Burgundians: No, It Has Nothing to do With The Color

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Right, so, I was supposed to start talking about what I like and dislike about my current country of residence (Belgium for new comers and people with no reading comprehension skills) as well as what I like a dislike about my old and soon to be new country of residence, the United States.

I’ve been busy doing other very important things like not blogging and fishing around in my child’s mouth for stuff he shouldn’t be eating but persists to secretly jam into his face-hole with disturbing regularity.

Anyway, speaking of food (sort of … Tay has a much looser definition of what constitutes edibility), let’s talk about living in a land of Burgundians.

What, you may be asking, is a Burgundian?

Good question! I will demonstrate with the cunning use of wikipedia links.
A Burgundian, in the sense of the word as I’m using it, is someone from the region of Burgundy as seen on this map here:

If you want to read more about it, click on the map.

Moving on.
People in the Burgundian region are people with…how should I say it… somewhat higher expectations regarding food quality and presentation. And also wine and aperitifs and after dinner drinks and appetizers and, well, stuff that, as an American born and raised in the land where the only thing more important than portion size is how fast the giant portion can be slapped on your plate, I was pretty much completely clueless to when I moved here.

Belgium is a country where a relaxed dinner out can easily take 2-3 hours. There’s no hurry to turn your table over, because the waitstaff doesn’t work for tips. The cooks, especially in the nicer restaurants, take time to prepare their dishes according to the proper cuisson (translated it means cooking, but I believe in English we’d say cuisine).

And most people, with exception to non-Belgians and the Belgians who eat at a fry shack every day, can tell you the proper cuisson for plenty of foods. Tuna? Seared on the outside, raw on the inside. Lamb or porkloin? Crispy on the outside, rosé on the inside. Scallops? Middle of the scallop should be translucent, not cooked opaque.
If you go to a decent restaurant and ask for a well done piece of tuna, it’s not unrealistic for the waitress to come back out and tell you to choose something else because the cook won’t “spoil” the tuna by cooking it through.
And if you live here long enough, you learn that when you order things, you just eat them as they come out because the cook knows what he’s doing and he’s making the food in the way it tastes best according to culinary tradition.

When I was pregnant, Piet and I took my parents to a very nice restaurant here in Gent. I really wanted to try the tuna dish, but I knew they tend to serve tuna bleu and I wasn’t supposed to eat raw fish, so I asked the waitress if the cook could maybe cook it through a little more. She misunderstood, went tot he kitchen and came back suggesting I try something else because the cook wouldn’t bake it through.
And me?
I was ashamed, ashamed that the cook was under the impression that I didn’t know the proper cuisson for tuna. I felt like a dumbass for giving the impression that I didn’t know how good tuna should be cooked and bumblingly asked if she could just ask him to cook it enough to be warm in the middle, was all I’d meant, not to actually cook it through.
My parents looked really confused while Piet chuckled and I had to explain to them the conversation. I think they were both pretty amazed that a cook would refuse a customer’s request.

Because in the US if I tell the kitchen to scorch my fish until it tastes like leather and serve it with a side of A-1 Steaksause instead of tartar sauce, they’ll do it in a heartbeat.
If I did that here I may be asked to leave.

Also, everything here (with the exception of the scampis at De Gekroonde Hoofden) comes with some sort of garnish or salad. Plates will always have a nice little pile of lettuce with some assorted veggies and a little dressing on top, pretty much regardless of what you order.
Plates are expected to be warm, especially in restaurants, but for some people (ahem…Piet), it’s also preferred at home. If Piet is cooking and he has time, he’ll warm the plates before he puts food on them and has told me before he really prefers eating from a warm plate.
If you go to a friend’s house for dinner you typically are offered an aperitif with a little hapje (appetizer) before the meal and coffee and some sort of dessert afterwards.
If you go out and order a coffee it is served on a little doily on its own separate tray with a little cookie or chocolate or advocaat along with it.
Asking for your food to be put in a box to go?
Not done unless the restaurant specifically offers take away service. It can be requested, technically at any restaurant, but culturally? No, not done.
Buffets?
No, not unless you’re at a Chinese Buffet or here, which we tried once and it was hideous (or else, I’ve become just Burgundian enough to find it hideous).
Chain restaurants?
Rarely, if ever. You can find McDonalds and Quik, the fastfood burger chains and Pizza Hut and Dominoes as well. We once found a Chi Chis in Namur and a Chilis in Brussels. And I think that’s it. Ninety percent of the restaurants here are individual, privately owned.

Now, I realize I haven’t established whether or not I find this food snobbery (because yes, when you break it down, Burgundians are food snobs) to be a plus or a minus yet.

To answer that question, let me make this post even longer and tell you a story.
A few weeks ago, Piet and I took Tay to the lake here in Gent to enjoy the nice weather and sun (which has since disappeared, but Belgian weather is a whole other topic to discuss). Next to the lake is a large cafe that has an okay view but really crappy service. We went to the cafe and sat and Piet asked if I’d go get him an ice tea.
I figured he was thirsty so I went in, took a can of ice tea from the refrigerator, paid and brought it out to Piet.
Piet looked at the can and asked if I got it at the bar.
I told him I’d paid at the bar but took it from the fridge by the bar.
Piet got pissed off and told me that he meant for me to order him an ice tea at the bar because then they give it to you in a glass with some ice cubes and a little slice of orange and a napkin and that’s what he’d wanted because why else would we sit at this crappy cafe if he wasn’t going to have his drink served nicely.

I got pissed off right back because what the fuck? You order a drink because you’re thristy, not to create fucking ambiance and atmosphere.
Right? Right??

Apparently not if you’re Burgundian.
If you’re Burgundian, part of the reason you order the iced tea is for it’s presentation.
You order your coffee partially for the experience of the little party on a tray with the doily and cookie.
You pick the beer or wine that properly accompanies your food.
A plate of cheese can constitute a dessert. The moldier the cheese, the better.

Food. Snobs.

But at the same time, since living here, I find myself constantly let down when going out to eat in the States. Restaurants I used to love are now mediocre and I often feel rushed when I’m eating. The chipper, peppy wait staff annoy the crap out of me because I will tip you 15-20% unless you’re a complete and total bitch so chill out, quit refilling my enormous cup when it isn’t even empty, stop asking me how my food is when I’m clearly chewing it and no, I don’t want to try the deep fried super chili triple cheese balls tonight. For the love of all that is good in this world, just let me eat!
The portions are too big, too greasy, too bland.
Everything is okay, but very few things are really good.

In contrast, when we go out to eat here at a restaurant, I can rarely complain that the food wasn’t really good. I’ve come to appreciate quality over quantity.

Which I suppose balances out the annoyance with my spouse when he demands a glamorously presented ice tea.

 

Also: Meat cheat sheet if you don’t know bleu and rosé

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6 responses »

  1. euh…yep, entirely true 🙂

    As an exchange student I missed “charcuterie” the most….Good charcuterie simply doesn’t exist in other countries, exept for France. My host mom went to France during my stay there and when she came back she was all like “oh my poor thing, you must think we are such food barbarians, how delicious and …it all is over there compared to here” and promptly she went to buy some french cheeses in the local supermarket. Which she put in the fridge!!! Aaaaaaaah, in the fridge for crying out loud. French soft cheeses in the fridge!! What a waste of effort & money & taste. But she looked like I was out of my mind when I insisted they had to be ripening & served at room temperature.

    chuckle…that memory fits right into your story huh.

    Hah, another one. Once with friends in a very ordinary brasserie here in Belgium and I ordered some pasta and was so caught up in our conversation and the waiter must have had his mind wandering off somewhere as well because he all of a sudden asked “and do you want fries with that”. I answered , totally not paying attention but 100% in Belgian automatic mode (hmm fries, yes I love fries!) “oh yes with fries, thank you”. When he walked off it all of a sudden hit me I had ordered pasta with fries. Huh? Did I really just do that? What a weird combination.
    Before I knew it I had the chef out of his kitchen asking who had ordered pasta with fries “euh me sir, but I wasn’t really paying attention. Sorry, I really don’t want fries with my pasta, it was a mistake.” I felt so embarrassed & confused.

  2. Okay sis, just to play devils advocate since I’ve had this Belgian fine cuisine and I know for a fact I can dance circles all over the traditional boring french/burgundian food of which you speak. May I suggest that you review/analyze your choice of restaurants here in the states? It’s not really fair to compare Red Lobster to well…ANYTHING anywhere outside of the states, or Olive Garden or whatever corporate garbage shack Groupon has sponsored this week.

    Yes, the servers may be a bit up your backside here, but I prefer that to the lazy apathetic attitude displayed by every server in every restaurant we visited overseas. While I don’t disagree with the format of salaried staff and the proven success of that style of restaurant management, there is something to be said for the staff working their behinds off to IMPRESS you, versus, you trying not to “offend” them. Dining out is meant to be an experience, and if you want your tuna destroyed to enjoy the experience you are spending your hard earned money on, you shouldn’t feel ashamed to order it that way, and as a Chef, as long as I know the correct way, that’s all that matters to me. Your dining experience should be more important than my ego.

    I think when you return to the states, you need to consider some different restaurants to sate your newly acquired culinary acumen, I can offer plenty of suggestions for a “finer” experience more in tune with what Piet may like. For instance, did you even know Pittsburgh has two restaurants owned by Belgian’s known as Point and Park Brugge respectively?

    Just trying to offer you some insight since you know, your Brother is somewhat active in the “The portions are too big, too greasy, too bland. Everything is okay, but very few things are really good.” American dining arena. I won’t argue that we have a ton of crappy restaurants, and definitely emphasize quantity, but you can certainly find quality if you go looking for it.

    • Eh, no matter how hard you try you’ll never be the devil. You’re too nice.
      And you guys didn’t have a ton of what they consider higher end here. You had the average fare, which is budget friendly. Except for at our wedding reception, which I consider much better than average.
      There’s a place in Nazareth that does Californian Pacific Belgian fusion or something to that effect and it was brilliant, but it was also something like 140 euro per person with a coupon.
      Also, I beg to differ with the lazy attitude you perceive here. Not to say that some waiters here aren’t lazy, they definitely are, but I also tend to think you guys see “lazy” as anyone who isn’t asking you ten times a minute if you need a refill or who doesn’t get your food to you, the place cleaned and a bill to the table in under an hour. That’s not lazy, that’s called not rushing the client.
      Sorry, but I don’t see sincerity in a lot of waiters in the US. I see licking my boots to get a tip, which, while it isn’t their fault they have to do that, is still something that now makes me feel rushed and uncomfortable.
      And please do feel free to recommend better restaurants in Pittsburgh. I’ve been gone 5 years and never had the income or free time to do the fine dining thing when I lived there before.
      I’d be very interested to see some nice places to eat in place of the chains that I don’t like anymore.

      • You can dine at plenty of places here for 3 hours if you so desire, without having a server lick your boots. I again, point to selection of restaurants as to why you feel “rushed” when you dine here. But don’t worry, I’ve got plenty of places you can check out that have a more elegant and less “rushed” feel when dining there.

        And for what it’s worth, your reception food was great but I can still beat it 😉

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