February 28, 2013 by Kaitlin Noe
After having thoroughly immersed myself in the savory world of French cuisine for about a month, I decided it was time to make my first venture beyond the borders. So for Valentine’s weekend, I and my fellow W&M member CC, who is studying in Paris through a different program, packed our bags and headed off on our first hostel adventure: to Bruxelles (Brussels) and Bruges. We arrived with very little knowledge and even less experience with the Belgian culture. Luckily, we knew three things for certain: chocolate, frites, and beer. We were not disappointed. I present to you, a Valentine’s weekend food tour of Belgium:
1. First, Chocolate
The first thing we did was head to the Grand Place, which was itself a marvel of architecture and culture… but first we stopped in every single chocolate shop along the way. We were pleased to find that they all seemed very determined to offer us free samples of their truffles. We, of course, politely obliged. It’s only good manners. Valentine’s Day also proved the perfect excuse to treat ourselves, and the Belgians brought their A game.
2. The Second Course of Dessert…
Determined on our first day to do everything possible to avoid real food, we stumbled into a Turkish pastry shop. It turned out to be a wonderland of fantastical sugary inventions in a bright array of colors.
3. Our First Taste of Frites
After stumbling (our trip was mostly filled with meandering and stumbling) upon one of the typical Brussels frites stands, we decided it was about time we tried the legendary Belgian frites. We’d been in Brussels an hour already, hadn’t we?! They were everything we could’ve dreamed of.. crispy, fresh, hot out of the fryer, and coated in an incredibly savory sauce with a vaguely exotic name (we opted out of the traditional mayo accent). They single handedly destroyed every fast-food place ever for me.
4. A Brussels Brew
Our second official destination, after the Grand Place, was the Cantillon Brewery for our first sip of Belgian beer. Cantillon Brewery is one of the few places in Brussels that still practices spontaneous fermentation, which means that the beer made there can only be made in Brussels because it ferments by interacting with the bacteria in the air. As unappetizing as that process sounds, it somehow results in the most incredible harmony of flavors I have ever tasted in a beverage. (Yes, harmony. This stuff was music to our taste buds.) Our tour included a glass of the basic Lambic, and the Kreik, which is a cherry-flavored beer.
5. Le Premier Gaufre
The second day of our trip, we hitched a train to Bruges, a small medieval town not far from Brussels. It is everything Disneyland always dreamed of being. Plus it has waffles, as we discovered when we ducked into a small café called Salé et Sucré. Picking up a pair of coffees, we carefully selected the traditional Belgian waffled dusted with powdered sugar, and a more elaborate creation loaded down with fruit and whipped cream. They each lasted about three minutes after being placed on our table before we devoured them. Belgium had officially ruined Friendly’s and IHOP for me. Also, I recommend dropping in on the specialty food store next door, for a plethora of incredible post-gaufre samples: everything from olive oil dipping sauces to salsas. The perfect savory complement to the delicious sweetness of the gaufres.
6. More Belgian Beer?
This time we stopped in a small bar in Bruges to sample some of the flavored beers that Belgium is so well known for. The Pecheresse, a Peach beer, is at the same time the most girly and delicious thing I have ever tasted.
7. Something’s Fishy…
The morning of our third day we made our way to a stray parking garage off the main touristy streets of Brussels in pursuit of a city panorama. After taking a rickety elevator up to the top floor of the garage and marveling at the skyline it revealed, we meandered around the streets looking for a place to get out of the cold. Then we stumbled upon a place called Nordzee (so much meandering and stumbling…): a small corner-side joint, with no seating and no indoors. It consisted of an outdoor counter and several tall tables where locals were standing about chatting and eating. Curious, we wandered up to the counter and were greeted by a blond hair-blue eyed Belgian angel who served us shrimp croquettes from his heavenly fryers. I think the photo might speak for itself on this one.
8. Thé à la menthe
Searching for anywhere to get out of the blustery cold that descended upon Brussels the last day of our trip, we entered the first café with WiFi (a precious rarity in many parts of Europe, next to nonexistent in Paris). Looking around we noticed everyone seemed to be drinking the same leafy-looking beverage. We requested two from our waiter and were delivered two fresh, hot glasses of mint tea, made with real crushed mint leaves. It was the perfect sweet cure for our frozen tourist bones.
9. The Last Supper
For our last meal in Belgium, we decided to switch it up a bit. We went to a Swiss Fondue restaurant, figuring it wasn’t that far from Switzerland. Whether or not geography had anything to do with it, it was an incredibly satisfying meal. We split a pot of cheese fondue with bread, a glass of wine each, and a chocolate cake for dessert. The dinner was made all the better by the fatherly, protective waiters and owner who kicked three Belgian men out of the restaurant for “bothering us”, and the friendly American man who shared his exotic melting-cheese-scraping machine with us. (Apologies, that is the best I can do to explain the witchcraft he was using for his dinner.) The perfect cheesy end to a foody trek through Belgium.
Before I sign off, I couldn’t resist throwing in a few pictures of fairyland Bruges, my new favorite place on earth. They’re almost as mouth-watering as the food pics.
Nothing beats a Valentine’s weekend filled with chocolate by the pound, beer by the pint, and frites by the cone. Worth every weird glance I got for whipping out my camera to capture them.