The legend of the Liège waffle is that, in the late 18th century, the Prince-Bishop of Liège requested that his chef take the newly-invented “pearl sugar” and create a special treat with it. Inspiration struck, and the chef had the brilliant idea to mix the sugar and some vanilla into a rich dough and cook it as a waffle. Simply smelling it baking, the Prince-Bishop was delighted, and his love of this new creation helped quickly popularize it within Liège and beyond.
Quaint as the legend is, there are a few major problems with the narrative:
- Most significantly, pearl sugar had existed since at least the mid-17th century and was so prohibitively expensive that it was regarded as something to be used only for its “medicinal value”.
- While candy makers of the late 17th century were using pearl sugar to make cinnamon-flavored “Canella de Milan”, sugar was still phenomenally expensive, even for the countries that controlled most of its trade – notably Great Britain and the Netherlands.
- By the late 18th century, pearl sugar was known across all of Western Europe and is mentioned in dictionaries, recipe books, and medical literature, in many languages; there was no novelty to it for those with enough money to afford it. However, it was still generally referred to as either a medicine or something used exclusively by “confisseurs” (candy makers). Pearl sugar isn’t referenced as an ingredient in the work of bakers and pastry chefs of that time.
- Given the quantity of pearl sugar used in the Liège waffle, only the nobility and bourgeoisie could have afforded to use it on such a scale. So, yes, the Prince-Bishop would not have had a problem funding the chef to make the waffles, if that indeed happened, but there is no way they could have been popularized for the public, until the price of sugar dropped substantially.
So the legend of the Liège waffle is highly suspect. The sugar wasn’t a novelty, there was no precedent for it being used in baked goods, and its price was so out of reach that even if the Prince-Bishop ate them every day and talked about them incessantly, the townspeople could not have afforded to indulge.
Studying the history of sugar and baking in early 19th century continental Europe, a much more reasonable picture of the Liège waffle’s origin begins to emerge.
In 1747, beet sugar is isolated by a German scientist, Andreas Sigismund Marggraf. His discovery went essentially untapped until 1801, when a factory in Silesia (southern Poland), began small-scale industrial production of sugar from sugar beets. When Britain initiated a European naval blockade in 1806, sugar supplies to the continent were cut off. Napoleon soon sent representatives to Silesia, to learn the Polish sugar production techniques. By 1811, they had used their newfound knowledge to construct two beet sugar factories outside of Paris. By 1813, over 300 beet sugar factories had been erected in France, which became the leading producer of sugar outside the Caribbean and Asia. Sugar prices plummeted, and a world of possibilities for bakers and candy makers opened like never before; they could finally sell all manner of sweets to the broader public. Not coincidentally, it’s in the immediate wake of these advances that pearl sugar and its synonymous counterparts become far more prominent in recipe books.
1820: There is a recipe published in Paris for “Gaufres aux Pistache”, where brioche is used as the base of the waffle (just as is the Liège wffle); it’s even garnished with “sucre cassé” (large broken pieces from a “sugar loaf” – effectively the same thing as pearl sugar). Interestingly, an earlier 1814 edition of that waffle recipe by the same author does not use the sugar, which would have just started to become affordable. http://bit.ly/14v84fI
1822: The legendary pastry chef, Antonin Carême serves “gaufres au gros sucre” (roughly translated as “big sugar” or pearl sugar waffles): http://bit.ly/1dge0yF
1834: Gaufres Grêlées (“hail waffles”) are made with “gros sucre” mixed in, before cooking: http://bit.ly/1dFPlRK
1836: Long after the French had already been producing beet sugar, Tirlemont begins small-scale production in Belgium: http://www.tiensesuiker.com/static/fr/sugar/pioneer.aspx
1842/1843: The Brussels waffle is invented.
18??-19??: A chef (or chefs) in the Liège area uses beet sugar and borrows upon those earlier-published French pearl sugar and dough/brioche-based recipes, cooking the waffle in a Brussels iron. Popularized in Liège, this waffle becomes known as the Gaufre de Liège.
Given that the prince-bishopric of Liège was eliminated in 1795, it seems pretty unlikely any of Liège’s Prince-Bishops ever got to taste the Liège waffle, which at best would have come along a good 50 years later, in the mid-to-late 1840s.
The 1840s are still an amazing time for the waffles to have come about. The decade predates the invention of flour roller mills, refrigeration, baker’s yeast, and widespread cultivation of vanilla. All of this has a profound impact on what the Liège waffle recipe would have been. Namely, it would have been much higher in its wheat bran and germ content (stone mills leave much of that material in, in such a way that it cannot be easily separated), milk almost definitely would not have been used (it was uncommon in baked goods – and brioche especially was more likely to feature water as the only liquid), only ale yeast was available (bread yeast and even baking soda/powder did not exist), and only Mexican vanilla was generally available.
With the earliest published Liège waffle I’ve yet found being a Dutch version from 1921, it’s very likely the official Liège waffle came about well after the 1840s. But knowing that French recipes of the 1820s and 1830s laid the groundwork for it — and essentially were it — and that deep-pocketed irons were present in Belgium before the Brussels iron, and only grew deeper thereafter, the 1840s is the basis for the latest recipe work here on the blog.