The Perfect Cup – Brussels, Belgium.
It’s a lazy Sunday afternoon and the live band behind me is playing a soothing blend of jazz tunes. We are sipping fresh mint tea in Café Belga, a hip café and bar on Brussels’ unassuming Place Flagey. Outside the beats of the Portuguese festival fill the square while revellers congregate around tents serving everything from grilled sardines to pastéis de nata.
I had arrived in Brussels on a damp, cloudy day and my first impressions were not exactly positive. After almost a week in Madrid the city seemed a little too flat and muted for my liking. But Brussels is one of those places that you learn to love the more you get to know it.
For one thing, this city has the real ability to surprise. On the first night my friend Bonnie takes me to a Flemish restaurant tucked away amidst the lovable grunge of her inner city neighbourhood. It is here that I get my first taste of Belgian hospitality and fruit beer.
Before we make our orders the waiter comes to our table and with a flourish, places a small bowl of snacks and two glasses of kriek (cherry beer) between us. I eye its unmistakeable deep red hue and the accompanying froth with some suspicion. Now, I am not really a beer person. Though I have been in the UK for 4½ years I have never been able to understand the pleasure derived from the taste of draught beer.
I toast with Bonnie and take a cautious sip. To my delight it is sweet and soothing to the palate. I cannot resist the urge to drink a little more. “I knew you would like this,” Bonnie remarks. “It’s like having upgraded fruit juice.”
After this fruit beer revelation we settle into a hearty three-course meal. Each of my choices was a Brussels specialty, and I was soon to discover that this city is one that should be experienced by taste. First up is a generous slice of pâté topped with spring onion and served with a dash of sweet balsamic dressing. It is meaty but not in an overpowering way, and provides a luxurious way to spread the leftovers in the bread basket.
For mains I have stoemp-saucisse, classically Belgian in its coexistence of Dutch and French influences. Stoemp, originating in the Flemish-speaking area of Belgium (as well as the Netherlands), is herbed mash potato with one or more other vegetables, and saucisse is French for, well, sausage. The dish came with the most well-balanced honey mustard sauce I have had in a long time.
Eventually dessert comes and the waiter presents me with gaufre Bruxelloise, a pure Brussels waffle unadulterated by bananas or scoops of ice cream. Dusted with sugar, it is served with a small dollop of whipped cream and berry compote on the side.
A short walk from the Flemish restaurant takes us to a glass elevator leading to Place Poelaert and the enormous Palace of Justice. Brussels may be in the Low Countries, but it is by no means flat. In reality the city is divided into an ‘upper town’ and a ‘lower town’, with some of the more modern areas overlooking the old medieval core.
When Bonnie and I leave the confines of the glass elevator we emerge into a whole other side of Brussels. Suddenly we are surrounded by big boulevards, gentrified townhouses and designer boutiques. This is very much the city I had in mind before coming, but somehow it doesn’t have quite the same appeal as the grungier parts of town. Bonnie agrees. “You know, I don’t feel that comfortable here. I think I’m underdressed.”
The next morning Bonnie takes me to the district of Sainte-Catherine for breakfast at her favourite boulangerie. We both order a lait russe (Belgian latte) and a pain au chocolat, but part of me also wants a croissant from the next tray of pastries. Bonnie picks two bar stools at a counter with a glass screen looking into the kitchen, and the baker behind the screen waves to say bonjour. He is making the most beautiful baguette sandwiches and we sit there enthralled at his deft hands and the freshness of the ingredients.
When the food comes we are quick to realise that this is no ordinary pain au chocolat. One bite reveals a perfect marriage of layers of paper-thin pastry and a deliciously condensed chocolate filling.
And as for the lait russe, it was a repeat of the kriek experience the previous night. I had never considered myself a coffee drinker, but all it took was one sip for me to change my mind. It was beyond beautiful – the balance of coffee, milk and sugar was far better than anything I had had before. Let’s just say I am never having a Starbucks latte ever again.
The two things every visitor to Brussels goes to see – at least in the city centre – are Grand Place and Mannekin Pis. Grand Place is the old market square that sits at the very heart of the old city. Ringed by a series of guildhalls and the impressive town hall, it represents the Brussels that you see on postcards and travel adverts.
Just a short distance away is the iconic fountain named Mannekin Pis. Legend has it that there was a time when Brussels was under siege, and enemy troops had planted dynamite to blow an opening in the city wall. A quick-thinking little boy saw this and proceeded to urinate on the lit fuse, thus saving the city from capture.
The people of Brussels erected a statue in his memory and nowadays you can buy miniatures in chocolate from the souvenir shops near Grand Place. Apparently there is a similar statue of a urinating girl nearby but the worsening weather drives us elsewhere. That and our stomachs are rumbling.
In the heavy rain we return to Sainte-Catherine for a tapas-style lunch at Mer du Nord, part-fishmonger, part-seafood bistro. Under a protective canopy we lose ourselves in a bowl of warming fish soup, all the while munching on spicy calamari and some deep-fried mystery fish.
Our afternoon is spent whiling away the time at Café Belga, where I try pêcheresse, a delicious peach beer produced in a small town near Brussels. When we tire of people watching indoors, Bonnie and I go outside to soak up the sights and sounds of the Portuguese festival. The smell of the barbecued meat drives us mad with hunger and we end up buying little egg tarts – pastéis de nata – and a fartura, a kind of fried dough similar to the Spanish churros, but bigger and sprinkled with copious amounts of sugar and cinnamon.
Anyone will tell you that a visit to Brussels is not complete without a meal of moules et frites. For dinner Bonnie and I meet up with two more Canadians and we head over to Chez Leon, a famous restaurant a few streets down from Grand Place. After polishing off a bucket of mussels and a side of chips, our hunt for more kriek brings us to Delirium, a sort of giant pub with 3 floors serving all kinds of flavoured beer. In a dark corner on the 1st floor we drink up glasses of unlikely flavours such as mango and coconut. Surprisingly, the coconut beer seems to work really well – it is just like a piña colada without the pineapple juice.
Over the din of clinking beer mugs and boisterous laughter we trade tales of expat living in Europe. And with three out of four of us from Alberta, that Canadian province somehow always seeps into the conversation. Eventually all our glasses are emptied and we head outside for one final expedition.
In the fading evening light we stroll through the Parc de Bruxelles to check out a music festival outside the royal palace. To our disappointment we are greeted by an empty stage and a scattered crowd wandering aimlessly around the cobblestones. It begins to rain and we decide not to wait it out – after a long day of exploring all 4 us are ready to pack it in.
Despite the weather and the letdown of the music festival I am content with the night’s activities. After all, it’s only Saturday and I still have another 24 hours to sample more of the city’s culinary delights. We make plans to meet up again to see the farmers’ market in the morning, but not before having breakfast at Boulangerie Charli. On the metro home Bonnie grins and tells me her plans for lunch.
“Tomorrow we will be having some of those grilled sardines back at Place Flagey. For sure.” I hear her words but my mind is elsewhere – more than anything I am looking forward to another day interspersed with several cups of lait russe. And maybe this time I will have that croissant and a chocolate éclair.