Monday, 25 March 2013

A Belgian Dozen - Part 2

Halfway through our whistle-stop food tour of Belgium's dozen best dishes, and things were going well. We successfully had eaten and drunk our way through the first part of the list, the Rennies were still in their box, the aspirin remained untouched and I could still tuck my shirt in.

We had planned a day trip to the lovely city of Ghent, primarily to see the Van Eyck's Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (sadly not edible). But before we could contemplate culture, we called in for some lunch at Het Groot Vleeshuis.

This grand medieval building, set on the canal side, was originally a butcher’s hall before more recently being used as a fishmonger, and even an overflow car park. Recent renovations have now seen it converted into a small café/restaurant and shop, selling only produce from Gent and the surrounding area of East Flanders. The building retains the covered markets original beams, which are strung with magnificent legs of the local Ganda ham. There are also additional outdoor seating areas for when the weather isn't so frigid.

We were here for the Gentse Waterzooi, a Flemish stew, said to have been the favourite dish of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, who was from the city of Ghent. The original dish was mostly made with fish, although chicken is now more common, possibly as the rivers around Ghent became too polluted to sustain aquatic life.

Waterzooi’s name derives from the Dutch term zooien meaning "to boil", and the idea of soggy vegetables and bland chicken floating in a thin sauce wasn't exactly whetting my appetite. Thankfully I stuck with my choice, realising there would be no better place to taste this speciality, and was rewarded with what was possibly the nicest plate of food of our whole trip. 

Beautifully poached soft chicken, fresh vegetables with a welcome crunch, and waxy little new potatoes bobbing in a perfectly seasoned and creamy broth that belied its soporific appearance. Although it was rich, the contrast of textures and flavours kept me rapt until the very last spoonful.

A little mention,too, for the Leute Bokbier; offered as the beer of the month on our visit. First brewed in the 1920's, before disappearing, this dark red top-fermented beer which goes through a second fermentation in the bottle, has only recently been revived. The waiter was so enamoured with it taht he took great pains in explaining the rounded glass had to be place in the stand before mouthfuls, and even insisted picking up my camera and taking a picture of it for us. A very nice drop.

Before a happy afternoon/evening's drinking in the nearby 't Dreupelkot and Waterhuis aan de Bierkant, I had alreadyspied this cosy looking little friterie, and 'Official Bicky Dealer' (a range of Belgian fast food condiments), from across the street.

It proved to be a useful spot, as we found ourselves staggering over there after several genevers and beer chasers, looking for some deep fried ballast to line our stomachs for the train ride back to Brussels. A cone of chips with mayo for the Ewing, one with Sauce Americaine for me, and a icy bottle of coke proved to be our saving grace from the rapidly encroaching hangover.

This was my second attempt on this trip to find 'my' sauce, and this time, with my choice of Americaine, I had picked a good'un. The spicy mayo-based condiment - based on the classic French sauce that usually accompanies lobster, and contains, amongst other things, tomato paste, cayenne pepper, herbs and garlic - was both piquant and creamy, and went perfectly with the cone of hot, crispy potatoes.

As well as our chips we also dared to try some of the mysterious breadcrumbed snacks lined up in the glass cabinet. Firstly a giant frikadel meatball (a mix of minced pork and horse), cut into quarters and nuked in boiling oil until crispy; and the ominously named 'Lucifer', a spicy reformed chicken stick, coated in crunchy cornflake pieces and shaped like a giant Swan safety match.

While I probably wouldn't want to repeat the experience sober, this was the perfect post-beer fast food in a beutiful location and served up by one of the most organised guys I have encountered. It takes a surprising amount of skill to charm keep up single-handedly with the hoards of hungry Gent teenagers on their way out for the night. Not to mention the clueless tourists....

After a morning spent at the Cantillon Brewery, La Fleur en Papier Dore - a maisonette style house dating from the middle of the 18th Century on a distinctly unlovable strip of the Marolles - was the perfect little cosy, friendly and slightly ramshackle bar in which to while away a few hours.

The building evolved from it's original use as a home to the convent of the sisters of Saint-Vincentius, to become, in a rather surreal twist of its own, a meeting place of Belgium’s surrealist scene, entertaining artists such as Paul Rouge, Rene Magritte, Marcel Lecomte, and Georges Remi (Hergé). Magritte even organised his very first exhibition here.

Sadly the famous artworks have all been sold, but there are still many interesting objects adorning the walls, including plenty of antlers and hunting horns, little sketches and framed cuttings from newspapers. There is also a large photograph, hanging up in the back room, which features a number of the above artists posing in front of the pub.

Following on from our morning visit to Cantillion, the Ewing chose a bottle of their gueze I went for the Trappist ale, Chimay Red, a dubbel, a stronger version of the traditional brown beer with a fruity, malty flavour and gentle bitterness.

We had decided on having a light snack before dinner, but ended up getting waylaid by the irresistible offer of stoemp; a sort of pimped-up mix between mash and bubble and squeak. To say the portion was generous may be a slight understatement, the mountain of carbs crowned by a giant pork sausage and two thick rashers of smoked bacon. 

This was the very best sort of comfort food; generous, hot and delicious. Despite my best intentions to leave a little, I ate until there was just a hillock of stoemp languishing in a small puddle of gravy.

Decent dining options around tourist landmarks are normally as rare as Steak Americaine, but ‘t Kelderke, on the Grand Place, is a welcome exception. With a name translating as ‘the cellar’ it may come as no surprise that this is a subterranean dining space, although there is some outside decking with seating for the warmer months.

While this may not be a place to linger for hours - there is a no bookings policy, and queues can get rather long at busy times – it is warm and friendly and the service swift. They also have a menu dominated with Belgian classics, making it perfect for our eating adventure.

While I could have picked the Chicons au gratin, or the Salade Liègeoise, or even the Bloedpens à la Bruxelloise (the very ominous sounding ‘black tripe’), I chose the Carbonnades Flammandes, or, more simply, Flemish beef stew.

Carbonnade has become one of my favourite winter dishes to cook at home. Never previously a fan of slow cooked beef, I initially decided to try cooking it for friends, as using a bottle of ale to stew the meat seemed far more economical than using a bottle of wine. The results were glorious; two hours unattended in a low oven and I was greeted with the sweetness of onion and chunks of iron-rich beef that collapsed into the bitter-edged and glossy gravy.

'T Kederke’s eclipsed even my best efforts. Initially I was rather sceptical; the speed the dish arrived at the table and the pile of frozen chips served on the side made me fear this was going to be a wasted dinner. Luckily the first mouthful put all my fears at ease. This is the sort of food that the word unctuous was created for; gelatinous, sweet and sticky, with a deep, almost liquorice, note from the beef. Yes, the chips were average, but lashing of mayo improved them no end.

The Ewing, as is her wont, picked the most expensive dish, the rabbit cooked in gueze beer. It turned out to be well worth it; the whole beast served up, stewed to a melting tenderness in a tangy, onion-spiked, ale sauce.

The aeons the Ewing spent gnawing each little rabbit bone for every last morsel gave me the time I needed to compose my self for the next course; Herve cheese with a Liegois syrup and baguette - not only did I manage to tick the cheese off the list, but it also came with the traditional fruit-based chutney from the eastern province of Liège, the region in which the cheese is produced, too.

The sticky, orange coloured washed rind pungent aroma gave a clue to the fragrant delights within. A spicy, sharp flavour - recommended for fans of Epoisses or Munster - that pairs very well with both the sweet fruit syrup and the glass of Grimbergen Optimo Bruno I was drinking. 

The Ewing went for the lighter option of Kriek sorbet, a refreshing and fruity delight, with a gentle almond-tinged edge and decorated with a couple of retro, fluorescent glace cherries for good measure.

Our final stop before catching our train back home to London was lunch at Viva M’Boma, a white-tiled former triperie that now specialises in cooking the sort of organ meats it used to originally sell.

The restaurant’s name means ‘long live the grandmother’ in old Bruxellois dialect, and it was living up to it's moniker as an elegant lady of a certain age, and clearly a regular, came in to enjoy a couple of glasses of vin rouge and a plate of meatballs while we were dining.

For the more adventurous of palate this place is a delight, with a menu featuring such dishes as kidneys, sweetbreads, pigs trotter, and pot au feu with oxtail and bone marrow. They even have Pis de Vache, or cow's udder, served three ways as fritters, pate and a carpaccio. 

I went for the 'meat of the moment', with Viande de cheval, or horse. The vast piece of steak they served was nicely balanced between a perfectly rare centre and a charred outer crust; the flesh with a butter-soft texture and a deep, slightly gamey flavour. 

The Ewing's choice, an onglet served with green beans, was served similarly rare, and had that deep ferrous note and decent amount of chew that comes from good, well hung meat.

To accompany were some decent frites (tasting unnervingly as if they came from a British chippie), and some braised witloof/chicory, the final piece in our eating puzzle. In this case the classic Belgian veg had been slowly cooked in stock and butter until it was gently yielding to the merest prod of a fork, and then glazed to bring out the delicate balance between sweetness and acerbity.

To finish, the Ewing managed to persuaded me (it didn't take too much) that I needed to try the homemade Tarte au Sucre, a classic Belgian sugar pie (rather like our treacle tart/a nut-less pecan pie), that had nearly made it into my original top twelve.

The vast slice that appeared was pitched perfectly, like the endive before, between sweet and bitter, with the filling caramelised to an unusually dark and nutty finish. Despite the richness, I was powerless to stop myself eating it; the contrast between the cold and milky ice cream and warm pie with its flaky crust, being outrageously moreish.

The Ewing didn't fare to badly either with her choice of Dandoy speculoos ice cream with caramelised apples and biscuit crumbs. Like the milkshake we had sampled at the Dandoy Tearooms, the crumbly, spicy cookies also make a great ice cream flavour and complimented the slices of warm fruit perfectly.

We had done it! With our last meal of the trip the final dish on the list was consumed and we could contentedly roll onto the Eurostar, to enjoy a final glass of wine, a little snooze and congratulate ourselves on a job well done.

Although it may have started off as rather a novelty, even the Ewing eventually embraced the idea as a good way to explore some previously unknown dishes, as well as still having plenty of opportunity to enjoy some of the tried and tested classics. And, with beer, frites and chocolate being the primary Belgian foodstuffs, it was unlikely our eating experience was ever going to end badly

The Flemings and Walloons may very much still feel they live in a divided nation, both linguistically and politically, but from our experiences it shows it shows that good food and drink knows no boundaries. Smakelijk eten/bon appétit!

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