The festive food of Flanders
Last week I mentioned our post-Christmas holiday in Bruges. Specifically, I talked about the appeal of a city that really values museums that give you a chance to eat, drink, smell and engage with history beyond the visual. More than anything, Bruges museums seem keen to combine the museum visiting experience with the beer drinking experience. All of which makes you wonder why British museums don’t have something similar. Wouldn’t the British Museum’s Pompeii exhibition be enhanced by quaffing a swift amphora of wine beforehand?
The high point of Bruges’ Belgian beer fuelled museums is the Volkskundemuseum (Folklore Museum). Much like folk museums in this country, the museum, which is housed in a row of 17th century cottages, is made up of recreated period rooms that preserve traditional Flemish living and working quarters. (The Victorian schoolroom is almost identical to those in the kind of museums where I work and visit, except for rows of children’s clogs along the wall). Half way round, there is a traditional bar, only unlike the other displays this one is fully functional (the bar, De Zwarte Kat or Black Cat, is named in honour of the real black cat that likes to bed down in the museum displays). In fact, it serves beers brewed in the city by the De Halve Maan (Half Moon) Brewery. Here you can see Professor Plum enjoying a refreshing Straffe Hendrik, the strong locally brewed beer that made the second half of the museum a merrier visit.
The bar wasn’t the museum’s only tasty treat, though (although it wasn’t a busy enough time for the confectionery workshop to have a demo). The museum houses a sizeable collection of patacons. Not the kind of Latin American fried plantain that is also called a patacon, these are ceramic discs named for the patagon, an early Spanish silver coin. Flanders, the province that includes Bruges, had been part of the Spanish Empire at the height of Spanish power when the Hapsburg Charles, Lord of the Netherlands, became Charles I of Spain in 1516 (and, later, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V). Bruges would remain under Spanish control until the end of the 17th century.
The patagon coins were minted from 1612 onwards and remained in circulation even after Spanish rule. One thing that they were used for was being baked into a festive loaf as essentially an extra present. This is not a concept unique to Belgian and indeed is reminiscent of the traditional British Twelfth Cake, the cake eaten on Twelfth Night, into which a coin would be baked with the person who found it becoming the King of Revels. Over time the token coin was phased out and replaced with a decorative token made from fired pipe-clay, something that continued into modern times. It is these patacons that are collected in Bruges’ Volkskundemuseum (as you can see in this picture of a patacon from the Napoleonic era).
So, why did the museum display of fired clay discs excite the taste buds? While there were no actual samples to taste in the exhibition, they did provide recipes. I often wonder whether people ever make the recipes that you sometimes find in museums, but to my mind the experience of the display wouldn’t be complete without trying it. So, I took a recipe from the Bruges museum, brought it home to Yorkshire and had a go at some Flemish baking.
The museum’s recipe is to make a vollaard. According the museum: “Decorated festive loaves or ‘vollaards’ are well-known in Belgium.” Googling for “vollaard“, however, doesn’t really suggest as much, mostly just returning people with the surname Vollaard. Even searching for “vollaard” + “festive loaf” doesn’t really give a lot of results. It does, however, point to the cougnou, which appears to be the French name for the same bread in Wallonia (Francophonic Belgium). Wikipedia refers to the bread as originating in Hainaut, the Wallonian province on the French border, and suggests that cougnou are known as volaeren or folarts in French Flanders. These names provide a lot more google hits (although I’m inclined to stick with the vollaards spelling as it came from Flanders itself rather than wikipedia!).
Anyway, vollaards or cougnou, or whatever you want to call them, are a sweet festive bread loaf not too far removed from the more familiar German stollen or Italian panettone, although perhaps its closest relation is brioche. Made by adding plenty of milk, eggs, sugar and butter to the yeast and flour, the recipe should make a rich and soft bread. So, let’s give it a try.
The recipe calls for a kilo of flour, which seemed like it was going to be a lot for the two of us, so I halved it (and even so it still seemed like a lot of ingredients). This is mixed with 25g of light brown sugar, before making a well in the flour and cracking two eggs into it along with 25g of fresh yeast mixed into 200ml of warm milk. After kneading, the butter is then added to the mix as with croissants or similar buttery viennoserie.
After leaving the dough to rise, the next process in making bread involves knocking it back and shaping it. As the vollaard or cougnou is also known as “the bread of Jesus”, hence its place within festive traditions, the shape of the loaf is supposed to reflect this. A vollaard, thus, takes the form of a large central oblong shape with two smaller balls at either end, supposed to suggest the shape of a swaddled baby (Luke’s gospel makes plenty of mention of the infant Christ in his swaddling clothes). This can then be decorated with raisins, covered in an egg wash glaze and, after being allowed to rise further, baked in the oven for half an hour.
So, how did my Belgian winter treat turn out? Well, first of all it was a wise move to half the ingredients, because even with half what the museum suggested it was a massive piece of bread. I guess it is intended as a big family treat for Christmas, so it would obviously be pretty large. Hopefully we can eat it before it gets a little stale. Served in the traditional Belgian way (alongside a mug of hot chocolate) the vollaard proved a soft, rich bread unsurprisingly not unlike brioche. It was nice, but perhaps nothing exceptional. Maybe centuries ago it would have been a bigger treat.
And did cooking it help in understanding the Folklore Museum’s displays? Undoubtedly. Looking at the slightly unconvincing dummy vollaards in the display shown above didn’t really tell us a lot, but by baking and eating one I have a far better understanding of it. There really is no substitute for cooking and eating when it comes to understanding food!
Secondly, the vollaard reminded me of a hot cross bun, though it’s a different religious festival. It’s a bit plainer than a spiced currant bun, but the dried fruit is clearly part of the same expensive ingredients for special occasions theme. Shame the raisins were mostly on the outside for show, since they’d swollen up and burnt. I think it would be good buttered, or in that very European-holiday tradition: slathered with chocolate spread. Nutella was the saving grace of the Belgian breakfasts (suspiciously pink ham and plastic cheese are not breakfast foods, continent). In the meantime, I guess I’ll just have to enjoy my hot chocolate (made with pure cocoa blocks, an xmas present from the Eden Project).
PREVIOUSLY IN BREAD:
“This is My Jam” – Making breakfast from scratch. How long does it take to bake your own bread, churn your own butter, make your own jam and roast your own coffee?
“Pizza, Pomodoro and Patriotism” – The true history of the world’s favourite flatbread and its Neapolitan origins.
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