Opening the gate to the rich culture and history of Belgium with Flemish regional delights as a key, is still a specific but overwhelming experience for me. ‘Paling in ’t Groen’ is one of Flemish dishes which attracted me first by its deep green color which suggests nature, environment, life, energy and plethora.
Actually, it’s not the first time deep green color either attracted me or surprised me like this. I remember discovering this particular green Crater Lake located in Ethiopia’s Rift Valley, carpeted with algae deep within a caldera, dotted with white and pink flamingos feasting on the green abundance, was the most soul brightening experience I had in the crater lakes heaven Debre Zeit (Bishoftu).
After pounding the cobblestones of Brugge, while immersing in a culture and working on an appetite, two attempts to discover the eel swimming in green sauce in one of the restaurants in Brugge memorably failed. The first attempt started with so much enthusiasm while discovering it on the menu and actually having it because not all or many restaurants serves this particular dish. I ordered it without any hesitation and waited with so much anticipation.
The pretty presentation of grilled eel on top of a drizzled bright green sauce with bit of golden brown butter oozed out of the sauce along with salad and Friet (Belgian Fries) gave me mix feeling as it was a surprise. Little bit disappointment sets in as I was looking forward the traditional way of eels in green sauce and maybe the waitress saw that little bit of a surprise on my face and asked if I need more green sauce. The eel was not well cooked so it was bit of struggle to separate it from its bone but I was rewarded with the green sauce which was delicious , which adds up even more curiosity to keep chasing the eel swimming in green river.
I don’t easily give up so in another trip to visit family in West Flanders and as always visiting Brugge, I made another attempt. After discovering the medieval postcard like city on foot from one museum to the other, admiring old buildings, visiting beautiful churches, shopping and stopping for hot chocolate and waffle or beer the day went by so quickly. We went to one of my husband’s favorite restaurant where locals frequent as the west Flanders being his home turf.
Beautifully set up, small wooden chairs and tables, the rustic feel with candle lights makes it so cozy, home like and romantic. The place is known for fondue and eel dishes so my choice was clear until the waitress told me so nicely unfortunately that they had everything but that on that day. We ordered another dish and had great time with good food and good wine which leads to a decision that I had to have this particular dish the classic Flemish way cooked by my Flemish husband at home with love.
My curiosity lead me to a little cook book with interesting title – Wat zit er in De Vlaamsche Pat (What’s in The Flemish Pot) – from my husband’s cook book collection. It is written in Dutch, so my husband had to translate, which is one of the opportunities everyday life presents to interracial couples to strengthening their bond I believe.
Love the story behind this dish even more than the recipe. Legend has it, this was one of the favorite dishes of Emperor Charles V. The very devout catholic Emperor insisted that 12 different kind of herbs being used in preparing the green sauce, 12 herbs representing each apostle – Mint, Parsley, springs of tarragon, Basil, Sage, Watercress, Chervil, Lemon balm, Sorrel, Bay leaf, Savory and Nettle (now replaced by Spinach).
It reminded me the sound of church bells which almost becomes a soundtrack for my traveling experience in European countries and everyday life while living in one. It also reminded me the scattered St. Mary statues accompanied with Jesus on the cross here and there almost in every village, typical Flemish household and even in vineyards in the Moselle region of Luxembourg.
Gathering the ingredients was a memorable experience by itself. Having great conversation about it during family visit in west Flanders with a family who loves cooking, laced the conversation with traditional tips and leads to the bountiful garden to collect the available herbs. A garden somewhere in west Flanders which is adorned with colorful flowers as well and one happens to be originally from Ethiopia like me.
Besides the herbs from the garden, as we always do every year we get to take home delicious apples, pears, berries and rhubarb with us. Every time we go back to visit family from neighboring country Luxembourg where we live, the return trip is usually with stuffed car from the trunk to the back seat with vegetables, fruits, homemade Flemish dishes, few things my husband strictly like to have from his home turf and of course things we couldn’t find in Luxembourg except Belgium.
The trip to the store and the shopping experience for the remaining herbs was not anything like grocery shopping as translating from Dutch to English either with my phone or my husband which is quite an experience by itself sometimes funny, frustrating but rewarding for an expat learning another culture. Finding eel was not that easy due to unavailability and being too expensive. We didn’t want to replace it with dogfish as it is becoming common thing to do these days so we went after frozen eels which turned out to be very good.
Flour coated pieces of silvery grey eels, slowly turning into golden brown while cooking in a butter. Adding finely cut shallot and then white wine and fish stock starts bringing out tantalizing aroma – the smell of cooking fish, caramelized onion, and bit of acidic smell from the wine. While the eels simmering slowly, pouching the greens in boiling water for seven minutes. Obviously, to retain the beautiful deep green color is important so putting the slightly cooked greens under cold water, adding Sorrel towards the end and replacing Nettle with spinach worked out perfectly.
Once the eels simmered down and cooked perfectly, seasoned with bit of salt and pepper, and adding the green sauce, drizzling lime and mixing it right before serving.
Experiencing subtle flavors from the green sauce – hint of grassy from parsley, freshness from the versatile mint, lemony from Sage, spicy from Basil, anise flavor from Chervil, peppery from Summer Savory and earthy from Spinach. Well citron and fish, fish and white wine, fish and green, fish and butter, green and butter makes up greenish, creamy, earthy and rich dish.
What makes it even more satisfying is the fact that it was spurred by memorable details emanated out of the process and of course Love!