Roughly translated as great grub in Belgium which is what this post is all about.
A couple of weeks ago my mum and I took off for a mini break in Belgium. She was mostly interested in the shopping and I was mostly interested in the food. I had heard that the food in Belgium was outstanding and with national treasures such as chips, chocolate, waffles and beer it is easy to understand why.
We did not have the most auspicious start to the trip from a gastronomic point of view. Half an hour before our flight my poor mum was to be found in the public conveniences being a little bit sick – a wee bug we thought (actually the onset of shingles!) My hopes of eating our way around Belgium began to fade. However she is a trooper and thankfully rallied pretty quickly – onwards and upwards – quite literally.
We were staying at the fantastic Dominican Hotel which is bang smack in the centre of Brussels. It is a Boutique Hotel full of design genius and quite possibly the nicest gaff I have ever had the pleasure to stay in.
This is of course a food blog not a travel blog so first of all a word about chocolate. In Brussels the chocolatiers are impressive both in quality and quantity.
Belgian chocolates are rated as some of the best in the world and believe you me they take it all very seriously! There are thousands of varieties to choose from, Truffles and pralines galore and of course with Easter only a week away they had gone all out with fantastic eggs, some of them larger than my four year old! The Galerie Royale St Hubert is a stunningly beautiful and achingly sophisticated walkway which houses a selection of restaurants and shops and It is also choc-a-bloc with chocolatiers – yum!
I bought some chocolate (of course) but there is no need to put your hands in your pockets to sample this Belgian speciality. Samples abound in the choccy shops of course but the real treat was the amount of freebies you are given in coffee shops along with your drink. In one memorable and rather adorable tea room in Bruges we ordered a coffee and were given 4 chocolates and a flourish of whipped cream to boot. It seemed rather excessive but you will not find me complaining about such decadence.
We were based in Brussels but we travelled to both Bruges and Ghent and it was in Bruges that I sampled the best waffle I have come across. Again we were in a coffee shop which dished out chocolates willy nilly (cue sugar rush) but it was the waffle with chocolate sauce, banana and cream that stole the show for me. The waffle was large (always a very good start) and light as air. The banana made me feel worthy and who can resist lashing of warm silky Belgian chocolate sauce and whipped cream. “Do you know you can buy waffle machines?” said mum. I tried to ignore her and I am still trying to ignore that such wonders exist – it would be a very bad idea for me to be able to recreate such splendour in my own home.
A word about eating in the right place and eating in the wrong place. Everybody knows that you should never ever eat in the restaurants with all the lovely outside seating around the main squares. Great for a drink but when it comes to eating you are looking at daylight robbery for rather substandard produce. But for some inexplicable reason we found ourselves doing just that in Bruges. It was at this average establishment that I came across the Croque Bolognese. I am not sure what I expected but I was a little taken aback when I received a standard Croque Monsieur with big dollops of bolognaise all over the top of it – literally. I couldn’t help but wonder what John Torode would have said about this had it turned up in the Master Chef kitchen. It was two meals in one and the bolognaise make the toast all soppy. It didn’t actually taste too bad – it was just really odd! Finished it all to make sure there was something else in my tummy apart from a great big goblet of Leffe Blonde.
I once went to Verona and after perusing the beautiful shoe shops I settled on a pair of black boots. Leather boots from Italy, how fabulous I thought, Italian leather I thought. I thought wrong! On getting the boots back home I noted that they were “made in India” There is a point to this story. We stumbled across the most achingly Belgian cafe in Brussels located in the Galerie St Hubert. Let me paint you a picture – artisan breads lined up behind the counter, coffee and hot chocolate served in bowls not cups, everything is organic, everything is wonderful, it is my absolutely perfect cafe. Each day I have a huge bowl of oats with almond milk, cranberries and walnuts – it is divine. Mum feasts on organic boiled eggs with artisan sourdough soldiers. I looked forward to breakfast every day – this cafe was an absolute highlight for me. One of a kind, what a find. Except it wasn’t! When I got home and goggled this fantastic venue to rekindle memories I realise that it is indeed a chain. There are dotted all around Europe and there is some in London. So although it is still absolutely wonderful it is not quite as unique as I had hoped. If you are in London or Europe then you ought to give it a try – there is one in Notting Hill! Le Pain Quotidien
The other stand out meal was in a little brasserie recommended by the staff in our hotel, they promised a taste of Belgium. It was called ARCADI and was a small bustling Bistro serving delicious and affordable food and seemed to be frequented by lots of locals, always a very good sign. The tables were small and a little bit cramped but I thought it all just added to the old style Brasserie feel. Food here is simple and tasty. I opted for a crepe with chicken and vegetables and mum opted for the famous chicken vol-au-vent with fries. My crepe was extraordinarily tasty considering the inside included spicing rather than a sauce and the vol-au-vent looked sublime. It is true what they say about fries in Belgium – they are special – so so crisp on the outside and beautifully fluffy on the inside. Tis a rare gift. The staff were friendly, the wine was flowing and the lemon meringue pie to finish was fit for a king.
Some notes to finish off
A note on chips – I planned to have a big poke of chips slathered in mayonnaise at some point in my trip. Not a difficult thing to achieve considering these are offered on every corner, but it just didn’t happen! I even visited the chip museum and learned that French Fries were so-called because American soldiers mistakenly thought that they saw French soldiers making them when they were in fact Belgian. But when it came to the cafe selling fries at the end of the tour I had to decline having just eaten the croque bolognese obscenity and a vat of beer!
A note about beer – bloody love Belgian beer. Pretty much stuck to the blonde beers and as I was with mum it was not a boozy break but what I had was glorious. Nothing beats a glass of beer the size of your head in the sunshine.
Note on Ghent – go there! It is truly beautiful and a bit more real than Bruges, which to my mind is a very pretty outdoor museum with lots of shops. Ghent is amazing and I will return.
Final note on Belgium – it is a superb place to visit. Most people looked at me blankly when I said I was going there for a long weekend. The unspoken word was WHY? I will tell you why: it is clean, sophisticated, beautiful, friendly, historical, a shopping heaven, cultural and best of all it has great food.