The smell of warm sugar stopped us before we even made it to the Grand Place,
Brussels’ gilded and glorious main square, the epicenter of the city’s annual Christmas Market. My nose twitched as I sniffed the air until the sweet source revealed itself. A man in short woolen jacket and hat with furry flaps over his ears stood on the street, flipping a black waffle iron that oozed batter drippings as it huffed and breathed sweet clouds into the cold night.
“Deux gaufres, s’il vous plaît.” Two waffles, please, I said to him.
With what looked like a stubby barbecue fork, he peeled the crenellated confections off the knobs of the iron, folded them between squares of wax paper and handed them to us one at a time. We cradled the waffles in our hands like pieces of fragile foreign glass. My daughter Chloe and I had only been in Brussels four months, having moved at the end of the summer for my husband’s job. A new friend had enticed me to visit the market with her fond recollections of similar ones she’d visited as a young girl with her parents.
The waffle in my hand, I’d later learn, was called a Liège (pronounced lee-ezh) waffle, named for a city in the southwest of Belgium.
This ginger brown, oblong gem, about the size of an iPhone, was nothing like the whipped cream-topped IHOP version I’d grown up with. We bit in, and the caramelized coating gave way to the chunks of pearl sugar burrowed in the chewy, vanilla- infused dough.
We ate as we followed the heralding sound of brass horns down a cobblestone lane that opened onto the Grand Place. Before us, a 30-foot fir tree
was brilliantly lit, on its own an impressive sight. But beneath ancient gabled rooftops and the towering spire of an ornate square, once dubbed the most beautiful in Europe by Victor Hugo, we oohed and aahed as if we had just witnessed a miracle.
Nearby, a band of eight merry men blew their golden trum- pets until their cheeks glowed cherry red. Although we didn’t recognize the song, the cheer was contagious, and even I bounced in time, caught up in the festivity; something I hadn’t done, or wanted to do, for a long time.
Confession: I’m a recovering Christmas Scrooge. Read the full story (published in Virginia Living Magazine in December 2012)