I’m back in Europe ! After a long two years away, Keith and I get to spend the next two weeks running through some old and new places. [We might actually be running; we have a lot of ground to cover during this admittedly overly ambitious trip.] We had virtually 24 hours in Brussels, which is okay since I was here in 2012 when I studied with the EU and NATO during graduate school.
Belgium, or at least Brussels, is a unique place. It’s the de-facto capital of both Belgium and Europe, since it headquarters the majority of the European Union. (It also is the the site of NATO headquarters). There’s the parliament and the constitutional monarchy, its prime minister is the first openly gay man to lead a sovereign state, and from mid-2010 to 2011 there was no official government (an international record was set for this). It’s a traditional European city, comete with the usual stately squares, pretty squares and narrow, cobbestone roads. It’s quirky, unconventional and artsy—full of street art of popular Belgian comic strips and statues like Mannekin and Jeanneke Pis. And it’s bureaucratic: the EU buildings are modern, some windowless, and a stark contrast to the heart of the city. I love it, and it’s a great place to begin our adventure.
Brussels also has a distinct food culture. There are influences from all over the world, given the international presence of thousands of diplomats, but the best were born here in Belgium. Like French fries. Apparently those delicious frites originated in Belgium after a Belgian man saw a French man eating them. I’m not sure if that is true, and if Belgium truly is the birthplace of frites, but they are delicious either way. This time, we got ours with spicy samurai sauce, which I think is mayonnaise and sriracha. Yum. They went fast.
And of course, we had our fill of waffles too. There is actually no such thing as a Belgian waffle; there are regional differences and varieties, much like there are regional differences in barbeque in the States or ramen in Japan. What Americans know as Belgian waffles are gaufres à Liège, or waffles from Liège, which is west of Brussels in the French-speaking part of Belgium (aka Wallonia). In a joint decision between Keith and me, we eschewed all compromises and piled everything on: strawberries, chocolate sauce et crème chantilly. That all was completely unnecessary, since the thing that makes gaufres à Liège so fantastic is the massive amount of sugar in them. And the sugar crystals are clustered together, giving the gaufres a nice sweet crunch when you bite into them. That is, if they were plain and not loaded with everything we put on top.
You’d think we would have had our sugar fix already, but no trip to Bruxelles is complete without loading up on chocolate. Perhaps thanks to its colonial past presence in the Congo, where from it could import large quantities of cocoa, Belgium is probably most famous for its chocolate. It is obvious just by looking around in the streets. At least we’re we were (in the tourist heart of the city), everyone has a bag of chocolate, and is probably thinking about the next. It’s hard not to; there are dozens of chocolate shops everywhere you go. Neuhaus, La Gourmand Belgique, Pierre Marcolini, Leonidas, Elisabeth, Godiva, Guylian… There are so many. And while they range from good to seriously upscale, if they are truly Belgian, you know you’re getting a decent product. That’s because because Belgian law regulates the minimum amount of cocoa to be used as well as the type of fats (non-vegetable), so chances are you’re eating something quite tasty. Unless it has coconut in it.
We also stumbled upon a popular candy in Belgium called a cuberdon. These raspberry confections are a childhood favorite, and they are sweet! The outside is gummy, with a gooey raspberry filling inside. We should have been warned, as the tag read: “sweets should be what they are. A nose is a nose is a nose.” The chocolates will probably go faster, but these are definitely a treat.
Outside the world of sweets and takeaway, Belgian cuisine is famous for its national dish: moules-frites, or mussels and fries. Thanks to its coastline, Belgium enjoys access to tonnes of mussels every year. And I can now say that they are delicious. I couldn’t finish the pot that was put in front of me, and it wasn’t even a whole kilo. The norm is 1,5 kilos per person… That’s nearly twice what I was served. I definitely prefer other seafood like fish, scallops and lobster, but when I’m back in Brussels or northern France, I may finally be able to finish a whole casserole.
And of course, there was beer. I should probably recant my earlier statement and say that Belgium is most famous for its beer. Do I need to say more? Keith sampled a decent amount, and I stuck to my usual taste of lambics. It was a nice day, short but sweet… Especially with all the chocolate we now have.
See you in Amsterdam!