Dazed and confused? Not me. I’m just Lost in the Cheese Aisle.

Thursday, October 27, 2011


My first trip to Europe was to a little country that’s packed with big flavors.

I speak of Belgium, a sliver of a land wedged between the Netherlands, France, and Germany. Oh, yes, and Luxembourg. Can’t forget Luxembourg.

That first trip was a week-long business-related jaunt back in 1979, done at the behest (and expense) of the Great Corporate Salt Mine. I divided my time between Antwerp and Brussels... and, as luck and the calendar would have it, the week was neatly divided in twain by a holiday that fell right in the middle of the week. That gave me a day to visit the medieval towns of Ghent and Bruges.

Belgium has a somewhat stodgy reputation, but it’s pretty much undeserved. The Belgians are not as dour as the Swiss, and not all the women look like potatoes. And, between the Flemings and the francophone Walloons, they know their food and drink. If you’re a lover of waffles, chocolate, beer, or French fries (which actually originated in Belgium, where they are typically served with a dollop of mayonnaise), then a visit is certainly in order.

Beer! These guys drink more beer per capita than anywhere else in the world and produce more different styles of beer than anywhere else. Sure, you can get your Pilsner-style lagers in Belgium, but what’s the point when there are gaboons of artisan-brewed goodies like lambics (gueuze, kriek, framboise, et al.), wheat beers, Trappist beers, dubbels and tripels?

Chocolate! You can’t throw a rock in Brussels without hitting a chocolate shop. And they’ve got the goods. Neuhaus, Corné Toison d’Or, Leonidas, even Godiva (the real Godiva, not the Campbell’s Soup-owned version) - and they are all of them excellent. I’ve never had better chocolates than the ones I’ve had in Belgium... not even in Switzerland.

Waffles! Thick ones (Brussels-style), thin ones, stroopwafels with their layer of caramelized sugar syrup... good Gawd.

The Belgians are said to serve French-quality cuisine in German-size quantities. Many local favorites, like carbonnade Flamande and waterzooi, are stewlike affairs: quintessential peasant food. But there’s Haute Cuisine, too. I had one memorable meal at La Couronne, a restaurant in the Grand-Place of Brussels, complete with fine wines, langoustines, and thinly sliced agneau de printemps... another time, at lunch, an ethereal side dish of asperges blance en sauce mousseline sauce that might have even been worth the $30 the Salt Mine paid for it.

The Grand-Place - the living, beating heart of Brussels - is considered by many to be the most beautiful town square in Europe, besting even Moscow’s Red Square. Its combination of Gothic, Baroque, and Louis XIV styles is remarkably harmonious. On that first visit back in 1979, my arrival coincided with the appearance of the Flower Carpet - a 19,000 square foot array of colorful begonias that decorates the Grand-Place for several weeks in August every other year - and so the square was even more striking than usual.

Walking around the town square of Antwerp in the late evening and watching the locals at the sidewalk cafés snarfing down their platters of moules frites (mussels and French fries) - in the summer, there’s still plenty of light even at 10:00 pm - I was captivated by the sights, smells, and feel of it all... like a smaller, more intimate version of the Brussels Grand-Place.

I haven’t been to Belgium since 1992, and it’s about time I went back. Those waffles and chocolates are calling.


Houston Steve said...

One of my favorite bits from Monty Python's Flying Circus (all right, they were all my favorite bits. . .every bloody episode. . . but I digress from the topic at hand. . . Wot?? Where was I. . . Oh, yes. . .) was the search for the appropriate derogatory term for Belgians. Please, if you will, watch and enjoy:

Fiona Kathleen Hogan said...

Your memories of all your traveling is epic!

Anonymous said...

.... I was there five years ago and LOVED Belgium...... I want to visit again, soon!....