Of Pints And Poetry
Belgians sure know how to live; and is their gusto for life ever so contagious! I was aware of the very impressive variety of beers from the Kingdom of Belgium in Europe – but to pair them with our meals was something else. It was at Les Brigittines, Brussels, a quaintly Belle Époque styled design from the 1800s, where I practiced the usual wine-food-pairing and the unusual beer-food-pairing, both. The intention of founder and chef Drik’s talent was to represent Belgian cuisine, preferably in its organic form. No doubt the entrée was a well-thought-out assortment of heterogeneous flavours from organic tomatoes – black, pineapple and horny. It was paired with Maitrank, a fruity white wine with an orange wedge. That made sense, till beer accompanied the main course instead of another grape extract. Being more of a wine person, surprisingly the 100 per cent organic Cantillon Gueuze, a Belgian authentic, didn’t taste very different from a sparkling! And it matched brilliantly with my luscious cut of well-cooked beefsteak, wiped off the plate more out of greed than hunger.
Continuing with the decadent gastronomic indulgences, the finale was a big bowl of dark chocolate sauce with dollops of what can’t be justly tagged as simple vanilla ice-cream. To blend so well with cocoa and merge just as easily into our taste buds, they were the richest and softest blobs of cream that one could ever touch. Of course this called for sweet slumber; but obviously a detour through Grand Place before trekking it to our beds was a non-negotiable temptation.
It was in this epicurean square, bursting with activity, where the concept of beer as a culture glared at us. For starters, there were a lot of happily buzzed bodies sauntering on the macadamised piazza in high spirits. There was nothing that indicated the midnight hour – with bright lighting and an eclectic reverberation of euphonious music and chatter cutting through the light breeze. Absorbing the atmosphere, we hunted for an empty table from the hundreds outdoors.
Kwak was our first pick from the others that we hoped to sample. It was more because of its fancyround-bottomed flask, balanced with a wooden grasp that made it attractive. And then we learnt that it gets its name from the sound the glass makes on gulping the last sip – ‘kwak!’- from its bulb-like bottom. Being one of the darkerbrews, we had to let it breathe for a bit before ingestion, to avoid a bitter gulp. Personally, I enjoyed the fruity Hoegaarden rosé better with its natural reddish pink colour, served in a simple tulip glass.
Before World War I there used to be over 3000 breweries in Belgium alone. Now there are about 145 in action. To them, this ale is what football clubs are to its fans. It would be sacrilege to serve it in any mug other than the one that was exclusively designed for it. Stories say that in some pubs in Ghent, a small town in the Flemish region, customers are asked to leave one of their shoes at the counter when they buy a beer. This is because the glasses are expensive and running away in one shoe is tedious!
Whilst sampling other light and dark ales in the middle of Belgium’s capital city, we couldn’t help but remark at the beautiful Gothic, Baroque, Neo-Gothic and Neo-Classical architecture from the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries around us. In fact, on walking into this UNESCO World Heritage Site, they are the first noticable characteristics of Grand Place.
FIGURES OF HUMOUR
Who would imagine that a city rich in history and ethnicity is also the mecca for animated figures! This we explored the next day having landed bang in the middle of its comic festival. Under the shining
sun, the city seemed to have lost its hubbub. The only vibrancy that there was to see was at the balloon inflation ground, right outside a gigantic tent that housed comic books, figurines and memorabilia. The festival was initiated as a tribute to Hergé, the creator of Tintin’s Adventures. There was more of him at Victor Horta’s Comic Strip Centre as well as other caricatured beings.
The museum itself was a 1900s architectural marvel – the first building to use steel so extensively. It has been pivoted on the idea of an entire ecological system.
CHOMPING ON DELIGHT
This is where we devoured the famous Belgian fries that made lunch a delight – a feast of sorts completed with waffles. We sampled both kinds, the heavier and sweeter Liege, and the lighter, crispier and tastier Brussels waffles. Though Belgium is known for this fluffy treat – they really aren’t as delicious everywhere. Just like anywhere else in the world, one needs to know where to dig into these. Luckily for us, we sure happened to be at the right place. If only the Belgians took their waffles as seriously as their chocolates, the combination would be absolutely sinful.
Everywhere we went, there were chocolate shops guised in garbs of jewellery boutiques or art ateliers, or so it seemed. They have these eloquent display windows that show their chocolates in unbroken poise. Once inside, you may as well take your time to pick each piece, because you will be seriously educated on their sumptuous details, pensively advised on what could match your palate.
Away from all the commercial bustle, an idle amble around Flagey Square led us to discover one of Brussels’ many pockets of antiquated buildings. On Rue du Lac that ends at the lake is a row of contemporarily designed facades. One amongst these is a house by Ernest Delune built from Art Nouveau sensibilities of the early 1900s. The whole idea was to allow as much natural light through its large windows.
As we stood there in admiration, calculating the refreshingly affordable price to rent such magnificence, poetic beauty was a happy happenstance that came to realisation. The architect’s name could mean the moon in French; and the street name in English translates to a lake – both of which are positioned near a lake under the moonlit sky! Parallel to this street on Avenue du General De Gaulle, House No. 39 by Ernest Blerot is another saved structure from the early 20th century. At the time his architecture took inspiration from leaves, physiognomies of which are very apparent in its iron mouldings.
Later we learnt that even our hotel, Radisson Blu Royal, held a piece of history in its interiors. In the 1900s the city had built a wall to keep it safe from unsolicited company. Part of this has been preserved within the hotel’s design.
The day of discoveries called for the fervently awaited mussels and fries! At what other place could one possibly try these in its true form if not at Chez Leon that has even marked its specialty by etching mussel shells into its walls. The location is ideal as it’s a hop away from Grand Place. My pot arrived with the mussels swimming in butter garlic stew. I could have eaten two pots, had another trip for some more beer sampling not beckoned us to Grand Place.
NOT JUST MUSSELS
Away from Brussels is De Vlamsche Pot in Bruges, where stories replace conversations, and facts merge with fiction. This quaint little restaurant often visited by royalty itself compels your meals to last hours because founder, chef Mario Cattoor will challenge your mother’s cooking. Indeed, his mussles and stews promise traditional quality to the last ingredient.
LOOSE TALK IN BRUGES
Whispers say that before the 15th century people couldn’t wash their clothes daily for they used to take hours to dry. Their discomfort with the smell that emanated from exposed body parts led to the invention of underwear – from material that is light and dries easily – giving birth to rough hand-knitted lace. This later became the basis of fashion with evolved techniques.
Bruges Zot is the only Flemish brewery that exists from the 14th century. It translates into Bruges Fools. They say that when the visiting Emperor Maximilian of Austria was in the city for the Holy Blood Procession, he quipped that if they closed the city gates, it would pose as a ‘Fools’ House’. He had witnessed drunken people being silly the day before. Till date the procession is a spectacle worth staying back for – continuing the tradition of silly drunkenness.
The chocolate shooter at The Chocolate Line is a must-do. Chocolatier Dominique Persoone’s adulation for the Rolling Stones itched at his ingenuity for a creation in their tribute. Apart from sampling with combinations like his variety of onion, garlic, wasabi, tea flavoured chocolates, he invented a device altogether to honour them. It helps shoot chocolate through the nostrils, just like how the band snorted cocaine.
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