Today is a national holiday in Belgium celebrating the inauguration of Leopold I, the first king of the Belgians, after the nation’s independence from the Netherlands in 1831. Belgium’s history is intertwined with those of its neighbors: the Netherlands, Germany, France and Luxembourg. For most of its history, what is now Belgium was either a part of a larger territory, such as the Carolingian Empire, or divided into a number of smaller states, prominent among them being the Duchy of Brabant, the County of Flanders, the Prince-Bishopric of Liège and Luxembourg. Due to its strategic location and the many armies fighting on its soil, Belgium since the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) has often been called the “battlefield of Europe” or the “cockpit of Europe.” It is also remarkable as a European nation which contains, and is divided by, a language boundary between Latin-derived French, and Germanic Dutch (Flemish)
After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, the major victorious powers (Britain, Austria, Prussia, and Russia) agreed at the Congress of Vienna on reuniting the former Austrian Netherlands and the former Dutch Republic, creating the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, which was to serve as a buffer state against any future French invasions. This kingdom was under the rule of a Protestant king, William I.
The Congress of Vienna treated Europe as if it were a giant board game with territories and ethnic groups carved up and reorganized in hopes of creating a balance of power between the major players and with suitable buffer zones between them. The hope was that the resultant layout would prevent the rise of another Napoleon, and that there would be a measure of peace thereby. Instead what resulted was a century of revolution and warfare initiated in large part by frustrated ethnic groups who resented being pushed around and manipulated like pieces in a game. The inclusion of the Belgians in the Kingdom of the Netherlands was one such problem.
The first 15 years of the Kingdom showed progress and prosperity, as industrialization proceeded rapidly in the south (that is, the Belgian sector) where the Industrial Revolution allowed entrepreneurs and labor to combine in a new textile industry, powered by local coal mines. There was little industry in the northern provinces, but most overseas colonies were restored, and highly profitable trade resumed after a 25 year hiatus. Economic liberalism combined with moderate authoritarianism under William 1 accelerated the adaptation of the Netherlands to the new conditions of the 19th century. The country prospered until a crisis arose in relations with the southern provinces.
Protestants controlled the new country although they formed only a quarter of the population. In theory, Catholics had full legal equality; in practice their voice was not heard. Few Catholics held high state or military offices. The king insisted that schools in the south end their traditional teaching of Catholic doctrine, even though everyone there was Catholic. Socially, the French-speaking (Belgian) Walloons strongly resented the king’s policy to make Dutch the language of government.
Political liberals in the south had their own grievances, especially regarding the king’s authoritarian style; he seemed uncaring about the issue of regionalism, flatly vetoing a proposal for a French-language teacher-training college in francophone Liège. Finally, all factions in the South complained of unfair representation in the national legislature. The south was industrializing faster and was more prosperous than the north, leading to resentment of northern arrogance and political domination.
The outbreak of revolution in France in 1830 was a signal for revolt in Belgium. The demand at first was autonomy for Belgium, as the southern provinces were now called. Eventually, revolutionaries began demanding total independence. The Belgian Revolution broke out in August 1830 when crowds, stirred by a performance of Auber’s La Muette de Portici at the Brussels opera house of La Monnaie, spilled out on to the streets singing patriotic songs. Violent street fighting soon broke out, as anarchy reigned in Brussels. The liberal bourgeoisie who had initially been at the forefront of the revolution, were appalled by the violence and willing to accept a compromise with the Dutch.
The king assumed the protest would blow itself out. He waited for a surrender, announcing an amnesty for all revolutionaries, except foreigners and the leaders. When this did not succeed he sent in the army. Dutch forces were able to penetrate the Schaerbeek Gate into Brussels, but the advance was stalled in the Parc de Bruxelles under a hale of sniper fire. Royal troops elsewhere met determined resistance from revolutionaries at makeshift barricades. It is estimated that there were no more than 1,700 revolutionaries (described by the French Ambassador as an “undisciplined rabble”) in Brussels at the time, faced with over 6,000 Dutch troops. However, faced with strong opposition, Dutch troops were ordered out of the capital on the night of September 26 after three days of street fighting. There were also battles around the country as revolutionaries clashed with Dutch forces. In Antwerp, eight Dutch warships bombarded the city following its capture by revolutionary forces.
Belgian independence was not allowed by the 1815 Congress of Vienna; nevertheless the revolutionaries were regarded sympathetically by the major powers of Europe, especially the British. In November 1830, the London Conference of 1830 or “Belgian Congress” (comprising delegates from five major powers) ordered an armistice on November 4. The British foreign secretary Lord Palmerston was fearful of Belgium either becoming a republic or being annexed to France, and so invited a monarch from the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha in Germany to take the throne. On July 21, 1831, the first “King of the Belgians,” Leopold I of Saxe-Coburg was inaugurated. Even so it took a further eight years of war with the Netherlands before Belgium was fully independent and was designated by the major powers as a neutral nation.
From its founding as a nation Belgium has been divided along linguistic/ethnic lines: Dutch speaking Flanders in the north, and French speaking Wallonia in the south. This division has caused endless social and political tensions down to the present day, and the two regions are culturally as distinct as if they were separate nations. Yet somehow the nation retains a level of unity and identity within the broader European stage. Outsiders know Belgium chiefly for two products – beer and chocolates, produced and enjoyed across the ethnic divide of the country. Brands of Belgian chocolate and pralines, like Côte d’Or, Neuhaus, Leonidas, and Godiva are famous, as well as independent producers such as Burie and Del Rey in Antwerp and Mary’s in Brussels. Belgium produces over 1100 varieties of beer. The Trappist beer of the Abbey of Westvleteren has repeatedly been rated the world’s best beer. The biggest brewer in the world by volume is Anheuser-Busch InBev, based in Leuven.
I can think of no better dish to represent Belgium on this day than the beef and onion stew known as Carbonade à la Flamande in French and Stoverij in Flemish. Beer is a key ingredient, and the dish is popular in both Flanders and Wallonia. It is crucial to understand that this is not just the usual European beef in beer recipe. You are striving for a sauce that is markedly bitter and sweet. Therefore the type of beer used is important, and traditionally an Oud bruin, Brune Abbey beer or Flanders red are the beers of choice because of their bitter flavor. Either brown sugar, or (preferably) red currant jelly, provides the sweet note.
Carbonade à la Flamande/ Stoverij
3 ½ lbs chuck roast, cut into 1-inch pieces
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 Tbsp butter
3 medium yellow onions peeled and sliced about ¼ inch thick (about 8 cups)
3 tbsp all-purpose flour
1 ½ cups beef broth
1 12 oz bottle Belgian beer
4 sprigs fresh thyme or 2 tsp dried thyme
2 bay leaves
1 tbsp whole grain mustard
2 tbsp redcurrant jelly or 1 tbsp brown sugar
Season the beef with salt and pepper.
Heat 2 tbsps of butter in a heavy dutch oven and brown the meat thoroughly in batches over high heat. It is best if the beef is not stirred too often.
Transfer the browned beef to a separate bowl.
Add 2 tablespoons butter to the dutch oven; reduce heat to medium. Add the onions and ½ teaspoon of salt. Cook until the onions are caramelized and golden-brown.
Add the flour and stir until the onions are evenly coated and the flour is lightly browned.
Add the broth, scraping the pan bottom with a wooden spoon to loosen the browned bits stuck to the bottom. Add the beer, thyme, bay leaves, and browned beef with any of the accumulated juices.
Increase heat to medium-high and bring to a full simmer.
Reduce the heat to low, partially cover, and let cook for 2-3 hours until the beef is fork tender. Keep an eye on the sauce as it reduces in the final hour. Add a little water if it reduces too fast.
About half an hour before it finishes cooking, add the mustard and redcurrant jelly (or brown sugar).
Adjust seasonings to taste.
Serve over noodles or with boiled potatoes, or French fries (which the Belgians claim to have invented).
Whatever beer you have used in the cooking makes for a great drink to accompany the stew.