Food, sex and fun? It must be Belgian

Eating/ check out the mussels
Click to follow
BELGIUM is no longer ridiculous. Its culture is mounting a small invasion of central London, and other parts of the British Isles will not be far behind. Belgian chic has arrived and is about to displace the country's old reputation as a place so dull and anonymous that, in the words of the dinner-party challenge, it was impossible to name six famous Belgians (Tintin, Hercule Poirot, Jacques Brel, er...?).

It is mainly, though not entirely, a matter of food. The West End's biggest restaurant will open soon in Covent Garden, where 400 people at a time can stuff themselves from a sternly Belgian menu. Belgo Centraal is its name and it will be designed like its predecessor in Chalk Farm, north London, as a concrete cavern (with silver vents and ducts) dedicated to the consumption of mussels, chips, mayonnaise and dark Belgian beer. Belgo's owners, the Anglo-Belgian Andre Plisnier and the French Canadian Denis Blais, estimate that eight tons of mussels will be consumed in their new restaurant every week. The Chalk Farm branch gets through three tons.

Replete with mussels and dressed in clothes by fashionable Belgian designers (Ann Demeulemeester for women and Dries van Noten for men), a modish couple can then savour an evening of Belgian culture at the opera or cinema. Don Giovanni, staged by the Antwerp wunderkind Guy Joosten, is playing at the English National Opera, though not everyone loves it. Booing erupted at the first night last week during the scene in which Mr Joosten has the Don urinate on the Commendatore's grave. Some remembered the famous statue in Brussels and detected a typical Belgian touch.

The cinema, meanwhile, awaits the London opening in May of The Sexual Life Of The Belgians, the work of Jan Bucquoy, anarchist and curator of Brussels' Museum of Underpants. Critics believe the comedy is likely to be as successful as the last two great Belgian cinema hits in Britain, Toto The Hero and Man Bites Dog, although it is said to lack the darkness of Harry Kumel's Daughters Of Darkness, a lesbian vampire tale set in an Ostend hotel.

What is the secret of this sudden blip of Belgian-ness? A kind of earthy irreverence and unconcealed appetite may be the answer. Belgian food is not for the health-conscious, or for animal rights campaigners. The Belgian diet is dominated by fried food, raw beef, pigs' knuckles, pats, wild boar, and asparagus served with thick, creamy sauces. And, of course, mussels, which Belgo buys from suppliers in Wales, Ireland, Scotland, Holland and Belgium. The shells are later offered to artists and jewellers, or thrown away.

"Mussels are wonderful fast food," said manager Andr Blais, brother of Belgo's co-owner. "The British love them. We'd got to the stage where we were having to turn people away every night, so we decided to open up another branch. We're planning another one for London and restaurants in Dublin and Edinburgh."

Belgian beer has become so popular that Sainsbury's now stocks Chimay, made by Trappist monks, while one wholesaler, Beer Paradise of Leeds, is importing 400 varieties. At Grog Blossom, a specialist beer shop in Hampstead, customers buy Hoegaarden wheat beers, made with coriander and orange curacao, and De Verboden Vrucht (The Forbidden Fruit), a chocolatey, malty nectar.

"The quality of them is superb, as is the taste. It's the perfect antidote to thin, weak lager," said manager Duncan Rochfort.

Jonathan Meades, the novelist and journalist, whose BBC documentary Belgium has just been awarded a prize at the Paris International Art Film Festival, finds the Belgians themselves the perfect antidote to the British.

"They aren't prurient, or self-censorious. They enjoy eating and drinking, and sex. And life, even though they have a fantastic taste for morbidity. If you want to understand them, remember that Magritte didn't produce surreal work - that's how the Belgians really do see the world."