Gareth Jones: Memories of Old Belgium & Malmedy’s Gooey Kisses
Memories of Old Belgium and Malmedy’s Gooey Kisses, including Recipe
When two chewy, gooey meringues come stuck together either side of a slather of butter cream or crême chantilly, the pâtissiers of Malmédy call this a ‘kiss’. Their description is obvious – it’s a fond embrace. Such is its fame, the Baiser had a place in the original Larousse Gastronomique compiled by Prosper Montagné in 1938.
The story goes that the Baiser de Malmédy started life in the late 19th century in this region of the Eastern Ardennes that many still prefer to call ‘Old Belgium’. The name appreciates that here, in the small towns like Malmédy, Stavelot, Bastogne, Spa and Francorchamps, the old ways continue and courtesy comes before all else – much as continues in Norfolk and Suffolk, Dorset and Somerset, where people living here still have time for each other.
One eats well and hearty in the Ardennes. Game dominates the autumn/winter-time menu – more fur than feather – and rarely is a game dish served without wild airelles, red lingonberries gathered plentifully from the low bushes found all over the Hautes-Fagnes moorland above Malmédy that then stretches across the border to become Germany’s wild Eiffel Park. The whole area was allowed to return to Nature by decree in the 1950′s.
Times were when butchers across Belgium would give you a punnet of fresh airelles when you bought some game; much like fishmongers in France who still give you a lemon, or vegetable sellers in the markets thrusting a bunch of fresh parsley in your basket when you complete your purchase at their stall. All this adds to the charm of shopping from real people who care for your custom. Beats a crude money-off voucher any day.
Belgians share a sweet tooth. Sunday lunch ends at Ferme Libert’s* famous dessert table known to clients from a wide area, many who make the restaurant their destination at the weekend for warm fresh waffles with airelles and light-as-a-feather Chantilly cream – made in-house, not from an aerosol please note.
The Thomas family bought the original half-timbered, small 18th-century ferme in 1936 – exactly 200 years to the year after it was first constructed in 1736. Little did they reckon on the next few years to come with WW2 taking place outside their front door and the in the fields and hills around, Malmédy being largely flattened and the reality of the 1944 ’Battle of the Bulge’ being a local happening – just without Henry Fonda, Robert Shaw, et al in the cast. Gruesome times made way for the gentillesse of post war years. Madame has shown us film footage of the era and we wept together.
Scratching a living as best they could, Thérèse’s mother began serving waffles and coffee to walkers in the cash-strapped 1950′s. Waffles led to sandwiches, soups and then a menu – still hanging over Reception in the old building. The hillside restaurant and 41-room hotel became more than famous – the welcome there made it the institution it is today, now over-seen by octogenarian daughter known to all as Madame Thérèse, or quite simply ‘Madame’.
“My customers are like my children,” she once confided. “I’ve welcomed them with their parents and now they return with their own children and families. Most days of the week there are reunions.” Annemie Desoete, here with husband Ivan (above) from Yprès, 2+ hours away in West Flanders, has visited Ferme Libert since she was a young child barely walking.
Ferme Libert’s à la carte menu has not changed in 20 or so years we’ve visited and stayed. Specials come and go – from Plains Bison or Belted Galloway beef (both reared locally) to seasonal white asparagus or oysters from the
coast. Two things stay constant – a daily soup to start and the wild airelle confit brought to table with game and desserts alike. It’s sold in simply labelled jars to take home as a memory of the calm and good that is Ferme Libert.
Fallow and roe deer herds graze above and below the restaurant – there even the larger Red deer too. These provide the young venison on the menu – all of which is butchered in an EU approved facility set below the restaurant itself and unbeknowns to the customers above, although as most being Belgians, they’d likely approved of their meat being this local and well despatched.
The Thomas family got into deer farming as if by default. Youngest son Hubert came to England to buy a customised JCB contraption for their expanding farm and forestry. He ended up bringing back breed stock from the Bamford estate, as well as his shiny yellow JCB for their forestry work. Hubert, named after the patron saint of hunters, is the deer man to this day.
When the King and Queen of Belgium visited Malmédy in the late 1990′s, the Royal Household requested a lunch at Ferme Libert for them and their guests. Madame Thérèse said she thought it some mistake, maybe even a prank and suggested they went to her nephew’s Michelin starred château outside Liège. This lady had her reward – the Royals made it clear that Ferme Libert was their first choice, the place being iconic and a post WW2 Belgian legend.
Desserts are important at Ferme Libert – their waffles (gauffres) especially so, made as they are to a Thomas family recipe developed by eldest brother Pierre.
Then comes Malmédy’s other dessert – two palm sized, off-white sticky meringues held loosely together in a ’kiss’ – the Baiser de Malmédy first created by a local pastry chef called Rodolfe Wiertz who made his name working at the Hotel International in the nearby elegant spa resort called Spa.
Come Sundays at Ferme Libert, the meringues are left plain for diners to make their own version of the ‘kiss’, be it with home-made ice cream or thick yellow cream from the dairy farm higher up on the Burnenville road leading to on what was oncepart of the world famous right-hand Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps at Les Coombs – shortened by near half after 1978 due to accidents and fatalities with ever quicker race cars competing on regular roads with no more than straw bales as crash barriers. Two main road corners have their curved banking to this day and one can dream of the golden age of gentlemen racers, many of whom stayed at Ferme Libert where they were treated as clients and never celebrities. Like as I said, this is ‘Old Belgium’ where flash and vulgar have no place.
Ferme Libert is dear to us – with our boys we’ve spent many happy times there, including birthdays, Christmas and New Year. We’ve been there in thick snow when they lay beechnuts on the lanes to help cars continue up the steep climb past Libert.Ferme Libert. We’ve sat out late after dinner on the terrace on long summer evenings with a full moon across the valley. We’ve gathered wild mushrooms, tiny wild raspberries and bilberries (myrtilles) in season – but never airelles.
Re-creating the Malmédy Kiss comes second nature to our 12 year old, as does eating them by his elder brother.
Stiff peak whites are whisked with pure cane sugar until silver white and glossy – dropped onto parchment and into a low oven (about 120°C) for 1½ hours or so.
Eggs and Malmédy come together every August with the world famous giant omelette made from 10,000 fresh eggs by chevaliers and cooks of the Confrérie Mondiale des Chevaliers de l’Omelette Géante set up for the purpose. The eggs are all freshly cracked and mixed, lardons are cut and 20 kgs of chives chopped – all are then cooked by those leagues of chef-chevaliers in the square below the cathedral in a custom-made 4-metre diameter poèle. over an open fire set on the road surface itself.
The roads are closed. The day begins with a special service and blessing in the cathedral, followed by a lengthy swearing in of the new chevaliers. The crowds gather as the omelette begins to cook and barquettes of the rich creamy speciality are handed out free and gratis to all-comers, local or visitors. Someone worked out that the 10,000 eggs produce 4,500 portions – just around two eggs per portion, made all the better for the smoked lardons from the pigs reared to make the local jambon d’Ardennes which has a history dating back to Roman times.
Plenty Malmédy baisers go down and are even exchanged that day in mid-August - some might from the many pâtisserie shops across the town.
What delight when the simple becomes great and lives through two centuries. Mwaah!
Ferme Libert – www.fermelibert.be / Tel.: 00 32 (0) 80 33 02 47
Gareth Spencer Jones – a food consultant, cook, traveller, husband and father of two boys.
For the past 30 years I have worked with many large and mid-size food companies, as well as consulting with some of the big supermarkets. I have helped shape their vision, improve their products, take on new ideas and generally make a better fist of what they do. It’s far more engaging that this, but here I must be brief.
Here’s how I started. I had a Damascene moment when first visiting France as a youngster – a month living with an exchange family who had fled Spain during the Civil War to set up a new life in the Aveyron. Grandma’ had one of the town’s main café bar and we all had our jobs. I began as plongeur and finished the month promoted to garçon. This experience gave me – years later to appreciate – a twist on the story. I’d been raised in a farming household eating well and in season – but eating it was, no more
In France with three generations of the Viargues family, I learned to enjoy the best there was and take my time at table.
Food is my passion. I eat like a sparrow, but cook like a giant. I have surrounded myself with food people since my teenage years.
Dare I say, I am a gastronome. No day passes when I don’t celebrate and thank God for what we have.
I have spent time in the best kitchens in France and Belgium, been to market with top chefs. Everything I know is by observation, questioning and a deep desire to know why.
I want to share all this with you. I have run culinary workshops for 25 years or more for everyone from the big supermarkets to top food editors – my mission was always to have attendees leaving exclaiming “I didn’t know that” – and saying that at least three times. Knowledge is for sharing, not for harbouring.
As to the descriptor above. I am lucky to be married to a fine cook who has travelled extensively through Asia and the America’s. Our two boys are special – they love junk food as much as great food. If only to be their age again.