Three weeks ago I decided, for the first time since I arrived in London, to leave the UK.
I love living in London, but what I was looking for was the romanticized old world-Europe–one where people still walk down their cobble stoned streets to the corner market and where locals actually attend the century-old churches as a weekly practice.
Really, I was looking for an excuse to get a flavor of life across the Chunnel, and in doing so, also enjoy myself a little foodcation. Begium was the destination of choice: a day in Brussels and two in Bruges. Here’s what I found and here’s what I ate:
THE SHARPEST MOULE IN THE SHED
I feel like I can speak on the topic of mussels with relative expertise. I’m absolutely crazy about these plump little mollusks and I’ve sampled some of what I feel is the best of what the world has to offer. From the intensely briny and flavorful mussels pulled from the cold Maine waters to the gorgeous and fat green-lipped mussels in New Zealand, I rarely meet a mussel I don’t like. So you can imagine I was excited to be in Brussels, the self-proclaimed capital of moules frites.
It was obvious from the thicket of restaurants boasting the best moules frites in town, that the tourist market is working their local speciality.
Always one insistent on avoiding tourist traps, I went against my best judgment, took the advice of a food critic, and found myself sitting at Chez Leon–one of the oldest moules frites joints in Brussels, right on the edge of Grand Place (aka tourist central). Verdict? Tasty, tasty mussels. Smaller-bellied than the Maine variety but more robust than the green-lipped kiwi brand, these mussels really held their own against the garlic, butter, white wine sauce they came doused in. And there is without a doubt nothing better to sop the juices up with than freshly fried frites. All of this I naturally washed down with a local clean and citrusy Belgian beer. Let’s just say there’s a reason this place has been around since 1838.
A CHOCOLATE AFFAIR
Belgium can turn anyone into a chocolate lover. Do I love chocolate? No. Do I love chocolate in Belgium? Yes.
In both Brussels and Bruges, I was astounded by the quantity and quality of chocolate shops. From haute cuisine pastry chefs fusing flavors like wasabi and goat cheese into their truffles to the corner artisanal chocolate maker serving up the classics, I simply couldn’t believe the depth of quality the chocolate had.
My mussels in Brussels were sensational, but the culinary highlight of my brief Brussels encounter, was the hot chocolate I had at Le Cafe du Vaudeville. It was freezing when we arrived (compared to our balmy London standards) and after a brief walk around the Grand Place, what I really wanted was to cozy up with a cup of hot cocoa. What I got was the ultimate: piping hot whole milk with large chunks of semi-sweet chocolate chips that began to melt just as the glass was set in front of me. I wondered why the drink was served in a glass, but realized they were offering me a gift: to watch the glory of the chunky chocolate fall apart and, as I stirred them with my long silver spoon, meld beautifully into the steaming milk.
NO WAFFLING OVER THIS ONE
We’ve all heard of the Belgian Waffle, but I don’t think it actually occurred to me that this brunch time go-to actually traces back to Belgium. I’m pretty sure that the last time I ate what I perceived to be a true Belgian waffle was at the Cornell dining hall my freshman year, where you were given absolute liberty to operate the waffle maker. Swarms of students lined up to pile their golden waffles with aggressive quantities of whipped cream, strawberries, and butter.
Turns out I was right and I was wrong. Just like in the US, where you can order a hamburger made of Kobe beef that’s topped with truffles and foie gras or grab a greasy, cheesy patty from Shake Shack, the Belgian waffle scene offers diversity and range for its consumers and each is delicious in its own right. The picture above features what is actually the most delicious waffle I have ever had in my life. The dough was buttery and rich, but supremely light, and it was served with hand-whipped creme fraiche and caramel melted with fluer de sel. The red currants and fresh fruit cut perfectly through the richness, creating a glorious marriage of flavors in your mouth.
However, I hold a very special place in my heart for the street waffle. Every other street corner in both Brussels and Bruges featured a street waffle stand, serving up the inch-think waffles smothered in cream, fruit, and the sauce of your choice. Though the flavor simply could not compete with the caramel and creme fraiche, these were perfect for a treat on the go and super budget-friendly.
Craving waffles for your next weekend brunch? Check out my friend Emily’s delicious recipe for the perfect Sunday waffles at Navy Blue Kitchen.
IF YOU CAN’T STAND THE FRITES, GET OUT OF THE KITCHEN
I know that I’ve already discussed moules frites, but I just can’t complete this post without paying final homage to a Belgian star: the frites.
French fries, like mussels, waffles, and beer, are an integral part of Belgium food tourism. It was allegedly in Belgium where chefs came up with the technique of triple-frying their potatoes, so that they retained a crispy golden crust on the outside and fluffy potato goodness on the inside. Buy the frites anywhere and everywhere, but think beyond ketchup for you condiment. Traditionally, these frites come with a big glob of mayonnaise for dipping. It’s a decidely delicious and unique combination, but if you’re mayonnaise adverse, opt for one of the many other interesting choices, like curry ketchup or herbed mustard. You can’t go wrong.