Brussels, Apr 10 (EFE).- Belgium’s brewing tradition requires no introduction; its mussels, fries and chocolates are also known the world over; and no one disputes the Belgians’ patent on waffles.
But of all the gastronomic symbols inseparably linked to the Belgian national identity, the most unknown to a foreign audience is probably the centuries-old prawn croquette (“croquette de crevettes”).
That is why the tourism promotion service of the Brussels region, Visit Brussels, organizes an annual competition for this dish, which, in the 2022 edition, was won by Les Brasseries Georges, a restaurant in the affluent Uccle commune of the Belgian capital where ambassadors and movie stars are often spotted enjoying crustaceans, mollusks and other Belgian specialties.
“Now comes the most important thing, the béchamel,” chef Fernand Duarte says as he prepares the base for 600 of his prestigious gray prawn croquettes.
Duarte, who has been serving the dish for over 30 years, beat out over 16 other Brussels establishments to bag the award.
“Since then we have sold three or four times more, we can’t keep up,” the chef says in the noisy kitchen of the restaurant.
“It is a Belgian recipe that we have improved here, that we have adapted little by little to the taste of the house,” he adds.
The croquettes will be served on a bed of fried parsley accompanied with lemon. A portion of two units costs 18.50 euros. The secret?
“It’s a small thin layer of homemade breadcrumbs that crunches in the mouth and makes all the difference”, Duarte says of a dish that was born during the First World War as food for soldiers trapped in the trenches of the battle of Yser, since shrimp were plentiful on the coast and could be preserved wrapped in bechamel sauce.
In Brussels, prawn croquettes first appeared on a restaurant menu in 1922, according to local sources, and became popular in 1950.
But to understand Belgium’s intimate relationship with these shrimps from the cold North Sea which lashes the country’s west, you have to go back hundreds of years. And you have to make the journey on the back of a horse.
In Belgium there is an ancestral practice that is unique in the world: horseback fishing for gray shrimp, a trade that was once common along the entire Belgian coast and that today survives almost exclusively as a tourist attraction in Oostdunkerque, a Flemish town of less than 10,000 people.
The tradition is maintained by a dozen families specialized in the art of fishing, in making the nets and in preparing the horses, which twice a week – and always at low tide – dive up to their chests to drag the funnel-shaped trawls along the sand of the beach.
They do it in 30-minute stints, which at the end of the day bring between 10 and 20 kilos of crustaceans to each of the few riders who keep alive a more than 500-year-old tradition that in 2013 UNESCO designated as intangible cultural heritage of humanity. EFE