Earlier this year, I agreed, in a moment of generous madness, that I would cater a family wedding for around 30 people over four nights deep in the Belgian countryside. I mean…how hard could it really be? Of course, I was not going to make all the mistakes that other cooks might make. Oh no, I was going to be organised, I was going to cook everything a couple of times to be sure the recipes were foolproof, I was going to have a detailed set of plans, I would run everything to schedule. A doddle. 120 covers? Ha, I laughed at the task. It’s all in the organisation, or so I thought.
Fast forward to the actual event in May, and I found myself in a hire care, winding along rural roads from Brussels to a small village in the Ardennes. If you don’t know the area, it is very pretty – forests, hills, charming towns and lots to explore. On the way to the venue, I was confident that driving out of Brussels was going to be the only bad thing about this whole trip. Even thought I lived in the Belgian capital for four years, I never got used to some of the worst driving in Western Europe. However, once we’d cleared Brussels, taken the motorway to Namur, and finally reached a small road along the river Meuse in the strawberry region around Wépion, I felt a bit of a sense of relief. A large strawberry ice cream on a patch of grass overlooking the river told me it was all going to be fine now. I had my day-by-day planner, everything would be straightforward. Time to sit back and enjoy the countryside.
Our trip took a took a bit of a detour down to Dinant. I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for this place, and from the picture above, you can see why. The Meuse snakes its way along a valley, with long, thin towns lining its banks. And the results are stunning – traditional houses in front of large rock faces. Dinant is also famous as the birthplace of Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone, and today the evidence of this creation is still celebrated in the city.
During this visit, I came across a traditional biscuit, the couques de dinant. The place where I discovered them was the wonderfully traditional Patisserie Jacobs, which had the various couques in just about every elaborate shape that you could think of – people, animals, baskets of flours and, of course, saxophones. It really was like stepping back in time, and after coffee and a strawberry tart, the helpful lady was happy to explain all about the ingredients, the history and the process of making couques de dinant.
These are traditionally made from very simple ingredients – flour and honey – and shaped into elaborate shapes using wooden moulds, and then baked at a high temperature so that the honey caramelises and they take on a deep, golden colour. There is also a variation, the couques de rins, which are made with added sugar. Apparently, there are rules about ensuring careful labelling so that customers can be sure they are getting exactly the right thing.
Now, these little couques are rather hard to describe…the best I can say is that they are like very hard biscuits, but you don’t actually bite into them. For goodness sake, don’t bite into them! Well, you could, but you would probably break your teeth, and that would be bad. No, the trick with the couques is to break them into pieces, and then pop a small piece into your mouth and let it soften, rather like a sweet. The flavour is very old-fashioned, and sort of reminds me of German Christmas biscuits, also often made with lots of honey.
When I got back to London, I decided to have a go at making these myself. The good thing about making couques de dinant is that you really can make very small amounts of them, as you just need equal weights of honey and flour. Before making a big batch, I did a little test run with a spoon of honey and an equal weight of plain flour.
What became clear to me very quickly is that the type of honey you use here really does matter. I don’t think it is so much the quality of the honey as such, but you do want something with a strong flavour. My first attempt using a very mild acacia honey was a bit lacklustre. However, a second attempt using a strong wildflower honey was much better, with a much richer flavour.
Actually making the couques was fairly straightforward. I don’t have an elaborate foot-high wooden stamp of the type they use in traditional Dinant bakeries, but I did have some biscuit presses from when I made German Springerle a couple of years ago, and I thought using my little pine cone mould would look rather cute. Just roll out the dough, dust very lightly with flour, then press the mould on top. This helps to stop sticking, and in my experience works better than trying to apply the flour to the mould itself (think about it – if the mould is not actually sticky, the flour will just fall off…). Once you’ve got a nice sharp imprint, just use a soft brush to gently sweep away the excess before baking.
Once you’ve got all the dough ready, just pop in the oven and bake until a rich golden colour. When you remove them from the oven, there is another trick – brush them straight away with some plain water. This makes any remaining patches of flour disappear, and gives the finished couques an attractive sheen. And there you go – you’ve made the couques! If you want to see an expert at work, here is a rather nifty video from a baker in Patisserie Jacobs. It’s in French, but you can still get an idea of the process.
Now…the big question…what are they actually like? Well, as promised, they are pretty tough. The thinner the couque, the more likely it is to snap, but they don’t seem to end up as crisp and delicate morsels. Just as the lady in the bakery promised, you need to bread off a piece, and just let is melt in the mouth. Not as sensational as macarons or as delicate as florentines, but they’ve got a certain old-fashioned charm, and of course, a delicious strong honey flavour. They also last for absolutely ages, so if you’re looking to make decorative cookies, these are a great option.
Oh, and that wedding…you might be interested to know how it went? Well, for all my naïve ideas that I could plan everything and have it run like clockwork, that didn’t happen. But you already guess that! I spent the best part of the four days of the wedding celebrations running around in the large kitchen, bossing people about, with about seven different pots on the go at any one time. Of course, what was fantastic was that with our little kitchen gang, we were able to turn out a series of delicious dishes which the guest and the newlyweds seemed to really enjoy. We did everything from scratch, and the reason we did that rather than using shortcuts was that we all wanted to do something special for the event. We were ambitious, goodness knows we were ambitious, but it all worked, so I hope that we did succeed in helping to make their celebrations a little more special.
So while I spent most of the four days of the wedding celebrations over a hot stove, feeling stressed, tired, frustrated, impatient and probably nearly shouted at lots of people, it was also wonderful, crazy, fantastic fun. I’ve learned a lot about cooking for big groups, and I’ve also realised that I probably don’t plan to open a restaurant quite yes. however, that’s not to say that I don’t still have a little fantasy to open a café floating around in my head…
To make Couques de Dinant (makes around 12-15):
• 250g runny honey
• 250g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
• dot of oil to grease
1. Preheat the oven the 220°C (430°F). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper, and rub very lightly with vegetable oil.
2. Put the honey in a bowl, and add the flour, a little at a time, until you have a smooth dough. You want a texture that is firm but which can be shaped, so you might need a little more or a little less – go you your gut.
3. Turn the dough onto a well-floured surface and roll to around 1cm (1/3 inch) thickness. Dust with flour and press the mould into the dough, trim and place on the baking tray. Repeat until all the dough is used up.
4. Bake for around 10-15 minutes until golden, turning the tray half-way during baking if needed to get an even colour (watch them – the high honey content means they can easily burn). When done remove from the oven and brush each with a little water. Leave to cool.