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Classic Belgian Dishes -Waterzooi explained – Fred Ferretti

This is a beautifully researched and lovingly written piece by the veteran NY Times food writer, Fred Ferretti.

He wrote it in the early 1980s. Prices may have changed but Comme Chez Soi still rates 3 Michelin stars. We are not so sure if there is still a three month embargo on fishing. We were profiled for our version of Waterzoii in Countryside magazine. We’ll try to post that one some day soon.

Gent vintage postcard

Ghent, Gand, Gent

Waterzooi a la Gantoise    By Fred Ferretti New York Times April 3rd, 1983

Belgians will argue about anything so long as It has to do with food. In what it grows and raises, there over
country deeply about leeks whether the In-season mussels of the are truly more plump than those from Spain to satisfy the year round Belgian appetite. But no national dish is subject to more debate than waterzooi the thickened, creamy soup-stew that is a Belgian gastronomic universal.

Pronounced vatter zoy, and based on either fish or chicken, It is as much a part of Belgium’s Flemish culinary history and traditions as are eels is green sauce, called anguilles au vert, beef stewed in beer and lard called carbonnades flamandes moules mariniere steamed with onions, shallots, parsley and white wine, or small croquettes made from tiny gray shrimp and gruyere.

There is general agreement that the concoction is indeed Belgian perhaps Renaissance Flemish would he more accurate and of peasant origin, yet differences arise about where in Belgium it originated, and what its original form was. Was the first waterzooi a chicken stew from West Flanders, or a fish stew from East Flanders? These days most food historians would agree that the first waterzooi probably came from around Ghent, in the east, and that it was a fish dish, today called waterzooi a la Gantoise.

Because Ghent was, and is, inextricably linked with the sea, the soup-stew was almost certainly made initially with fish. Meat was somewhat of a rarity In East Flanders centuries ago, and fish so plentiful that in order to keep the tax boxes filled the Ghent alderman in charge of finance, the “schepenen van de keure” levied a fish tax collected on the more than 100 fishing bridges in Gbent that arched over the canals carrying see water throughout the city. But time and disruptions of the environment changed all that. To allow the fish in the surrounding sea to thrive, Belgium prohibits fishing for three months;
from the beginning of April to the beginning of July. And, since the end of World War II, virtually no fish have been caught in Ghent’s canals: They are waterways and tourist attractions, not providers of food, and waterzooi’s of chicken are as prevalent there as anywhere else In Belgium. Nevertheless waterzooi, which uses both chickens and fish, remains a major component of the Belgian diet And the Belgians continue to argue about the quality of the chickens of which one form of It is made, and about which fish is best in It. Some Insist that ‘a true chicken waterzooi should even have some ground sausage meat added to It.

Purists will contend that a fish waterzooi should be based on Belgian perch, and perch alone. Others say that a good fish waterzooi will have eel, carp and pike along with perch. Still others will say that waterzooi should reflect all of Belgium and he a melange of perch, Iota, turbot, St. Pierre, mussels crayfish and gray shrimp. And if of chicken, which vegetables should be stewed along with the chicken leeks, onions, white celery parsley root, carrots, chervil?

At Comme Chez Soi in Brussels, one of Belgium’s three Michelin three star restaurants the chef, Pierre Wynants, insists that le waterzool de volaille a la Malinoise he made with fresh-killed chickens, hand plucked and cooked in a stock flavored with onions, celery, leeks thyme, along with carrots, white asparagus, lemon juice and crème fraiche. It is a wonderful soup, at $13 a dish, to which are added tiny boiled potaines sprinkled with chervil. But his recipe changes with the season: “I add when I receive them, forest mushrooms, endives, spinach or watercress A seafood variation, le waterzooi de ho mard et sea petit legumes, at Alain Deluc’s Michelin two-star Barbizon on the outskirts of Brussels in Notre Dame au Bois was a less hearty, softer, more delicate mixture of small pieces of lobster and snow peas, onions, tiny carrots, dashed with lemon juice. At
Barbizon waterzooi becomes, at about $25 a two-part meal, with the rest of the lobster being served as a second course. The simpler, more direct and quite traditional version, a waterzooi de poulet & in Gantoise, was tried in a lunch that included Ardennes ham and a dessert crepe, for $8.17. It Is a setting in which waterzooi may best be savored, in Ghent’s Hotel St. Jorishof Cour St. Georges, at a heavy oak table in a dark-beamed, high-ceilinged room overhung with knightly coats of arms, cast-iron chandeliers and mounted antlers, a huge granite fire place at one end. It is a beautifully preserved Gothic hell in a Gothic hotel, on Hoogpoort where that street meets the great square of Ghent called Botermarkt, dominated by Its 14th-century belfry and 15th-century Town Hall both extraordinary Gothic structure The Hotel St. Jorishof Cour St. Georges
dates back to 1228 and is widely regarded as the oldest hotel in Europe. It was where States of Flanders held government meetings and where, in 1477, Mary of Burgundy signed the Grand Charter assuring independence to all Flemish cities. Flemish and visiting European royalty stayed there regularly and members of the hotel’s staff will tell that according to its meticulous records Napoleon I, emperor of France, stayed there the nights of February 2nd and 3rd in 1808. Question is, did he have waterzooi?

Why not?