CLOSE-UP WITH THE MUSSEL MEN

There's a lot more to Belgium than fuddling bureaucracy and boring seaside towns. Michael Bateman reports on the rising profile of its cuisine on the London food scene

First prize, a week's holiday in Belgium. Second prize, a month. Belgium isn't everyone's idea of a holiday destination, I know but, all the same, I'd take the month (I'd come back two stones heavier, for sure).

The very name of Brussels is synonymous with bureaucracy, is it not? And other delights? A day by the sea is not on the cards. There are only 30 miles of coastline and once you've seen Ostend and Knokke you will pine for Blackpool and Frinton-on-Sea. True, the hilly Ardennes forest, divided by winding rivers, is magnificent but you must share the spectacle shoulder-to-shoulder with 10 million Belgians, the densest concentration of humans in Europe.

But equally dense is the number of Michelin stars its restaurants have collected, the highest per capita in Europe. And it is not only their haute cuisine which is excellent. It is almost impossible to eat badly at any level, in bars or cafes, or on the hoof at street stalls.

Driving around Belgium, you don't need road signs to direct you to the centre of the village or town. You only have to follow your nose and pick up the sweet odour of cooking. It may be the smell of beignets and waffles (gaufres), or the sugar in the batter caramelising. The aroma may even be the fragrance of the oil itself. Inspirationally, Belgians are probably the only cooks in the world to add pieces of vanilla pod or shavings of nutmeg to their cooking oil to sweeten it.

The delights of Belgian cooking are not entirely unknown in Britain, for the Brussels Chamber of Commerce reports that, since their city became capital of the European Union, 80,000 Britons have worked, lived (and eaten) there.

Two would-be restaurateurs, Denis Blais and Andre Plisnier, made this point to their backers when they tried to open a Belgian restaurant in London. They argued that so many Britons had returned home rubbing their tummies with pleasure that the time was now ripe to put their best frites forward and mussel in.

For they had in mind a restaurant majoring on mussels, the Belgian national dish being "moules frites". These are steaming bowls of mussels with mounds of chips and pots of real mayonnaise.

Potential backers, far from backing them up, backed right off. "Mussels," they snorted. "You'll never get the English to eat mussels."

It took six years for Denis and Andre to prove them wrong, but the phenomenon of Belgo is now firmly locked into the life of the capital, in the guise of two huge beer kellers. And to celebrate their success, the founders have put their philosophy (and their mussel recipes) into print in the Belgo Cookbook.

Andre, 47, is Anglo-Belgian (his Belgian father was a wartime Spitfire pilot). Denis (pronounced Denny), 35, from Quebec, met Andre when he was managing one of the first restaurants in the Parisian-style Dome chain. Andre was mightily impressed by Denis' skill at grafting tips, pounds 25 on the first night against the average of pounds 3. "Andre asked me; `have you stolen this money?'" Denis was indeed unique; a waiter who took the wait out of waiting. How did he do it? "Oh, the English waiter is Cyclops, he's only got one eye, you can never get his attention. I have a third eye."

The two teamed up to manage one of the first tapas bars in England, then a Brazilian bar in the Trocadero complex in Piccadilly Circus. Then they hit on the Belgo formula. They make it sound easy; have a concept, find a backer, spend a fortune on young designers. It's almost a recipe for disas-ter, Denis suggests. And then there are the fights. "The day before we opened in Chalk Farm, a cab driver had to separate us," Denis explains. "Andre had announced he was going to kill me." Surely it was a joke? "I was serious," says Andre.

However, Belgo opened to acclaim. Their second, opening a year ago, was Belgo Centraal, close to Covent Garden tube station and seating over 400. Did they still want to kill each other? "No, no, no. But our backers did," says Denis. "We didn't have a cent. We borrowed pounds 2m, and they saw us spend it all on designers. It was unbelievable. But we expect to have paid off every penny by this summer."

What's cooking? Well, it's not just the mussels. Belgo, in the spirit of a beer keller, buzzes with life from 5.30pm onwards. For a start, if you choose from one of the set menus, you get cut-price meals from 6pm to 8pm. You pay according to the time you give your order: at five past six they charge pounds 6.05. At one minute to eight, pounds 7.59.

Belgo Centraal is like no other restaurant (like a tube station during rush hour, then?). A vast industrial lift lowers you into the stone-paved basement, the site of an old brewery, where you come face to face with 30 industrious cooks in the kitchen. You peel off to the left to the 150 bookable tables, or hurry to the right to grab a place elbow to elbow with 249 others at the unreserved tables.

The most surreal touch (remember that Rene Magritte, Belgium's most famous artist, invented surrealism) is the waiters' kit. They are clothed in monks' habits. This is not a gimmick, plead Denis and Andre. "Nothing has been done without a reason."

The allusion, they explain, is to those distinguished Belgian beers, brewed by monks in monasteries and abbeys. Belgian beer is the purist's beer and Michael Jackson (the BBC's beer hunter) has long been their champion. There are 650 different beers made in Belgium, and Belgo stocks some 100 of them.

I suspect it is the beer rather than the mussels which accounts for Belgo's appeal. The range is vast. As well as Pils, pale and golden beers, there are Flemish brown, white beers (yeasty and cloudy), saison (also cloudy), fruit beers (flavoured with cherries or raspberries or blackcurrants), wine beers (of high strength) and monks' brews, Trappist and Abbey.

"We even have beers which go with chocolate or vinaigrettes, which can't be said of wine," says Denis. Lambic beer is such a one and, being quite sour on the palate, it matches the acidity of a vinaigrette dressing. Lambic is an acquired taste. It is made, uniquely, without the addition of yeast. Fermentation is entirely due to the action of wild yeasts dispersed in the atmosphere of the brewing rooms.

And, arising from the beer, is Belgium's less well publicised cuisine a la biere. Carbonnade flamande is but one of many dishes owing its character to beer.

But about these moules frites? Belgo's two establishments sell between them a staggering seven tons of mussels a week, using in a year a quarter of all Scotland's mussel production. Every day, the cooks unpack, clean and cook 40 25kg sacks of them. They are either served in pots in one-kilo helpings (both in traditional ways with wine or beer or cream, and in new ways, with coconut cream and lemon grass). For smaller appetites they are presented as platters arranged in a circle, on the half-shell, finished under the grill with various savoury stuffings, such as garlic and herb, cheese and ham, spinach and bacon (see recipes opposite).

Denis and Andre have something to say about frites. Belgian frites are the best in the world (though smart Belgian restaurants, they regret to admit, are now tending to serve pommes allumettes, chips that are cut to matchstick size.

This is the Belgo way. Use only Bintje, a variety of potato, which is neither too floury nor too hard. Cut each chip to 1cm by 1cm, 6cms long. Soak in cold water for 10 to 15 minutes to wash off starch. Drain and dry with a cloth.

Using an ample pan, heat clean oil to 150C/ 300F. Blanch the chips (part- cook) till lightly coloured. Remove, drain and let cool completely. Raise temperature of oil to 180C/350F. Fry in batches till crisp and brown.

PREPARATION OF PLATTERS

Belgo uses rope-grown mussels. The alternative, mussels dredged from bays and estuaries, can be tastier, but they are usually gritty. A 1kg per head serving of mussels yields around 40 mussels. It reserves the larger mussels for its platters (see below), allowing about 24 per person.

Mussels are easy to cook, full of minerals, protein and almost no fat, unlike the traditional accompaniment: mayonnaise. "Mayonnaise is a French custom. When I first came to Belgium we used to eat mussels with piccalilli,"says Denis.

Ingredients per serving

500g/1lb 2oz large mussels, cleaned

100ml/31/2fl oz dry white wine

Put the mussels in a casserole with the dry white wine and 100ml (31/2fl oz) water. Place over a high heat and bring them to the boil. Cook for a few minutes only until the mussels have opened, stirring them frequently to ensure they are evenly cooked.

Strain the cooking liquid through a fine sieve into a jug, leaving behind any grit.

Put the mussels into a large bowl with plenty of ice cubes and cover with cold water to cool them as quickly as possible. Rejecting any mussels that have not yet opened or that have broken shells, open each mussel, throwing away the empty half-shell.

Arrange each serving of mussels on a platter, and cover with Clingfilm. Keep the platters in the refrigerator well away from any uncooked meat, poultry or fish.

MOULES PO'PEI

MUSSELS WITH SPINACH AND BACON

Ingredients per serving

1 mussel platter

125g/4oz fresh spinach

salt

25g/1oz butter

1 small shallot, chopped

1 garlic clove, chopped

75ml/3fl oz double cream

fresh black pepper

freshly grated nutmeg

50g/2oz cheese, grated

Wash the spinach. Bring a large saucepan of water to the boil, add a pinch of salt and the spinach and boil for two minutes. Drain and run cold water over the spinach until it is cold. Squeeze the spinach to remove as much water as possible.

Melt the butter in a saucepan, add the shallot and garlic and cook over a low heat for two minutes. Add the cream, salt, pepper and nutmeg and simmer gently for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, chop the spinach very finely. Add it to the sauce and cook for two minutes. Take the mussel platter from the refrigerator and spoon the sauce over the mussels. Sprinkle with the cheese, then place under a hot grill for three to four minutes, or until golden. Serve at once.

MOULES PROVENcALE

Ingredients per serving

1kg/1lb 8oz mussels, cleaned

100ml/31/2fl oz dry white wine

For the sauce:

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 onions, chopped

1 garlic clove, chopped

1 teaspoon chopped fresh basil, plus extra to garnish

bouquet garni

1 tablespoon tomato puree

450g/1lb ripe plum tomatoes, peeled and chopped, or 400g/14oz canned chopped tomatoes

salt and pepper

1 teaspoon castor sugar

To make sauce: Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan, add the onions, celery, garlic, basil and bouquet garni and cook over a low heat for five minutes. Mix in tomato puree, tomatoes, salt, pep-per and sugar and simmer gently for 30 minutes.

Put the mussels in a casserole with the wine and 100ml (31/2fl oz) water. Place over high heat, bring to the boil and cook for a few minutes until the mussels have opened, stirring frequently.

Pour off the cooking liquid, discard any mussels that have not opened and return the opened mussels, in their shells, to the casserole. Pour the hot tomato sauce over the mussels and heat through. Sprinkle with basil and serve at once.

MOULES AU VIN BLANC

Ingredients per serving

1kg/2lb 8oz mussels, cleaned

1 small onion, chopped

1 stick of celery, chopped

125ml/4fl oz dry white wine

salt and pepper

1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

Clean and check the mussels thoroughly. Put them in a casserole with the onion, celery, wine and seasoning. Place over high heat, cover with a lid. Bring to the boil and cook until the mussels have opened, stirring frequently to ensure they are evenly cooked; this takes only a few minutes.

Add the parsley and serve at once.

MOULES ESCARGOT

Ingredients per serving

1 mussel platter

100g/31/2oz butter

2 garlic cloves, crushed

1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

splash of Pernod

salt and pepper

wedge of lemon, to serve

Cut the butter into small pieces, place in a bowl and leave at room temperature for 30 minutes.

Add the garlic, parsley, Pernod and seasoning and mix together using a fork. Take the mussel platter from the refrigerator and dot with the flavoured butter, then place under a hot grill for three minutes. Serve at once, with a lemon wedge.

The recipes are taken from `Belgo Cookbook' (Weidenfeld & Nicolson pounds 16.99)

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