien samples the culinary delights of Liège in southern Belgium's Walloon region.

Authentic  Belgian waffles are butter-rich, with a hint of cinnamon, and topped with caramelised sugar.
Authentic Belgian waffles are butter-rich, with a hint of cinnamon, and topped with caramelised sugar.

Wallonia's easternmost major city has an international location, close to the borders of both the Netherlands and Germany. Indeed, it is an intriguing city that was once the capital of an independent state ruled by prince-bishops.

Set on the banks of the river Meuse, Liège is a jigsaw of a place, layered with history, artistry and industry. You can see its legacy of exquisite 10th-century ivory carvings at the remarkable Grand Curtius art museum.

You can gaze at the majesty of the Bishop's Palace (now law courts), which dates from the 11th century and has a sumptuous 18th-century facade; you'll take in steam engines at the ingenious Maison de la Métallurgie et de l'Industrie de Liège; you'll enjoy contemporary design at the Guillemins railway station by Sebastian Calatrava.

And wherever you are in the city you'll savour the richness of its very distinctive cuisine.

Sample German influences with a taste of boudin blanc, a white sausage made with shoulder of pork, shallots, nutmeg and white bread (you'll see it for sale in butchers' windows such as Colson & Fils at 42 En Neuvice).

Do as the locals and put Sirop de Liège on your toast at breakfast - this deep-brown molasses is made with minimal sugar and generous amounts of apples and pears from Liégeois orchards.

Try Salad Liégeoise, made with bacon, beans and potatoes, and Herve cheese from the nearby village of that name - also delicious when eaten together with Sirop de Liège.

Generations of British visitors to Belgium have been puzzled about the name of the nation's most popular beer, which appears to be a misprint. But Jupiler (pronounced jew-pil-er) has nothing to do with the largest planet in the solar system and instead takes its name from the nearby village of Jupille-sur-Meuse.

If you're in Liège on a Sunday there's a treat in store: Belgium's biggest market, La Batte, takes place along the Meuse, a cornucopia of fruit, vegetables, breads and more stretching about two kilometres.

Start a tour of the city in the lively Carré district, a pedestrian area of boutiques and bars lying between Place de l'Opéra and the cathedral of St-Paul.

Just in front of the cathedral, aromas of caramel will inevitably draw you to the waffle maker Pollux (at Place Cathedral 2). Liège is said to make the best waffles in Belgium, so buy one just-cooked. An authentic gaufre Liège - Belgian waffle - is butter-rich, with a hint of cinnamon, and topped with caramelised sugar - not light on calories, but then there is plenty of scope for walking them off here.

Stride north along narrow lanes to Place St Lambert, dominated by the Bishop's Palace. Just a few steps east is the historic heart of town, Place du Marché dating from at least medieval times and lined with 17th and 18th-century houses.

Thread your way past the plastic terrace chairs here and enter A Pilori, the old tavern at number seven. It's a treat of a building, all creaking beams and ancient brickwork and is the perfect place to sample traditional boulets Liégeois, meatballs steeped in a rich sauce of Sirop de Liège and brown beer.

For a different taste of old Liège, take a stroll across the road and just behind the imperious town hall to La Maison du Peket at Rue de l'Epée 4. This charming old property houses a gin palace par excellence: peket, distilled with juniper berries, is the time-honoured drink of the city. Here you can choose from 25 or so varieties, flavoured with lemon, raspberry, chocolate, ginger and more.

Clear your head with a short walk to Rue de la Goffe where you'll find the lovely stone-and-brick Butcher's Guild, built in 1544. In an appealing old building opposite is one of Liège's much-loved restaurants, Le Bistrot d'en Face. The blackboard menu offers a mix of fine French-style cuisine and a gastronomic twist on local specialities such as boudin.

Alternatively, head further west to capture a spirit of gourmet enterprise: at Rue de la Casquette 5, L'Enoteca is chic little bistro that opened 25 years ago with a winning formula and a pioneering ethos in promoting fresh local ingredients. It offers just one set menu based on what happens to be available in the market that day. Three-course dinners cost €23, or if you're feeling famished, €26 will get you four courses.

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