Thursday, May 30, 2013

Getting married in Belgium, Part II

This is a follow-up to an earlier post about my wedding, which took place last summer. I always meant to write another post about getting married here but somehow never got around to it--until now. Since our one-year anniversary is just around the corner, I figured I shouldn't wait any longer to write it!

One of the strangest things for me (as an American) to wrap my head around was the Belgian custom of inviting different people to different wedding events.

Where I come from, a wedding is considered a single event comprised of different activities, to which all guests are invited and expected to attend. The usual sequence goes something like this: wedding service (civil or religious) followed by wedding reception, either at the same venue or a different location. The reception usually involves drinks (champagne), then a formal dinner, and finally dancing.

The creation of the guest list is a complicated and tortuous affair, made even more difficult by budget concerns when providing dinner and drinks for everyone on the list. The final guest list has to include a carefully calibrated mixture of close friends, casual friends, immediate family, distant relatives, co-workers and professional acquaintances of both the bride and the groom, and perhaps the parents as well.

Here in Belgium, it is customary to have a different guest list for each wedding activity. For instance, pretty much everyone is invited to attend the civil ceremony; there's no cost to the couple and because it takes place in a public venue (at city hall) anyone can show up and watch. On the other hand, if there's going to be another ceremony (in a church) only close friends and family might be invited and expected to attend. In general, people outside the couple's immediate circle are happy to skip the church ceremony.

Then there might be two or three different celebratory events after the ceremony (or ceremonies). First, a champagne reception for the people invited to the church ceremony. Then a formal dinner for just the immediate family and closest friends. And finally an evening party with music and dancing for the wider circle of friends, acquaintances and other relatives. (At the evening party, there will often be a casual buffet served late in the evening with sandwiches or snacks.)

Breaking the wedding up into different events (sometimes taking place over two or more days) has two advantages: First of all, you can tailor the guest list to the event, limiting the more intimate events to your inner circle of family and friends and including everyone else in a big dance party. Secondly, it saves money since you're not expected or obliged to provide a formal, sit-down dinner to all of your guests--which is often the biggest wedding expense. It's a very practical system.

However, I just couldn't do it. To me it felt rude to exclude some of my guests from certain events. I couldn't bring myself to invite people to my wedding service and then tell them to get lost for a few hours while I went to a nice dinner with my family and closest friends, even though my husband assured me that no Belgian would take offense.

In the end, because our second ceremony took place in the same location (an old, renovated farmhouse) where we had the reception and party, it didn't make sense to break up the guest list anyway. Everyone who came to the ceremony stayed for the champagne reception, sit-down dinner and dancing. And because I had family and friends coming from the United States and England, having our guests spend the whole day together gave everyone the chance to get to know each other.

Some of our Belgian friends couldn't make it to the ceremony since it was on a Friday afternoon and they had to work, so they just showed up during dinner. I found that strange. In America, either you come to the wedding or you don't. You don't accept part of the invitation and you definitely don't skip the wedding ceremony itself. I'm pretty sure Emily Post would not approve, but then she's not Belgian.

I was used to thinking of the wedding ceremony as the most important part of the wedding and my job as guest was to witness and support the couple during this momentous and romantic event. Here, the ceremony is considered a boring formality, and the guest's role is to help celebrate afterwards. Perhaps this is because civil and Catholic weddings tend to be rather formulaic and impersonal, whereas we Americans put a lot of emphasis on customizing the wedding ceremony to reflect the couple's personality and beliefs.

In the end, our wedding day was a reflection of our marriage and ourselves: a combination of American and Belgian influences and traditions. The civil ceremony was in Dutch and the religious ceremony was in English. We sang songs and had readings in both languages. We served Flemish food for dinner and had an American-style tiered wedding cake. The DJ played both Belgian and American music, and the dance floor was full all night long.

It was everything I wanted our wedding to be, and it was perfect.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

White Gold Time

It's asparagus season in Belgium, which means that the markets (both supermarkets and outdoor markets) are overflowing with piles of white asparagus. In Flemish, it's also known as wit goud or “white gold,” because it's expensive and coveted.

Where I come from, I'd only seen white asparagus in glass jars. Fresh asparagus was always green, and in California it's available year-round. (Here, you can find green asparagus but it doesn't inspire the fervent devotion that the white variety enjoys. The white stuff is actually the same plant, but cultivated underground so it doesn't turn green.)

White asparagus is available in different sizes ranging from pencil-thin to great, thick stalks several centimeters in diameter. The thicker stalks have to be peeled before cooking, leaving just the tender, inner flesh. White asparagus is prized for its delicate flavor, considered sweeter then regular asparagus. It's usually boiled and served with a sauce, although it also turns up in soups and other dishes.

Many Belgian restaurants feature special asparagus menus during asparagus season, giving the true aficionado the chance to eat appetizers, main dishes and even desserts made with the beloved stuff. I recently ordered steamed cod served with asparagus and sea vegetables off the asparagus menu at a local brasserie.

My favorite way to eat this springtime treat is also one of the simplest: Asperges vlaamse wijze or asperges flamande. “Flemish-style asparagus” is just peeled and cooked asparagus spears topped with diced hard-boiled egg, clarified butter and fresh parsley. This classic dish is easy to find in Belgian restaurants this time of year, but it's also easy to make at home.

Belgians don't benefit from the warm, sunny growing climate of California, so the regular diet is heavy on potatoes, leeks, cabbages and carrots—what are usually considered “winter vegetables.” So perhaps that's why the annual appearance of white asparagus creates such excitement. It's only available for a short time, and then it's back to potatoes and cabbage. Until next spring.