Friday, June 11, 2010

Green Soup, Waffles and French Fries: My Belgian Years

We were posted to 1 Fighter Wing, Marville, France with the RCAF in 1961.  The old town of Marville is located on a hill not far from Longuyon, in the northeastern province of Lorraine.  The base was a few miles west of Marville and about 20 kilometers from the Belgian border.  The majority of Canadians lived in huge apartment complexes in Longuyon.  We wanted to live "on the economy" as we called it.  Like many others, we wanted to live in Belgium, as it was a bit ahead of northern France at that time in housing and general living style.

The picture at right is of the entrance to the base, RCAF Marville.

Note:  Nearly all the pictures--not including the food-- were taken in the 1960s and one from 1985 via slides.  I had them developed as photographs and then took the pictures of the photographs with my digital camera.  I also took pictures of other photographs I had.  Many are in black and white (some of them postcards).  Click on any picture to enlarge it and to clarify it.  Just click on the arrow at the top of the page to return to the blog.

Below is a view of the Canadian PMQs (married quarters) in Longuyon, France in the 1960s.

We found a small, furnished second-floor apartment within a family home in Virton, Belgium, about 26 kilometers north of the base (about six kilometers north of the French/Belgian border) in the famous Ardennes Forest region.  We had only two large rooms and they included a combination living room/dining room/kitchen and one bedroom.  The modern bathroom was down the hall.  In the warm seasons, the children slept in a small curtained alcove outside the living room area; in winter, they had their beds in our room.

Our kitchen held a sink (no hot water, just cold) and a wood and coal stove, on which we not only heated our water but did all the cooking.  The oven was just large enough for a turkey at Christmas.  Others we knew had to take theirs to the bakery or butcher shop to be roasted, which was common then.  We shared a fridge with our landlords, the Adams.  It was new.  I  remember seeing only milk, butter and meat in it belonging to them.  They were not used to fridges yet.

To do the laundry, I walked through Madame's kitchen in the rear of the house to an unheated stone room; lovely in summer, cold in winter.  The washing machine was electric but the water was heated by gas.  To start the process, I first had to light a wick underneath the machine to light the gas to heat the water.  None of these inconveniences bothered me in the least.  I was thrilled to be in Europe and I was young, so I did not mind any of the less-than-perfect amenities.
 The picture below shows a view of the town of Virton

 The Adams treated us wonderfully, sharing their culture and special holidays--such as Christmas and Easter--with us.  They also shared their food on many occasions and one of the dishes Madame served was "la soupe verte," a specialty in that particular region.  All the Canadians we knew learned about that green soup from their Belgian landlords.  Madame Adam had it simmering on the back of her coal and wood stove every single day, and every evening meal began with it.  The aroma from that soup wafting into the hallway was welcoming indeed as we climbed the stairs to our apartment at the end of a day.

They invited us to supper one night, and that is when we were introduced to the soup.  I have never seen a recipe for it and have never seen the soup anywhere else but there.  It was darkish green in colour and thick.  With it she served a hearty bread from the bakery just off the market square.  We began buying our own bread there as well.

Below is the narrow cobble-stoned street off the market square.  The bakery was on the left side, almost across from the car in the picture.

Madame told me exactly how she made her soup.  At the time, I didn't write it down.  I did that a few years later.  I made it many times over the years and it came pretty close to Mme Adam's.  I changed the way of doing it a little, but it is still much as she made it. 

Last week I made Madame's soup and enjoyed it almost as much--along with a good bread.  I was unable, of course, to buy the Belgian bread to accompany it.  I did the next best thing and bought the best bread in the world from Herr Burger, the baker in Biederbach, where we go nearly every second Saturday afternoon for a visit.  See it below.

Below, my just-cooked green soup, Herr Burger's sliced bread (perfect with it), butter and a glass of wine.

Here is Madame's recipe for green soup:

La Soupe Verte (Belgian Green Soup) a la Madame Adam

2 bunches of leeks (4 per bunch, with an outer leaf or so removed); 1 whole head of celery, with leaves; 1 onion, peeled and sliced; about 6 tablespoons butter; 1-ounce piece of salt pork or smoked bacon fat; 8 to 10 cups good-quality chicken stock; 1 bunch of parsley, with stems removed and discarded; 4 to 5 medium potatoes (7 small), peeled and quartered; salt and pepper to taste. Optional:  A sprinkle of Fondor or similar seasoning and some splashes of Maggi.  Toppings or Additions:  Creme fraiche or whipping cream.

Slice into half-inch (1 cm) rings the white part of the leeks and the green part immediately after the white.  (The remaining green portion can be used for something else.)  Wash again thoroughly.  Wash the celery and leaves; remove the leaves and set aside; cut the celery into half-inch (1 cm) pieces.

Melt the butter and salt pork in a large soup pot.  Add the leeks, celery pieces and sliced onion and saute them, uncovered, in the melted fat until soft and aromatic, about 20 to 25 minutes.  Meanwhile, chop the celery leaves somewhat and chop the parsley coarsely.  When the vegetables are soft, add the chicken stock, stirring it well.  Add celery leaves and parsley.  Bring to a boil over medium to high heat; then reduce heat and simmer, covered, for one and a half to two hours, until everything is tender and the stock is full of flavour, adding the potatoes about 30 to 40 minutes before the soup is ready.  Partially cool.

When cool enough, strain it through a sieve, as Mme Adam did, or blend it, as I now do.  Because this soup should be fairly thick, I blend the entire amount, doing it in stages so as not to overflow the blender.  Pour it into a large pot, heat it again and season to taste with salt and pepper.  I add some Fondor and a little Maggi.  If wished, you can stir in some fresh cream or creme fraiche before ladling it into soup bowls, although Mme Adam did not do that.  You can instead add a dollop of creme fraiche or whipped cream to the soup bowl before serving.  Add a sprig of parsley for contrast.  This soup, along with hearty bread, is a meal in itself.  Great on a cold winter night--or even on a spring evening.

The soup just poured into the bowl with whipped cream melting on top.

The Adams also initiated us into the world of red wine.  Up until then I had found all wine either sour or too sharp.  We were introduced to a wine that changed all of that.  It was one Monsieur Adam brought up from his wine cellar.  That cellar must have had hundreds of bottles, all on their sides in individual little caves in the stone wall.  I have forgotten the year of the wine but it was at least ten years old at that time, so it must have been from the early 1950s, perhaps even the late 1940s.  It was a red Burgundy from the Cote de Nuits, a Chambolle Musigny.  That wine was so smooth with no sharpness at all--just a lovely taste on the tongue and palate.  I learned then that one should be initiated with a good wine, not a mediocre one.

During our last two and a half years in Belgium, we lived in Lamorteau, the border town, as we needed more room for the children.  We didn't lose contact with the Adams, though, and visited often and later kept in touch for many years.

In our new place, we had a fully furnished apartment with our own washer, gas stove and fridge.  Good friends lived in the apartment below.  Our landlords, the Toussaints, lived in the house next door, all of it (including ours and the barn), one-connected building, as is often the case in Europe.  This had been a chateau at one time, though more a country manor house from its style.

A view of  Monsieur and Madame Toussaints's house (ours is to the left and hidden) with the small river passing beside it.  We were told that Marie Antoinnette had stayed here overnight enroute to or from France.

During our time it was a working farm with cattle, geese, ducks and chickens, so our children were introduced to these animals daily, including brand new calves and chicks and ducklings.

Our house faced the side of the stone church that bordered the farmyard.  Just around the corner was a small bridge crossing a narrow river, with a bakery and a hair salon on the other side of it and a grocery store just beyond them.  By this time our two children were speaking French and often went to the store or bakery for us.  No worries back then for children out playing.

To the right is a postcard showing the stone church. Our house is just to the right of  the white building and facing the church.

A winter scene in 1963.  The bakery and hair dresser are both on the corner with the river flowing beneath the road (bridge).  The church and our house are just out of sight on the right side.

Lamorteau was a small village and years later, when Hans and I returned on a visit, it hadn't changed other than all the cattle dunghills were no longer in sight.  In this part of Belgium and all over northern France that is where you found them--outside the barns, almost next to their front doors.  The backyard is where their gardens were.  Today, things have changed in both Belgium and France.  Driving through the area on that visit in 1985 and again a few years later, it was quite amazing and pleasing to see flower gardens and grass instead along the streets.  For many years now communities all over France have been vying  for the stars given each year for especially lovely flowers and gardens in the villages, towns and cities.  The signposts on entering a community show how many--if any--stars they've received.  As this can be a draw for tourists, it does encourage towns to participate.

The picture below, taken in 1985, shows our house, the one with the red geraniums in the windows.  Just to the left was our garage.  To the right, is the Toussaint's house.  Across from our house, is the side of the church.

One of the things Madame Toussaint made was "gaufrettes" or waffles.  She would cook them in her waffle iron, open her kitchen window outwards and call the children.  She would then lean out to give each a warm waffle, sprinkled with icing sugar.  That was a real treat and all of them loved them.

Years later, in the early 1990s, I attended the Dijon Food Fair in Burgundy with a friend.  One of the booths at the fair was making waffles, triggering that Lamorteau memory.  Lillian and I had one each.  First, hot from the waffle iron, the baker spread them with a rich chocolate sauce and then slathered them with whipped cream.  Oh, how delicious they were!  It brought back those years in Belgium and those other hot waffles, simpler and made by a farm woman in her kitchen--but no less memorable.

This week I decided to make them myself.  The picture at right shows a waffle topped with Canadian maple syrup (Ahorn-Sirup in German) which I bought at a supermarket here.  That is a product that wasn't seen in Germany that long ago.

 Below are two small dessert waffles.  I covered them with chocolate sauce, whipped cream and a drizzle of extra chocolate on top and added four strawberries to each.  These were rich, sweet and delicious.  Almost as good as the one in Dijon. 

One of the most famous foods in the world is French fries--or pommes frites as they are called in Belgium and France.  In Germany they are as well, but often they are just called "Pommes" (pronounced pom ess).  Belgium is renowned for their frites.  When we first moved to Belgium in 1961, we soon found out how good they were.  Not, of course, good for you, but oh-so-good to eat!  It was common to take a large empty bowl to the cafe in downtown Virton (only a two-or three-minute car drive from our house) and ask them to fill it with pommes frites to take home for supper.  They were crisp and delicious.  They cost about the equivalent of 25 to 50 Canadian cents for a full bowl, with more than enough for four.

Below, a bowl of freshly made French fries or pommes frites that I made for supper last evening.

Friends Chris and Filiep, along with their two sons and Filiep's mother, Jenny Vercruysse, drove down to our area to celebrate New Year's Eve about three years ago.  Chris and Filiep lived near Ramstein, Germany and Jenny near Bruges in Belgium.

Over dinner at a Gasthaus the next evening, we discussed pommes frites at length.  Jenny was born and raised in Belgium and told us there is a trick to making good ones.  This is how she makes "frites maison" (home-style French fries):

Belgian-Style French Fries a la Jenny Vercruysse

Cut peeled potatoes into strips.  Soak them in ice-cold water (I add ice cubes to the water) until the starch has been removed from them (draining the water and replacing it with more ice cold water) for 30 minutes to an hour.  Remove them from the water and dry them well.  That is important.  Set them on paper towels.

First frying:  Deep fry them in batches in hot peanut oil, at 340F (170C), for 2 to 4 minutes, depending on the size of the chips and the type of potatoes used.  They should be soft to the touch but still white, not browned at all.  Drain them well and allow them to cool.

Second frying:  Before serving them, deep fry them again in the oil at 350F to 375F (180C to 190C) until golden.  Note:  Jenny says that peanut oil is important and the temperature is important for both fryings.

Our landlady in Belgium also used peanut oil, though I never asked her how she made her pommes frites.  I just ate and enjoyed them, recognizing that they were special.  When you want French fries on the spur of the moment, this method would be too time-consuming; if you plan ahead, though, you can have the potatoes ready a few hours earlier--except for the frying. 

My supper last evening:  Jenny's pommes frites, fresh tomatoes, and German marinated ribs with a North American, freshly made barbecue sauce.   One of my favourite meals!

Bon Appetit! 


  1. Hi Janet,
    Your story and pictures of France during your time there are very interesting.
    I might try the French Fries receipe one day. I will need time though, as it requires two deep fryings. Do you have any idea why peanut oil is the one used? I do know that I have always preferred the German french fries over North American, and I know it has something to do with the type of oil used.

    1. I'm not sure, Saby. It could be that it heats well at a high temperature or perhaps it is just the flavor. Janet

  2. Very nice pictures. Your Belgian-Style French Fries recipe drew my attention. I might use sunflower oil instead of peanut oil. Thanks !


  3. The Belgics made the best pomme frite in the world!! With Mayonnaise!!! All your pictures of the food made me so hungry to be back in Belguim and France and Germany, As a teenager my father was stationed in Marville and we lived in Virton/St.Mard and later in Dampicourt in 1964/65! All this reconnecting with the Canadian air force brat site, it is making me very homesick!
    Thank you Delta Fay Cruickshank

  4. thank you bringing back my childhood memories ..I grew up in that pmq in france and was there when it first language is French ..English second..if you have any more pics of pmqs I would love it I was in first one as you came in from water tower...first floor right door..merci madame

    1. I am pleased you got so much pleasure out of my blog post. Janet

  5. Hi Janet;
    What a treat to read your blog... it brings back many memories of our stay in Saint Mard during 1960 - 1962. We lived on Ave. Joseph Wauters, near the village of Chenois. We spent 4 wonderful years in Belgium and Marville, France, and did a lot of traveling around Europe with our English Ford Consul, maps, tent and cameras (didn't have much money for hotel stays). Strangely, we were young and took this adventure for granted, and now realize how special that time was.

    Carl Chapman


    1. So pleased you enjoyed my blog about our Belgian years. Perhaps you knew Satch MacDonald. He was with 441 Sqn. All the best, Janet

  6. Hi Janet, my husband and I were in Belgium from 61 to 65. All I can remember too well was the desperate feeling I felt when we were refused an extension to our stay. We were so "Belgiumized" that it was inconceivable to return to Canada. We lived in Florenville and the Semois (river) was very much the source of great pleasure for all the 'Canadians' who lived there. We too remember the delicious gauffres, frites, mayonnaise, wine, soup and cafes, etc. Bob was especially privileged as he was a member of 1 Wing Pipe Band and as such did quite a lot of traveling to places in Belgium, France and Germany and playing in international music festivals. He is a tall man and with the big fur bonnet he towered over the Europeans, and ladies. The ladies always wanted to know just what the men wore under that large "skirt".....! We so enjoyed the pictures which accompanied your wonderful story. We also returned to visit our former landlady Mme Vercheval in Belgium in 93 and again in 2005 for a Marville reunion, I also had my little moments of fame when I played Queen Isabella during the big fete of the City of Bouillion the first year and the second I was portraying a wealthy Texan gentleman's wife. Lots of fun. We surely do thank you for stirring such wonderful memories which was so well written.

    Alice and Bob Clarke (Wolfville, NS)