Belgian biscuits

3 Nov

Biscuit drawers at Philip’s Biscuits in Antwerp

My ICOM Costume Committee conference in Brussels last week presented me with plenty of good opportunities both for proper dining and snacking.  As the city of chocolate and frites it’s hardly surprising that it’s difficult to get round Brussels without sampling any of the tempting treats that greet you at every corner.

As part of a group working on the committee project ‘Clothes tell stories’ I had an additional meeting on the first Sunday morning.  Arriving a little bleary eyed I was reassured to see alongside some welcome coffee, an elegant box of biscuits sitting on the table, filled with a beautiful selection of bite sized biscuits; crisp, sugary and buttery, produced by the Brussels biscuiteers Maison Dandoy, a biscuiterie which has been in business since 1829 and was set up by Jean-Baptiste Dandoy (and is still owned by the same family).  They included miniature palmiers and the spicy speculos, as well as some delicious, almost shortbread-like, rounds.  I enjoyed the packaging almost as much the biscuits themselves, sophisticated oversized gold polka dots on white and a neat little windmill motif.

A welcome box of Maison Dandoy biscuits

Wednesday saw us in Antwerp to visit the magnificent Madame Grés exhibition at the fashion museum MoMu.  But of course it didn’t take me long to discover another beautiful biscuit shop.  This time my attention was caught by Philip’s Biscuits and their distinctive hand biscuits. The shop had a wonderful counter with barrels for each type of biscuit, from langue du chat to kletskoppen (lace biscuits in English).  The hand biscuits had a slight vanilla flavour and were sprinkled with flaked almonds.  But why hands I asked the girl serving me?  She explained that not only is a hand the symbol of Antwerp but the name of the town actually means ‘weapon hand’, stemming from the legend of the slaying of a greedy giant.  The giant lived near the river Scheldt and would demand a toll from anyone crossing the river.  For those who refused to pay he cut off their hands and threw them into the water.  Eventually of course the giant got his comeuppance when a young local hero, Brabo, cut off the giant’s hand and threw it into the river.  All this gory detail is commemorated by a statue in the town square. This grisly detail has been translated by the baker’s art into a golden bite sized remembrance of the town’s history.

hands for sale!

My final biscuit discovery in Belgium was a pleasantly unexpected one.  I spent my final morning at the Musees royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique.  After visiting the brilliant exhibition Jordaens and the Antique I wandered round the permanent collection.  There nestled amongst the Flemish 17th century paintings were two still lives by Antwerp artists including dishes of marchpane, intricate gingerbreads and other sweetmeats.  As elaborate and decadent food, using much costly sugar and specially prepared, such delights seem worthy inclusions in these rich still lives but I don’t think I’ve seen anything comparable before – I’d love to know of other examples.  A fittingly historic end to my biscuit experiences in Brussels.

Still life with Lobster attributed to David Rijckaert II

biscuit detail from the Rijckaert

Still life with oysters by Osias Beert I


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