Brussels: 'If you decide to go on a diet, leave'
There's more to Belgian cuisine than waffles. Lena Corner takes a culinary tour of the capital as it hosts a 12-month food festival
Sunday 18 March 2012
It has been said that Belgian cuisine is the quality of the French, served in the generous portions of the Germans. While we know the Belgians are pretty good at making chocolate, beer and moules-frites, the country still doesn't have anything like the international gastronomic reputation of France. This year, Brussels is hoping to redress that by hosting an ambitious 12-month festival of food called Brusselicious (00 32 2513 8940; brusselicious.be) to shine a light on its culinary credentials.
The obsession with food was clear from the moment I stepped off the Eurostar. Intermittently the air was thickened with the sweet smell of warming waffles, while the city's rich culinary history came written on the cobbled laneways that wind around the centre – Spice Street, Butcher Street, Cheese Street. "Brussels is a place you eat well," my guide Didier Rochette told me. "If you decide to go on a diet, leave."
The obvious place to start any walk here is the magnificent central square, Grand'Place. Take the Rue au Beurre (Butter Street) on the north side and half way up on the left you'll find Dandoy biscuit shop (00 32 2511 0326; biscuiteriedandoy.be). Here you'll find macaroons, pain à la grecque and much-loved Belgian speculoos, the buttery biscuits made with ginger and cinnamon.
Continue past the Bourse, which features engravings by a young Rodin, and turn right on to Rue de Tabora where an unsavoury looking corridor opens up to the left. "These passages may look like they are heading to a brothel," said Didier, "but ignore them and you'll miss something." Corridors such as this were built to create streets behind streets in the compact city. At the end of this one was a cloak-and-dagger pub, La Bécasse (00 32 2511 0006; alabecasse.com), which looked like something from the Prohibition era. The house beer was Lambic, brewed in the city's Cantillon Brewery, which is deliciously sweet – a little like cider – and served in ceramic jugs big enough for 10 people to share.
Turning left up Rue Marché aux Poulets, we came across Corica (00 32 2511 8852; corica.be) which any Belgian will tell you is the place to come in Brussels for coffee. Corica claims to have beans from every coffee-producing country in the world and the stack of coffee sacks labelled with the flags, suggested they're probably right.
We crossed the busy Boulevard Anspach and up Rue Ste-Catherine. Here, Charli (00 32 2513 6332; charliboulangerie.com) is a recently opened bakery dedicated to the concept of delivering the best ingredients in the greenest way possible. Everything here is produced from a modern glass kitchen which sits in the centre of the store, so things go from oven to plate in a matter of seconds. As you leave Charli check out the Champigros next door (00 32 2511 7498; champigros.be). I counted 15 different type of mushroom in the window.
This is also the place to find good seafood. Noordzee (00 32 2513 1192; vishandelnoordzee.be), on the corner of Place Ste-Catherine, is usually filled with Belgians standing at the counter feasting on caracoles – sea snails boiled in a spicy sauce. On the other side of the square is Brasserie Jaloa (00 32 2512 1831; jaloa.com, closed Sunday and Monday), one of the best seafood restaurants in the city.
Walk behind the church, and double back over Anspach, keeping the Opera House to your left. Turn right into Rue des Fripiers, left on to Rue Grétry and up to Rue des Bouchers. Here, the narrow cobbled streets are known as the "belly of Brussels" and the maître d's stand around hassling you to come inside. The only place worth stopping at is Fromagerie Langhendries (00 32 2512 2218; cheese-langhendries.be) on Rue de la Fourche. Here, great big stinking rounds sit on wooden shelves across the back of the shop, with 300 different cheeses to choose from.
Carry on up Rue de Bouchers, cutting through Galeries Saint-Hubert and a little way up you will come to Délices et Caprices (00 32 2512 1451; the-belgian-beer-tasting-shop.be; open Mon-Thurs), one of the city's favourite beer shops. It's run by Pierre Zuber, who has around 200 beers, which he lets you taste before you buy.
Cross Place d'Espagne, go right, past the museums of Art Hill, until you come to Rue Haute (High Street), one of the oldest streets in the city. Here at the bottom is Place de la Chapelle, where we stopped to sample another Belgian delicacy – chips. There used to be a fritkot (chip kiosk) on every street corner, but fewer remain today. In November, as part of Brusselicious, there will be a competition to discover the best in the city. The one at Place de la Chapelle is a favourite of Belgian tennis hero Justine Henin-Hardenne.
Feeling happily sated we crossed Boulevard de L'Empereur and Place de Dinant-plein and wound our way through the backstreets to the Manneken Pis, the little bronze boy urinating into a fountain. It's a bit of a tourist trap, but Le Poechenellekelder (00 32 2511 9262) just to the left is a cosy bar with a serious beer menu. There was just time to sup a strong trappist ale before heading up L'Etuve, past the enormous Tintin mural, and back to the Grand'Place where we started.
Patrick Roger, one of France's best-known chocolatiers (00 32 2514 7046: patrickroger.com), recently joined the big names in Belgian chocolate clustered around Place du Grand Sablon. The store is worth checking out for the life-size chocolate gorilla in the window alone.
Laurent Gerbaud is another newcomer (00 32 2511 1602; chocolatsgerbaud.be). He is one of just two chocolatiers (the other being Pierre Marcolini, 00 32 2514 1206, marcolini.be) who doesn't buy his chocolate from major Belgian producer Callebaut, so theirs both taste genuinely different. Try the gare aux noisette – a chocolate ball that explodes in your mouth leaving behind secondary notes of salty nuts.
Lena Corner travelled with Railbookers (020-3327 2439; railbookers.com) which offers two-night packages to Brussels from £229 per person, including B&B at the Royal Windsor Hotel, and return train travel from London St Pancras.
Brusselicious (00 32 2513 8940; brusselicious.be) runs until the end of the year. A city tram has been given a makeover as a dining car, serving menus from the city's star chefs as it trundles through the city. The two-hour circuit costs €75 (£62) per person.
Guided tours can be booked through the tourist office (020-7307 7738; visitbrussels.be)
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