As anyone who has been to Findlay Market in Cincinnati or North Market in Columbus knows, there’s a distinct sweet caramel-ly smell wafting the stalls as soon as you step into the main market building. Follow your nose, and you’ll end up at a waffle stand owned by Belgian immigrant Jean-Francois Flechet. If you’re quick enough you can grab a bite sized taste when one of the griddle flippers cuts a newly removed waffle from the cast iron. The sugary crunch on the outside, followed by the dense and chewy inside create a wonderful tasty snack that has become legend in the Ohio valley.
Since 2007 Jean-Francois Flechet has been selling the Liege style Belgian waffle to Cincinnatians, with his Taste of Belgium waffle stands. In just seven years, Flechet has turned his one stand at Findlay Market into a successful empire of Belgian Bistros, including a concession stand at the Cincinnati Red’s stadium, and won the hearts and stomachs of Cincinnatians with his waffles. While Europeans would cringe at serving the dense Liege waffle with chicken and clog-your-arteries chicken gravy as he serves at his Taste of Belgium Bistro, Cincinnatians are cult followers. Although not native, and certainly new to the Ohio food palate, the Liege waffle seems to fit in well with the Midwestern food tradition.
When visiting home, Flechet attended a food trade show where he walked in and smelled the waffles from his home city being made. He found the stand and ended talking to the old man proprietor for two hours. He came home from that trip with a new waffle iron, a recipe that he tweaked, and a new food genre – Americanized-Belgique – that has taken Cincinnati by storm. The many varieties of Belgian beers he serves at his bistros compliment the rich brewing heritage in Cincinnati, which before prohibition, had more breweries per capita than any city in the United States.
In Belgium, there is no such thing as the light Americanized version of the Belgian waffle. And, the Liege waffle is very different from the Americanized Belgian version. The American Belgian waffle is much less dense, has larger pockets, and usually the batter is leavened with baking soda instead of ale yeast. The dough is less sweet, less crunchy, and makes it ripe for a variety of toppings, such as whipped cream and strawberries, stewed spiced apples, and syrup.
In Belgium, there are two types of waffles – the Liege waffle and the Brussels waffle. The liege waffle is native to the French speaking Wallonia region of Eastern Belgium, and is also known as a ‘hunting waffle,’ or ‘gaufres de chasse.’ That’s an appropriate name, because they are more dense, richer, and sweeter than the Brussels waffle. A hunter out on a cold long day would want a dense, carb-packed snack to keep his energy and concentration high. The batter is an adaptation of the brioche bread dough, stolen from the French, but Belgianized by being leavened with ale yeast, which they have in abundance. The real magic to the Liege waffle are the chunks of pearl sugar which caramelize on the outside.
The Brussels waffle on the other hand is lighter, crispier and have large pockets. They can be distinguished from the round or oval shaped Liege waffles by their rectangular sides. Attributed to the Swiss baker, working in Ghent, Belgium, Florian Dacker, they have been a treat in the European Union’s capital since 1842. The Brussels waffle is the most similar to the Americanized version of the Belgian waffle. It can be seen topped with Nutella chocolate spread and fresh strawberries.
And waffles just aren’t for breakfast anymore. Taste of Belgium serves a comfort food favorite chicken and waffles. The waffle replaces the starch that at breakfast might have been potato hash, or at dinner might have been french fries. The has spilled over into the Quick Service Restaurant (QSR) industry in the last few years as well – think McDonald’s chicken waffle breakfast sandwich, White Castle’s Belgian waffle sandwiches and Taco Bell’s waffle tacos. The Belgians and their waffles are here to stay.
However, for me, I do think waffles are just for breakfast. Call me old fashioned, but I think waffles were made to dunk in strong coffee. And for me, the perfect waffle for morning coffee submersion is the Dutch version, the Stroopwafel. They’re from cheesemaking Gouda region of Holland, consisting of two crisp round waffle wafers with syrupy filling. They’re certainly not as ubiquitous as Flechet’s Liege waffles, but I can still find them at Jungle Jim’s in the Dutch section. Thanks Ms. Neubauer for that introduction!