An auspicious start – arrival at a charming Belgian flat and am instantly met with a chalice of dark beer. The flat had high walls and was tastefully decorated with wooden furnishings, musical posters and bottles of alcohol. Niko, the partner of Meg – a long-suffering friend of mine from my university days, but whom I hadn’t seen for five years – had been brewing his own liquors from prunes and kiwis. They sat in glass vats in a corner and looked magnificent. In another corner, by some large windows was a cabinet covered with different bottles of alcohol from around the world. Obscure things with odd labels. They were enticing, but Belgium was a country of beer and that was my charge. My chalice was soon replaced with a Pêche Mel Bush – a mixture of a malty twelve percent strong beer and a peach-flavoured brew. This promised to be a happy if not healthy trip.
Frites and Lapin à la Kriek
The morning sky was English grey studded with bright pockets that seemed to promise blue later in the day. After a breakfast croissant and pain au chocolat – for Brussels, though the capital of country part Walloon and part Flemish, is still undeniably French in its behaviour – I was spat out with a map and a vague itinerary that revolved around the acquisition of chips.
Having been informed that lunch in Belgium was around twelve o’clock – about three hours before my adopted Spain – I made my way through the nondescript, but not ugly streets, to Maison Antoine: sometimes called the best fritkot (chip bar) in Brussels. It has been frying chips for over 60 years. Set in the centre of a small square surrounded by roads and stuffed with parking spaces was a little octagonal building that could pass visually for a public toilet or local tourist office back in the UK. Experience says that the more unassuming a place looks, the better the quality.
At 12:10 the lines were already ten-people deep at the two small windows. Behind the glass three people fried and shovelled and sorted the chips. A simple menu in French listed the two forms of chips – cones or boxes – and then the myriad sauces to choose from – over thirty of them – followed by innumerable other snacks from meatballs to croquettes. I opted healthily for a large cone with mayonnaise, curry ketchup and the mysterious ‘spéciale with fresh onions’.
The sun had finally crept out of the clouds and lit up the little fritkot. Outside groups of kids, businessmen on breaks, and young families were sitting around in the warmth picking out chips and dipping them in little pots of sauce balanced on their knees. Some of the bars around the square had pictures of chips on them, proclaiming that Maison Antoine’s fried potatoes were welcome there. I sat with a beer and contemplated my lunch. Simple and tasty. The stubbier chips were gleefully crunchy and the larger ones had a gratifying hint of floppiness to them. If English chip chop fries had children with American fast food chips the result would be Belgian. The Belgians are, however, better. The mayonnaise was tart and boring – as mayo usually is, and the curry ketchup threw me back to Hamburg. The spéciale? I think it was mayonnaise with BBQ sauce and fresh, diced onions. I mused that probably nowhere else would an oversized cone of chips not only be accepted as a viable lunch option, but also most likely encouraged and lauded as a pillar of the local gastronomy.
Walking through the outer parts of Brussels is a fairly odd experience. It is rarely unattractive but almost never outstanding. It could be bits of London or Paris. Nothing stands out until the absurdity of the Palace of Justice – a giant neoclassical monolith that is larger than St Peter’s. From there the town falls away to an expanding web of streets that, even for a veteran of Spanish cities and their little historic centres, managed to discombobulate. Hidden away at the core of this European muddle is the frankly astonishing Grand Place – a UNESCO sight and a marvel of the continent. An open square surrounded by handsome guildhalls bordered with sparkling gold. Breaking the line of fine facades are the frilly and ostentatious town hall with its spires and the equally flamboyant Maison du Roi.
The alleys and lanes that spill out around the Grand Place are very fine and came stuffed with tourists – most of which ignored conventional wisdom and chose to buy their chips and waffles there. Off west into some streets reminiscent of Camden – simple colours or brickwork, vinyl shops and gay pride flags – was the famed Manneken-Pis statue: a foot-tall urinating whimsy that was worth a photo. With the sun out and the outdoor terraces doing good business, I acted upon a suggestion given to me by an Englishman: ‘you should go to A La Bécasse’.
Through a little alleyway just north of the Grand Place one enters a musty room full of wobbly wooden tables, lined with wooden panelling and lit by what looked like medieval chandeliers. It was clearly primed for tourists but it still had an air of Viking great hall about it. The clients were Belgian: a little man with a few teeth missing was reading a book, in the corner was a group of Belgians doubtless a few jugs in and laughing uncontrollably, and near them was a very quiet cluster looking slightly perturbed by the noise. The man running the show was bald, in his fifties, had glasses resting on his head and dealt with clients – some of whom seemed to know him – with an apparent dry banter and haughty eyes that made him look unimpressed but left them in stitches.
A La Bécasse has been operating since 1702, producing Lambic beer. It sounded like something from Middle Earth and, due to its slight sweetness from the second fermentation, tasted like a beer pretending to be mead. It is still served in little ceramic jars and is still brewed in the traditional manner. The whole experience was only slightly dampened by the presence of A La Bécasse t-shirts that one could buy.
Dinner was kept fiercely Belgian at the charming backstreet Les Brassins. It was, gratefully, stuffed to the gills with locals. There was beer, of course, but also a trim and tidy selection of regional cuisine. Starting off we all shared some croquettes de crevettes – creamy croquettes cooked with tiny shrimps and resulting in a food that would put many in Spain to shame. For the main I opted for lapin à la Kriek – two rabbit legs cooked until tender in a cherry beer. They are served in the sticky brown gravy alongside the gleefully unsexy cousin of the chip – stoemp, pronounced ‘shtoomp’. A creamy mashed potato with, in this case, spinach. Spinach and cherry didn’t necessarily work but I was informed that most Belgians would have opted for frites.
Given the pain in my stomach and my inability to even drink water, I deemed the first day in Belgium a resounding success.
Waterzooi and Chicons au gratin
And so to Bruges, that mad fairytale of churches, canals, chocolates and so many cameras. A simple description of Bruges, a yes or no answer, would be impossible after a one-day excursion. It left an odd taste in the mouth. On the one hand it is irritatingly busy with tourists – whom I hypocritically battle to share places with, and it is at times kitsch and self-parodying. On the other though, stripping away the blanket of visitors it is undeniably one of the prettiest cities you could hope to visit – a cobblestone vunderland of chocolate box Flemish houses, perfect gilded guildhalls and stunning churches that seem to hover above the canals. I knew from the off that it promised equal parts enchantment and annoyance.
Having parked in a quieter area on the edge of the historic centre, I wasn’t prepared for such an onslaught of people in a small Belgian city in October. In the grand central squares the sun was beaming, tourists were plugging low-quality chips into their mouths, young couples were taking selfies with their waffles, horses and carriages clopped past and I stood twenty minutes in a queue to go up the belfry – a horrid wait but the view was unparalleled: a jigsaw of orange triangular roofs, pastel coloured facades and oversized church spires succumbing to distant fields.
The difficult search for somewhere ‘typical’ to eat entailed some inadvertent tourism as we traipsed the postcard streets and ended with a fortuitous compromise. Privacy was implausible so we followed our eyes and gave in to the growling of our stomachs. Around the unfailingly picturesque Minnewater – the lake of love – where swans unfurled gently in the warm, next to the peaceful whitewashed Beguine nunnery and in a small plaza where the horses and their carriages gathered, was a broad selection of busy eateries, most of which peddled moules-frites.
‘T Ould Kanthuys – touristy outside, snazzy and cream-coloured but empty inside. I felt unsure, though a quick Internet search yielded the nugget of information that inside was a tiny courtyard that was surrounded by charming brick walls and backed by the local brewery. But for a trio of Spaniards – there were so many Spanish people in Belgium – and their dog we had the space to ourselves. Meg opted for a pot of mussels cooked in white wine and cream – the famous moules marinière. The taste was smooth but almost undetectable when paired with the salty fries. It was livened up a bit with some onions and celery chunks that had only just started to think about cooking. It wasn’t bad. I ordered a dish that I had been looking forward to trying purely on the basis of its name: Waterzooi, pronounced ‘wahter-zoy’. A stew of chicken, carrots, onions, celery, leeks, potatoes, thyme, possible bay and parsley and cream. It was punchy, aromatic, deep of flavour and may still be the best dish I tried. It looked like a stew masquerading as a Jackson Pollack painting.
I had had my fill of beautiful but busy streets and thought it best be Belge and sample another beer. Belgians really do have the best beer. But where to go for a beer that wasn’t a ‘tourist trap’? Again I had to turn to the Internet, this time to blogs – the last bastion of truly good tourist advice. ‘Staminee de Garre. Tucked away…’ was enough for this travel snob and his Belgian. The description was apt. One would never have found that bar by accident and even standing outside it was not clear by any obvious signage that it was indeed even a bar. It felt like a Belgian interpretation of a tavern from Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley. Three floors, wooden beamed, small and hollowed out in the middle. Loud, warm and amiable. The drinks menu was twenty-pages thick. Anyone going to Bruges must go to De Garre Street.
My hosts were away Saturday night and I didn’t feel like taking to the town again on my own. There’s only so many times that sitting alone in an eatery and drinking with my notebook feels ‘arty’. It was an evening of DVDs and bottles of beers, but there was still opportunity enough to tease out one more Belgian dish before Sunday arrived. Chicons au gratin – a dish I was able to pick up as ‘takeaway’ from the local bistro. It was as humble and comforting as it gets. Tender yet crunchy chicory wrapped in ham, smothered with creamy cheese and baked in the oven. I decided, as I sat there in my pants, bottle of strong beer in one hand and television remote in the other, that I would worry about any health implications back in Madrid.
Boulettes and Boudin Blanc
‘You’re so lucky!’ said Meg, for possibly the fourteenth time. It was blue skies in Belgium again. Maybe I had managed to sneak some Spanish sun over in my suitcase. The train ride to Dinant – a small riverside town in the Ardennes – passed southwards through a nostalgic countryside. It looked like the Berkshire valleys on a good day, though with alien spires and different cows. The names of the towns had turned French. Out of Flanders and into Wallonia. The river arrived and mirrored the Thames of my memory. Truly beautiful. A still waterscape with cycle paths, little houses and chapels poking out of the greenest grass and reflecting in the limpid Meuse – one of the oldest rivers in the world.
Dinant seemed to have one thing in mind that sunny day, and that was to startle the visitor with one particular view. The river, slick and reflective as a gel; an arched bridge covered in saxophones crossing from station to town; a line of handsome waterfront apartments and restaurants standing up from the Meuse like teeth; a massive church towering above everything, with a large spherical part halfway up the spire as if the tower had an Adam’s Apple; and backing the scene a carved away side of the valley wall, at its top a citadel – careening outwards like the prow of a ship. All very dramatic. The town itself – a fairly drab and scruffy affair – filled the narrow strip of land between cliff and river.
I had it in mind to walk up onto the valley ridge and get some shots from the citadel so I would have to eat first. An obligation I was always happy to succumb to. Caffe Leffe and an order of Boulettes avec sauce Liégeoise. Soft, spongy meatballs with a delicious sauce of onions, sugar, wine vinegar, bay leaf and cloves served with, naturally, a Leffe beer. Sweet, not too filling, and served with some underwhelming chips.
Three things were apparent in Dinant just by looking around:
- They are milking the fact that Mr Sax – creator of the famous instrument – comes from there. There are streetlights shaped like saxophones for example.
- They are doing their best to plug their local sweet – a horrendously hard and honey-sweetened biscuit called a couque. The idea being you snap off a piece and let it sit in your mouth to soften before eating. I couldn’t see the point.
- The south of Belgium, Wallonia, though richer in terms of scenery, seemed poorer as a region economically. Scruffier walls, sadder flats and swarthier characters.
The walk, despite imbuing my shirt with an embarrassing spread of sweat, was a delight. I struck off away from the town centre and chose a random and quiet country track that shot steeply up into the woods. The sun was dribbling in and throwing lines of amber over the autumn leaves. At the top I flatly refused to pay the nine euros at the citadel just for the view and promptly headed back into the forest, away from the people. I was, after some pleasant rambling, lucky to find a makeshift viewpoint further along the ridge where someone had put a little bench on an outcrop. No matter how dishevelled a place, the world always looks pleasing from up above. The sun was kind and weird little Dinant glowed by a silver river and sat sunken in under glossy fields that floated away on top.
The train to Namur again trundled along that Home Counties impostor the Meuse. Meg met me there and we decided to visit the imposing citadelle. Namur isn’t handsome by any stretch of the imagination, though it has a bizarre monstrosity of a cathedral that I found rather endearing, a nice riverfront and a couple of appealing streets. It felt like a larger and dustier Dinant. From the heights of the citadelle Namur seemed idyll incarnate as the evening sun spilled ochre over everything and the countryside could be spied encroaching on the outskirts.
After Namur there was just enough time, while the sunset was still tearing up the sky into puffy oranges in the face of the oncoming purple bruise of night, to go to Waterloo – those pastoral fields where Napoleon was sent packing. Today there is a large butte on top of which is a metal statue of a lion – apparently made from all the melted down bullets collected after the battle. At its base is the Wellington Café – an English-looking pub that was hosting a Sunday dance that seemed populated by romantic couples in their seventies. Waterloo: a strange place without a hint of Abba.
Dinner was home cooked boudin blanc (a delicate white sausage cooked in milk) with carrot and potato stoemp and apple compote. Dessert was a selection of beers in the charismatic bar quarter just set behind the Grand Place.
Delirium: a legendary institution with a ‘bible’ of more than two-thousand beers. It fitted its name. Two low-lit beer halls stuffed with wooden barrels and chairs. The ceilings were covered in beer trays, the walls with beer posters and the tables with beer drinkers: a nice mix of locals and tourists. The bible was essentially a mass produced glossy magazine with page after alphabetical page of beers. Bewildering, but there was only one beer I was going to begin with: Waterloo. Not very nice as it turns out. More beers were then purchased and we sat back. Delirium was utterly kitsch but also rather wonderful. I could see English Erasmus students trying to flirt coolly with American girls. There were young couples on romantic nights out; the well-dressed looking decidedly out of place. Groups of friends from metalheads to geeks were all gathered for the beer. The only group missing were…proper adults. I imagined this wasn’t the bar for responsible people.
Stoverij and Américain
Too early a morning for the quantity of beer drunk the night before. But I had one more place to see on my list. Ghent. Billed to me as ‘basically Bruges without the tourists’. Ghent was overall less overtly pretty than Bruges – but that was to be expected. It was still very handsome though, just less manicured. A selection of neighbourhoods divide up the town; not that you’d know that for the attention is constantly diverted by unmatchable views where frilly guildhalls and churches are mirrored in one of the many canals that slice up the town, or where, sitting primly above the water, you perchance upon a perfect little medieval castle with that Arthurian name of Gravensteen.
There were tourists, but not many. There were students too, for Ghent is Belgium’s Oxford. You could see locals strolling with their kids, having their lunchtime beers or lining up at the fruit and veg man. Where Bruges was a toy town that almost felt like a set, Ghent felt lived in. What it did have in common with Bruges was an infinite amount of bicycles. What it didn’t have was horse rides and double-decker hop on hop off buses. I also didn’t have to work very hard to get photos without people in them. Where I did have to work hard was to find somewhere to eat carbonade – something on my food list. After an hour of pleasant searching for something that aligned with my concept of the word ‘traditional’ I caved and chose the first place I found with the word on the menu. It was only later I realised that carbonade was the French name and that I should have been looking for the Flemish stoverij.
Puro was a modern place – snazzy and white – and was full of middle-aged Flemish ladies. Trust them, I thought. It wasn’t cheap but it was, thankfully, delicious. Six potato croquettes, a pot of homemade mayonnaise and a little black casserole dish filled with a heady beef stew, the stoverij of my confusion, cooked in beer. Sweet, meaty and very gratifying. A stellar dish, just ignore the price tag. There was even a very tasty salad lounging on my plate, mocking my track record.
After a quick drink at T’Galgenhuisje, the smallest pub in Ghent, it was a walk along the softly lit canals out of the historic quarter that confirmed two things. One, that with its peaceful stretches reminiscent of the Regent’s Canal system in London, and its gentle focus on the use of bicycles, Ghent was a city I could live in. The second thing was that Flemish girls are truly beautiful. But this is a blog about food. I was able to procure a last foodstuff in Ghent – neuzekes ‘Ghent noses’. A traditional cone-shaped sweet. The outer casing is a crystallised sugar – grainy sweet and raspberry-flavoured – around a loose jelly of the same flavour. Teeth-rotting but a tasty diversion.
As the last pulse of sunbeams was cloaked by clouds it was the end of my time in Ghent and, indeed, Belgium. One more foodstuff surprise was in store for me however. Filet américain. A raw beef patty – like steak tartare – mixed with mustard, mayonnaise, parsley, capers and a dash of Worcestershire sauce. Served with homemade chips. All prepared by Niko. It was fragrant and flavourful and was the first raw beef I’d ever eaten. The chips were good too: ‘Almost every Belgian has a fryer at home’, said my guidebook.
Belgium, that amiable schizophrenic, was an unforeseen joy. The countryside, while tame, often flat, and very green, reminded me of home, which is never a bad thing and the varied cuisine both excited my palate and filled me to bursting. And don’t get me started on the beer…