Chocolate and Waffles and Beer, Oh My!

24 09 2008

Brussels, Belgium

At one point during our long stay with Monika, we had the chance to chat with her older sister, Magda. Magda lives in Brussels with her American husband, Dave. At the time that we were chatting on the phone Dave was making pulled pork with homemade BBQ sauce. Magda said, “Well if you ever feel like having some homemade BBQ, you’re welcome to come stay with us.” As I said to Magda, that was the best invitation I had ever received.

For those completely ignorant about the origins of beer, chocolate, and waffles, Belgium is it. Well, actually none of those originated in Belgium, but it was at least perfected there. The first order of business was to find the Petit Sablon Square, which was home to Wittamer’s and Marcolini’s, two of Belgium’s most exclusive chocolate makers. Walking into Marcolini’s was like walking into church. All of the chocolates were set up in glass cases as though they were precious jewels to be revered. Basically it was a physical manifestation of how I see chocolate in my mind. In fact, almost all of the chocolate producers in Brussels have these sleek, luxurious shops in which chocolate is placed on a pedestal. This is what we call good priorities. Gage and I even made a visit to the Museum of Cocoa and Chocolate, set in a beautiful old mansion right off of the Grand Place where we learned about the history of chocolate and where a demonstration answered the age old question of ‘how do they get the fillings inside those chocolates?’ I’d tell you, but you’ll have to come to Brussels and find out for yourself.

Next order of business was to attempt to consume as much Belgian beer as possible. No we are not alcoholics. In fact, if we could have gotten 1 oz shots of every beer there, we would have taken that over a full glass (although the full glasses certainly had their appeal). Ever since his days in the beer soaked land of Fort Collins, Colorado, Gage has developed an appreciation of fine craft brewed beer (see New Belgium Brewery and Odells). With literally thousands of craft beer brewed in such a tiny country, Gage finally had ample opportunity to indulge his passion. We headed to the unpretentious Delirium Cafe, home to some 2004 beers. With a selection like that and an atmosphere of good music and genuine beer appreciation, it immediately became our go-to place for a finding a brew. Gage quickly began work on a list of Belgian beers that he wanted to try, while I found a deep love for fruit beers like cherry, mango, and banana. Yes, I said banana beer. Of course, we also had to make a stop at the Museum of Belgian Brewers where we watched an excellent video on the different kinds of beers made in Belgium, learned a little about the history of brewing, and then sampled a glass for ourselves. Before leaving Brussels, we visited the last brewery still in operation in Brussels, the Cantillon Brewery. This is where they make the sour kriek beers in exactly the same style that beer was created before modern technology sped up the process. We were given a comprehensive self-guided tour and free reign over the brewery, followed by samples of their unique product. If you visit Brussels and you love beer, this is a must-see.

Finally we knew that we couldn’t leave Brussels without trying their legendary gauffre, or waffles. I remember many years ago when I was still in high school, my father came back from a trip to Brussels raving about these little delights. He said that they we sweet little indulgences that has very little to do with our American version of the product. Turns out he wasn’t kidding. First, get the idea of an airy, substance-less waffle out of your head. Now replace it with a rich, soft, moist pastry infused with enough sugar that the outside forms a thin crusted glaze after being cooked. That, my friends, is a glorious Belgian waffle. If you ever visit Belgium, try to keep your consumption down to one every other day as we have heard of many tourists succeeding in making themselves sick with overindulgence. Also, waffles (and most other foods) are best purchased in the metro stations where they are cheap and quick.

OK, so beside the culinary indulgences of Belgium, we did actually do some other stuff. One of our favorite activities we did while we were there was to go on an Art Nouveau architecture hunt. It turns out that the craft was arguably invented in Belgium and therefore the unique buildings are scattered throughout the city. The majority of which are in the neighborhoods of Ixelles and St Gilles. Even if you are not interested in unique architecture, getting out into these neighborhoods just to walk around is worth it. It was after touring these neighborhoods that Gage and I fell in love with Belgium.

As glorious as Brussels was, our awesome hosts made sure that we got out to see some of Belgium’s other delights. On Saturday we drove up to Bruges, one of Belgium’s prettiest cities. It was a little crowded due to the glorious weather, but it was still wonderful walking around the cobblestone streets and checking out the beautiful, preserved architecture. We walked through a peaceful and quiet monastery, drooled over the abundance of patisseries, and admired the handiwork of the local lace producers. The next day we went to a small town in the south called Hotton, home to the Grottes de Hotton. These are not the most popular caves in Belgium, which is most likely due to their location because they are utterly spectacular. Winding tunnels filled with small streams open up into vast canyons, perfectly lit so that you can see every crack and crevice. After a great afternoon of pseudo-splunking, our hosts made good on their promise of BBQ pulled-pork and Gage and I made up for lost time by eating more than we should have. Hopefully that will hold us for the next six months. Thanks to Dave and Magda for a wonderful week in one of our new favorite cities.

Brussels Suggestions:

– Unlike any other city we’ve visited, the food in the metro stations of Brussels is not only cheap, but delicious. The Belgians love their big, flavorful sandwiches, and you can pick one up for under 5 Euros in most major Metro stops. For breakfast I recommend the fruit waffles which are lighter than their pastry cousins and filled to overflowing with the fruit of your choice. Delicious and nutritious.
Wittamer and Marcolini are considered by most to be the best Belgian chocolates, but that doesn’t mean you have to stop there. There are plenty of lesser known, delicious chocolate makers that may be deserving of your attention. Seek them out and try to avoid the multi-brand chocolate stores. They sell major brands like Cote D’Or which is made by Kraft Foods and can be purchased anywhere. It’s like buying a Coors Light in the Delirium Cafe. You may as well go home.
– We highly recommend patronizing the Delirium Cafe. Despite being so close to the Grand Place, it is surprisingly calm and unassuming. Don’t let the huge beer selection scare you, just walk in and choose from their smaller choice menu, or point to one of the beers on tap, or tell the bartender what your taste is. They don’t care what you drink here, so long as it’s beer.
– If you plan on using the metro a lot, purchase a 10 pack metro card to save the most money. Just be careful not to bend the magnetic strip. We had two cards stop functioning after 4 trips. If this happens, just ask a metro worker for a new card.




One response

30 09 2008

I think I would love Belgium. Oh and Gage – you are looking more European by the day. =)

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