Her name, Zorica, didn’t sound very Belgian to me, but she promised I would not find a better waffle in all of Antwerp. “Wouldn’t you like to order one?”
Lured by a toasty smell, I had stumbled upon the century-old Van Hecke waffle house while wandering through Antwerp late one dark winter afternoon, when the cathedral’s soaring Gothic bell tower had already dissolved into silhouette. Icy snow was spitting from the overcast sky, pricking my face like tiny needles.
“Sure,” I told Zorica, then stood at a front counter to watch as she went to work on a Brussels-style waffle. During two decades of regular visits to Antwerp, I’d eaten my weight in waffles—small, dense, and sweet Liège-style ones as well as thick, yeasty Brussels waffles, called Belgian waffles in the U.S. ever since they debuted stateside at the 1964 New York World’s Fair.
For most Americans, Belgian waffles are breakfast food, but in the land of their origin they’re often an afternoon treat, piled with strawberry-topped mountains of whipped cream and washed down with strong coffee.
The good burghers of Antwerp seem most mad for waffles in summer, when tables and chairs spill from cafés onto cobblestone streets and squares.
Zorica opened a hinged, blackened waffle iron and held her hand directly over it to gauge the heat. “Everything I do, I do by feel and smell,” she said, explaining that the shop’s heavy original irons were heated with a gas flame and, unlike electric irons in other waffle houses, had no timer or thermostat. The batter sizzled when it hit the hot metal. She closed the iron.
While the waffle cooked, Zorica shared with me that she was born in Yugoslavia in 1967, the daughter of a diplomat, and had studied accounting. She’d come to Antwerp 17 years earlier, worked at Van Hecke’s, and eventually bought the shop from the owners, keeping the vintage ’60s decor. “I learned all about making waffles with my eyes,” she told me, “not from books or school.”
When Zorica decided my waffle was done, she flipped it onto a plate and asked if I wanted whipped cream. “No,” I said. “If this is going to be the best waffle I’ve ever eaten, I want only the waffle.” She sprinkled it with powdered sugar.
From the first bite, I could tell this was one hell of a waffle. Piping hot, with a smell as deep and golden as Indian-summer sunlight, it was incomparably crisp and brown on the outside, light and almost creamy on the inside. Zorica smiled. “You see what I mean?” she asked. I nodded back, unable to stop eating.
Was it the best waffle I have ever eaten? Or was it simply a very good waffle made perfect by the moment—the nasty weather, the warmth of the irons and of Zorica’s smile? I’m still not sure.
Zorica asked if I wanted anything else, and I said, “Yes, I’d like one to go.” I left five minutes later, the waffle warming my hands through a thin paper napkin. As I walked I took a bite; a cascade of sugar dusted my coat and mingled there with specks of snow. In the darkness of the afternoon, I couldn’t tell which was which.