Thursday, 21 March 2013

A Belgian Dozen - Part 1

When planning a trip to Cheshire/Lancashire for this spring, I realised I had never properly ventured into the North West corner of our Fair Isle. Thinking it might be a bit of a ‘fun' challenge - I could already hear the Ewing’s groans - I decided to make a list of dozen local foodstuffs to try and sample while on our travels.

As I started to research the idea - learning all about exciting delicacies such as rag pudding, parched peas and hot Vimto - I had a thought; why not try something similar on all our travels this year, starting with our week in Belgium. Cue the Ewing throwing her passport of a bridge, and herself after it.

Fortunately she soon came round, hot chocolate and waffles may have been mentioned, and I began to think about what Belgian delights I could feature on the list. Primarily they had to be traditional, reasonably easily available and, most importantly, edible. Our trip was too short to be staring down  plates of boiled offal or other funky dishes.

Again I was in luck, the Belgians have a proud and varied cuisine that takes the flavours of France and marries them with the generosity of the Germans; the perfect combination. And after much planning, I narrowed it down to a final twelve:

Grey Shrimp
Herve Cheese
Rabbit in Gueze Beer (Lapin à la gueuze)
Eels in a Green Sauce (Paling in 't groen)

Of course there were also chocolates and beer to consider, but such was our dedication to the cause they were going to need separate posts of their own. Yeah, its hard work, sometimes, this blogging lark.

We started our quest with Belgium's most celebrated dish, well, certainly the one they are most famous for, with a trip to Chez Leon for Moules et Frites.

Chez Leon may have seemed like an inauspicious start. With the original branch situated in Brussels - on the ultra touristy and garish Rue des Bouchers - there are now branches all over France and, most recently, London's Covent Garden. Nevertheless, it still makes it into all the guide books as somewhere solid, if unspectacular. Add the fact it was a mere stone’s throw from our hotel and they were also offering, with a voucher printed from their website, 50% off all food until mid March, it seemed the perfect choice for the first dinner of our trip.

I do love mussels - usually when someone else is responsible for cooking them - and these did not disappoint; Plump, all open, and mostly free of grit and unwelcome beardy bits. I chose a mushroom and cream sauce that seemed to be sadly lacking the advertised chives, but managed to be rich and earthy without overpowering the sweet molluscs.

The Ewing’s celery and wine stock was cleaner and lighter tasting, and equally good We, rather diplomatically, managed to share between the two bowls; dipping a chip here, a morsel of bread there, until we could eat no more.

Of course that wasn't strictly true, the Ewing always has capacity for a little bit of pudding, and the crème caramel, baked and served in a cute little glass pots, was certainly worth leaving a room for. The bitterness of the dark caramel on both the top and bottom nicely cut through the sweet, bland wobble of the baked custard.

With starters of Tomaat-garnaal (grey shrimp-stuffed tomato) for me, and Paling in 't groen (eels in green sauce) for the Ewing - both received very well, but the eels were certainly more of an acquired taste - we had already been able to strike off quarter of the list in a first meal. A very good haul, and well deserving of a late night nightcap at Morte Subite to celebrate.

The next morning, thankfully not feeling too fuzzy-headed, we headed down to Place Ste Catherine, for a stand up brunch at Mer du Nord. This little gem started out as a fishmonger and has now expanded to offer freshly cooked seafood and fizz from a little pavement bar on the corner of the square. Somewhere like this wouldn't be out of place in balmy Barcelona, but here in rather more frigid Brussels it’s surely a testament to charm of the place – and the wonderfully fresh seafood - that sees huge crowds jostling, come rain or shine, around the handful of high tables for an informal lunch or afternoon snack.

As it was our anniversary trip, we decided glasses of bubbles and a selection of oysters, for the Ewing, were in order. These were swiftly followed by a bowl of fish soup from the steaming tureen on the bar, accompanied with toast spread with rouille and a handful of Gruyere that formed oozy, unctuous strands when sprinkled into the broth. 

To follow crisp calamari, straight from the fryer, and the intriguing crab 'burger’; featuring a thick patty of white meat, fried until crisp and covered with a piquant sauce, all served on thick brown toast. Far removed from the classic patty on a bun, but fantastic stuff.

Finally we chose a portion of garnaalkroketten, or shrimp croquettes, a real Belgian speciality and the second time I had eaten grey shrimp in as many days (no bonus points, sadly).

I have spoken of my love of the grey shrimp, as well as creating my own version of the croquette, on the blog before, and Mer Du Nord's offering lived up to all expectations. Instead of plain béchamel, these were a lurid orange colour, and deep with the rich iodine note of the sea. Served piping hot and chased down with the rest of our cold champagne, I doubt you could find yourself a better feast before midday.

After a little detour to the hotel for a mid morning nap, the result of too much booze and too many croquettes, we were soon refreshed and ready for an afternoon of sightseeing and chocolate eating. The first stop was the Grand Place, Belgium’s most famous, and probably most beautiful,square. After mooching about for a bit the bitter cold finally got the better of us and we headed off to fortify ourselves with biscuits and hot chocolate from Maison Dandoy.

Established in 1829, Dandoy are still going strong, and producing a fine range of biscuits, cakes and marzipan. The most famous of these is the much loved  Speculoos, a small crunchy biscuit with brown sugar, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg and still prepared here by hand by pressing the pastry into a carved wooden mould. They even sell jars of Speculoos spread, rather like a spiced version of peanut butter.

Dandoy make many different versions of the speculoos, from the small biscuits that bare their name and are served with every hot drink in their tea room right through to great cookies in the shape of Sint Nicholas, available at Christmas time. As we’re in Brussels, their piece de resistance is a one shaped like the Mannekin Pis, which may be enough to put some off their afternoon snack.

I treated my self to a little gift box containing both traditional speculoos and a jar of their biscuit-y spread, while the Ewing, rather reservedly  went for a toasted fresh marzipan bell. They also sell many types of fresh gingerbread, pain au greque, studded with crunchy pearl sugar, and a variety of friable little sables flavoured with different fruit and nuts.

As well as the baked goods, we were also eager to to sample some of their celebrated waffles, served in the tea room upstairs or to takeaway from the front counter. While you can still buy waffles from a van for a Euro, the quality of most of them reminds me of the flabby, greasy pizza slices we used to get for a quid from Leicester Square when we were students. Far better to pay a few euros more to have them freshly cooked to order.

The Belgian waffle comes in two distinct types; the Brussels waffle, a light square confection made with a yeast batter; and the Liege waffle, a denser affair, with rounded corners and chunks of pearl sugar that give it a rather chewy texture. At Dandoy they serve both varieties, and offer a variety of different sauces, fresh fruit and ice creams to top them with.

I chose the classic Brussels waffle, served simply dusted with a drift of icing sugar. It was perfect;  fresh and crisp, served piping hot straight from the waffle iron. This isn't the kind of confection that keeps well, and to taste one as feather-light, yet buttery as this is a rare treat.

The Ewing's Liege waffle was a far richer affair, but no worse for that. To really guild the lily she had asked for chocolate sauce on top which took it, even for her, to the limits of sweetness. Again it was spankingly fresh, hot and crisp, and well worth the zillions of calories contained within.

As if that wasn't enough, we also shared a speculoos milkshake, thick with ice cream and perfumed with spiced, malty notes from the biscuits. Like everything else here it was utterly decadent; even the cappuccino is served with whipped cream and not steamed milk.

You can't possibly go to Belgium without drinking lots of beer, and you can't possibly drink lots of beer without eating something deep fried. - Despite their being named ‘French’ fries across the Pond, the Belgians see themselves very much the originators of the chipped potato. So enamoured are they with these deep fried sticks of tuber that there are even websites comparing the best fritkots in the land.

Sadly most of the top frites picks for Brussels, Frit Flagey, Maison Antoine, etc, were out towards the sticks, but there was one recommendation close to the centre that also happened to coincide nicely with our walk back from a beer sampling session at Moeder Lambic Fontinas.

Friterie Tabora, on the road of the same name, is just next to the Grand Place, making a very beautiful backdrop for a drunken snack. Fried food seems to have the magical ability to democratically unite everyone, and when we arrived there were odd clusters of tourists; a group of young Belgian women on the way out for the night; people queuing for a quick takeaway supper; and a couple in suits, clutching their briefcases in one hand and a cone of fries in the other.

I can’t profess to know enough about the humble chip to know if these were frozen or not, but I did notice the (very friendly and patient) chap working there was carefully double frying them in two separate fryers. The first dip  in a lower temperature oil to cook through, then up onto a draining shelf to cool, before a second dip at a higher temperature, to crisp up.

Plenty of hot and dangerous work, but probably worth it for these fries, which, while possibly not being the market leaders, did an admirable job and soaking up the booze and warming our frozen fingers. For those with even bigger appetites than I then there is the mitraillette, or machine gun, a baguette stuffed with a deep fried burger and chips and slathered in various sauces.

Fries just aren't fries without a topping of some sort. And Belgium is a heaven for a condiment lover like me, who knows that everything can be improved with a little sauce on the side.

This little article makes the very good point that it may take a little while to find your sauce of choice, but once you do it’s yours for life. The Ewing is a straight mayo girl in this respect, having fallen for it when we visited Amsterdam a few years ago. My favourite sauce while we were there was the fabulously titled ‘war’, a mixture of satay sauce and raw diced onions. This Indonesian inspired delight doesn't seem to have reached as far as Belgium, so I settled on a little pot of ‘pickels’ sauce, with which to to dunk. Disappointingly it was exactly like piccalilli; ok when mixed with a little mayonnaise, but not my sauce. The search continues.

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