Like many Belgian families, we counted a pastor and nun amongst our immediate relatives. Having a clerical family member is practically a right of passage in Catholic Flanders, and we certainly nailed it. Not only did we have a ‘tante nonneke’ (auntie nun) and ‘nonkel pater’ (uncle pastor) in our bloodline, we also had my mom’s great-aunt Angèle, who had been a nun at some point in her life, but the details of that affair remain vague. Angèle lived somewhere around Ghent, which was considered far away with its 30-min drive, and she would make the rounds of the entire family whenever she happened to be in town. Angèle was a
whiskered old hag staunch Catholic volunteer for an obscure African Mission, who’d shamelessly guilt me into giving up my doll’s play clothing for the children in Africa who did not have clothing (!) whenever she’d visit us. Neither of us really liked Angèle, but she was family. When elbowed and prodded by my mom to oblige Angèle in her blatant demands for my doll’s terry cloth onesies, her wrinkled old hands would curtly snatch whatever offering my 6-year old self reluctantly presented, as though to imply I would burn in hell for even having a doll with clothing to begin with. To add insult to injury, her prickly upper lip would be presented for a smooch, to seal the transaction.
My mom’s ‘uncle pastor’ was much nicer, albeit as obstinate as they made them in the early 1900’s. He was my grandpa’s older brother, and a terrible driver who’d have us white-knuckled in the passenger seat each time we’d go somewhere. Truth is, is that I don’t even remember his ‘real’ name, as we always referred to him as ‘Nonkel Pater’. Decades prior to my birth, the Roman-Catholic Arch Diocese had assigned him to the very rural town of Foy-Notre-Dame in the French-speaking Ardennes, about 1-hr drive South from Brussels.
With only a few hundred inhabitants, the village center consisted out of a handful of houses & farms, a bistro restaurant and a small country church, its bells you could hear echoing over the fields twice daily. Reportedly, it is in this solemn country church that my 4-year old self made her mark on society. I won’t go into the horrid detail, but rumor has it, that I pushed open the heavy wooden church doors and cycled my creaky tripod through the center aisle in the buff… You should know that this happened during full Catholic Mass (!), and that I subsequently clambered onto the stage and proceeded with ‘picking’ the prettiest flowers out of the altar’s floral arrangements. Let’s collectively appreciate my resourcefulness in finding mom the finest daisies, and say a deep word of thanks that all of this took place prior to You Tube, smart phones and/or Facebook.
I spent many childhood Summer vacations in the Ardennes. The heavily forested region is a quick weekend getaway for many Flemish families foraging for walnuts & chestnuts in Fall, and it’s a popular outing on school field days. The area’s natural springs & cobbling creeks are renowned for trout fishing, and the wooded fields are home to wild boar, rabbit, pheasant & quail, as well as thorny bramble bushes and black berries. It’s this natural abundance that fuels the Ardennes gastronomic fame, which is complemented by old medieval castles that have been converted into stately boutique-style hotels or Michelin-prized restaurants.
Combined with dozens of outdoor activities as well as picturesque cobblestone towns, the Ardennes culinary tour de force forms an unmatched trifecta in tourism revenue. You can find some of the finest dry-cured meats, game, pâtés and cheeses in the Ardennes, but for me it’s all about trout. The ponds & rivers in the Ardennes are this deliciously flakey fish’ natural habitat, and you can’t beat the flavor of a fresh wild caught grilled trout!
BACON WRAPPED TROUT
(A classic out of Ardennes cuisine)
– 4 whole trout
– 1 bunch of thyme
– 1 lemon, halved and sliced very thin
– 2 cloves of garlic, minced
– 4 tsp of good quality butter
– a handful of sliced blanched almonds, toasted
– 1 package of bacon (*)
– salt & pepper to taste
(*) Traditionally, the trout are wrapped in authentic ‘Jambon d’Ardennes’, which is Belgium’s answer to prosciutto, but to keep things a bit more budget-friendly, I used bacon.
Preheat oven to 375F.
Scrub & wash trout under cold running water. Remove fins, then pat the inside and outside dry.
Stuff fish cavity with a few sprigs of thyme, lemon and a bit of the minced garlic. Season inside with salt & pepper, then wrap whole fish in bacon.
Roast trout in the oven (or grill on the BBQ) for approx. 20-25 min until crispy on the outside and done.
Serve fish with a sprinkling of toasted almonds and parsley, and a side of hearty potato.