Today is a rare summer day that actually feels like summer, with clear skies and temperatures heading upwards of 30°C – for the record: I consider June to be one of the summer months, along with July and August, whereas here in Belgium summer doesn't officially begin until June 21st. After the miserably cold and rainy spring, I'm starved for sun and warmth, so I'm suddenly feeling a bit giddy. As well as a bit stressed.
The stress comes from the knowledge that this summery weather will soon be replaced, once again, by clouds and rain. MUST TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THE NICE WEATHER WHILE IT LASTS!!! Quick, let's drive to the coast and jump in the ocean! Or round up some friends and try to find a café that still has a free table outside! Or, better yet, let's fire up the grill and throw a barbecue!
Belgians LOVE to barbecue. It combines some of their favorite things: getting together with friends and family, eating lots of meat, drinking and spending time outdoors. As soon as the weather permits, everyone's weekends are occupied with either hosting or attending various barbecues, which can range from casual, simple affairs to full-blown, catered extravaganzas.
We recently attended a family barbecue that fell into the latter category. A traiteur (butcher) was hired to supply the food for about 25 adults and a bunch of kids. He showed up with his grill and was soon stoking the coals while his wife laid out the salads and side dishes. There was potato salad and cole slaw, sliced tomatoes, lettuce, carrots, pasta salad, cucumber salad and rice, along with big bowls of mayonnaise-based sauces.
Here in Belgium, mayonnaise (plain or in its many flavored varieties) is the main condiment for both meat and vegetables. Salad dressing as we Americans know it (Italian, ranch, blue cheese, etc.) is a rarity. And BBQ sauce? That staple of every American barbecue, in all its glorious forms (whether spicy, sweet, smoky, or hotter-n-hell), is completely unknown here. Imagine that! All those Belgian barbecues with no BBQ sauce... Kinda makes you sad, doesn't it?
At our family BBQ, the grill man was soon churning out platter after platter of meat. No hot dogs or beef burgers, oh, no. We had hamburger patties and big, juicy bratwursts. We had marinated pork chops and thick slabs of bacon. We had pork skewers and chicken skewers, skinny sausages called chipolatas and spicy merguez. The meat just kept coming and we just kept eating. A Belgian BBQ is first and foremost about the meat. Mostly chicken, pork and sausage, but sometimes beef as well.
The good news is, you don't have to hire a caterer or spend time prepping lots of food if you want to have a barbecue. The supermarkets are well-stocked with ready-to-cook barbecue meat, ranging from pre-marinated ribs to ready-made skewers of meat and veggies. All you have to do, is pick up a variety of grill-ready meats, some pre-made potato or pasta salad, some charcoal, and you're all set.
In fact, you can probably forget about the salad, as long as you have meat and bread. According to my Flemish husband, the other essentials for a classic Belgian BBQ, besides meat and bread, are sliced tomatoes and canned peaches. Just don't forget the drinks. And the mayonnaise!
Diana Goodwin is a U.K.-born, part-Asian, American expat who came to Belgium from Hollywood, where she worked in the movie industry for far too long. She now lives in Hasselt with her Flemish husband, a yellow Lab and a black cat. As a medievalist and art historian by training, she finds Belgium to be the perfect place to indulge her fascination with medieval history, art and architecture.
Diana writes a blog called Things You Didn't Know About Belgium and gives tours in Flanders to English-speaking tourists. You can reach her at email@example.com or find her on Twitter @usatobelgium