If you have visited Brussels, you may be familiar with “Pain à la Grécque”. Several Brussels firms have been selling it for decades. Two of these are close to Brussels’ beautiful Grand Place.
“Pain à la Grécque” used to be made on the premises of shops like Maison Dandoy. Though this is no longer the case, you can still buy it at their shop at Beurre or Boterstraat 31. I recently bought the minimum amount of their “pain à la Grécque” there. Their other shop, a tearoom, is down the Rue de l’ Etuve, near Manneken Pis.
If you are interested in a Brussels shop where you can still watch cookies being created on the premisses, just walk from Manneken Pis towards the Jacques Brel Foundation or museum. You walk uphill through the Rue de Chêne to the Place de la Vieille Halle aux Blés. On your stroll up, you pass one of the few remnants of the medieval city wall and the Tour de Villers.
The nearer you get to the small square with the long name, the more useful your nose becomes. After returning to the rue de Chêne from the Tours de Villers, you might already be able to pick up a delightful cookie-smell. Don’t forget to admire work displayed at the studio of local artist and B&B owner Catherine Hunter at 25, Place de la Vieille Halle aux Blés. The Delacre shop is right next door.
Delacre is my favourite shop for buying “Cigarettes Russes”. These are not Russian cigarettes, but wafers. The master-baker of this shop seems to come up with new flavours each week. Your kids will love selecting their own favourites and “smoke” them, while sauntering through Brussels.
As with the cigarette wafers, “pain à la Grécque” has nothing to do with Greece. It is also not closely related to a brioche, croissant, or similar soft loafs. Beware of biting or chewing it unprepared, as this may make your dentist rich.
For the “bread” contains an enormous amount of sugar. When the recipe was created, means to preserve food were limited. Weird E-combinations, artificial flavouring and colours, chemicals to enhance looks and appearances did not exist. Instead, adding lots of sugar prevented the “pain” from deteriorating fast.
A local guide told me how this thoroughly Belgian biscuit ended up being called a Greek loaf. Monks baked it and handed it out to the poor at a monastery along the Wolvengracht, the wolfs-canal. In Brussels dialect, “gracht” sounds like “gréch”. Speakers of French (the upper classes) turned this “brood van de gracht” into “pain á la Grécque”.
The Augustin monastery was confiscated when Napoleon’s troops occupied Belgium. The Wolvengracht disappeared as well. On top of both monastery and canal, a temple to Mammon was erected in 1801: the Brussels Exchange. This is no longer used as a stock exchange, but now regularly hosts exhibitions.
As for “pain à la Grécque”: the biscuit was invented to sustain Brussels’ 16th century poor and homeless. Nowadays, these are unable to afford the biscuits which cost over 5 Euro per two pieces. Check the ingredients and you will notice, there is no reason why it should cost the earth.
Want to try creating your own “Pain à la Grécque”? It requires patience, effort, experience. Here’s a recipe which I have not yet tested. So read it through carefully and think long and hard, before giving it a try. Though French spoken, the video of Dandoy chef mr Sassi explaining the whole process may be helpful. The link is included at the bottom.
1. 250 gr plain white flour ( 2x 125)
2. 175 gr of milk
3. 25 gr of dry yeast
4. 4 medium sized eggs
5. 100 gr butter
6. 2.5 gr or a pinch of salt
7. 1.75 gr cinnamon
8. 20 gr dark brown caster sugar
9. 20 gr pearly sugar
10. Some candy sugar
Mix a dough of 125 gr flower, the eggs, yeast and milk.
Leave to rest for about 30 minutes.
Add the rest of the ingredients into this dough.
Mix and knead till you have a firm, elastic, smooth dough.
Let it rest for another 15 minutes.
Roll the dough into a kind of sausage shape.
Start cutting off pieces weighing about 100 gr each.
Roll these into 45 cm long shapes.
Roll these through the pearly and candy sugar
Put the pieces on your baking tray which you have lined with slightly greased baking paper.
Let your batch rest for another 40 minutes.
Flatten the sugar-coated long shapes till they are about 4 cm broad.
Let them rest for another 35 minutes
Bake them in a pre-heated oven of 180C for about 20 minutes.
After taking them out of the oven, turn them upside down and cut them in pieces straight away.
Leave to cool and store in an airtight jar.