OK, time to continue with my vacation tales – because this time, it’s food-related!
Last month, after visiting Croatia, we drove all the way to Belgium. I was born there, and most of my father’s family lives in that country. Laurent is also half-Belgian, on his mother’s side, and he still has relatives there as well. Before you ask: no, I did not begin dating Laurent because he is Belgian like me. If anything, I would have preferred to end up with someone from a completely different part of the world! Oh well, love works in mysterious ways. At least he’s half-Italian…
The roadtrip took two days. My parents often make this journey, and they usually stop in the same town: Höchstadt, near Nuremberg. They know a comfortable hotel there, and best of all, there’s a good Vietnamese restaurant right across the street, even though the town is quite small. The owner is a first-generation Vietnamese immigrant, like my mother. It’s quite unsettling (and a little surreal) to listen to two women, who don’t know each other that well, chatting away in Vietnamese in the middle of a tiny German town…
Incidentally, I impressed the owner with my tolerance for spicy food. After warning me about the sweet-and-sour soup, and seeing me scarf it down without a hitch, she gave me a nod of respect and asked me if I wanted her to make my main dish extra-hot. I guess I have a little bit of Vietnam in me after all… Although I have to admit, the meal brought tears to my eyes – in a good way.
We only stayed a week in Belgium, and spent most of it with family. Even though it’s always good to see everyone, I’m also often a little overwhelmed when we visit the homeland, because I am not used to having so many relatives so close by – after all, I’ve spent most of my life at least 6,000 km away from them! But as I’ve grown older, and my teen rebellion finally faded away, I’ve learnt to appreciate the fact that I have family at all, and coming home isn’t as stressful as it used to be.
The good part about living abroad is that you get to be a tourist in your own country – but at the same time, you aren’t as lost and clueless as you are when you are discovering a new region. We visited Bruges, which I always enjoy seeing again: the canals, the pretty cobbled streets, the typical “stair-shaped” roofs…
Canal in Bruges
We also briefly went to Ostend, my father’s hometown, on the coast. I always knew the North Sea was grey and bleak, but after gazing upon the Adriatic Sea mere days before, the contrast was stark. Still, I had some good summers on that beach, with my cousins, many years ago.
And, of course, we spent a few days in Brussels. Although many neighbourhoods in Brussels are quite dreary, the heart of the old town, with the Grand-Place, remains rather stunning. We even had a spot of sunshine, for pictures
We passed some familiar landmarks, such as this statue of Everard t’Serclaes, whose arm you have to stroke for good luck (though most people just rubbed the entire statue, to make sure they got enough luck).
And of course, we passed by the Manneken Pis (“little boy peeing”), that ever-famous, tiny little statue. There are many stories about the inspiration behind this quaint landmark. Until recently, I was only familiar with the version according to which he saved a city by peeing on the lit fuse of a bomb, but apparently, there are other explanations. This little guy is a cliché by now, but I hadn’t seen him in a while. These days, he’s so popular that the city has taken to dressing him up everyday. On that day, he was wearing the Royal Military School uniform.Manneken Pis
And right across from the Manneken was a larger-than-life reproduction, made entirely out of chocolate – courtesy of Leonidas chocolates!
I had a whole list of things I needed to eat before leaving. The first was crevettes grises, which translates as “grey shrimp,” but is apparently known as “sand shrimp,” “brown shrimp” or, more scientifically, “crangon crangon.” They are tiny little shrimp which are only found in the North Sea. And they are delicious. They have a strong, salty flavour that has almost nothing in common with the mild taste of regular shrimp. They can be eaten in a sandwich, or in a salad. A typical Belgian preparation is tomate-crevette, where a tomato is hollowed out, filled with shrimp and mayonnaise, and served on a bed of lettuce. For our first Belgian meal, we made a kind of deconstructed version of this dish (see below). But we had these shrimp many more times before leaving.
Also on my list were mussels. I have to say, Montreal does have some good places to eat mussels, so I don’t miss this dish quite as much as I miss the shrimp. Still, it’s a Belgian classic that I couldn’t pass up. There are infinite variations and recipes, with added cream, tomatoes, or exotic spices, but I personally tend to prefer the most basic version, à la marinière: just celery, onions, a lot of salt and pepper, and an optional touch of white wine. And, of course, a side of fries, which are nearly always perfect (and served with mayonnaise – ketchup is a sin in Belgium).
I had sole meunière, as well. It’s the easiest dish to prepare, really: just dredge your fish in flour and cook it in loads of butter, adding a squirt of lemon. But we don’t have that type of large sole around here: we have limande-sole, a.k.a. lemon sole, its smaller, much cheaper, much flakier cousin.
I also had a waffle, of course. Not from anywhere fancy, just off the street from a random stand. But it was fresh off the iron, nice and hot, and full of bits of caramelized sugar. I think I know why Belgians eat their waffles that way: it’s a real pick-me-up on a cold, rainy day.
And I had filet américain, which is like steak tartare, but automatically seasoned with a bit of mayo and some spices, which extra seasonings on the side. It was good (especially the French fries), but not necessarily better than what I make myself at home.
And finally, I just had to have a Dame Blanche. This dessert, whose name means “white lady” in French, is basically just a couple of scoops of vanilla ice cream, topped with hot chocolate fudge sauce and an optional side of whipped cream. Now, I have a confession to make: I am not a vanilla ice cream fan. Never have been. And I’m not even that crazy about whipped cream. But for some reason, the Dame Blanche will make me swoon every time. Something about the way the hot, thick fudge melts the vanilla ice cream just makes this dessert absolutely irresistible to me. I will choose it over profiteroles, tarte tatin, or mousse au chocolat any time!
Speaking of chocolate, I really wonder how all the chocolate stores manage to make a profit: there are so many of them! Of course, we brought home loads and loads of chocolate, especially Godiva and Corné Port Royal. Yes, I know, we have Godiva here in Montreal, but my mother keeps telling me it’s not the same: the Godiva here is manufactured in North America, and tastes much sweeter and less subtle. Mind you, I have to confess I have never bothered to put this claim to the test. I should get around to that. After all, who am I to spit on overly sweet chocolate?
I definitely miss Belgian food when I’m here in Montreal. The chocolate, the seafood, the crispy fries… And more accessible, everyday things, like the dairy section of the average supermarket: Belgium (like France, and presumably other nearby countries) simply has an incredible variety of yogurts and fromage blanc.
And there’s also the charcuterie, or cold cuts and other meat-based products. Here in Montreal, Laurent and I once spent hours going from store to store, looking for lardons, little pieces of cooked diced bacon for adding to salads and quiches. In Belgium, the first supermarket we walked into had at least 10 varieties of lardons. We stared for a full two minutes.
And then, of course, there’s the cheese…
Nevertheless. Montreal has its gastronomic perks, and I don’t take them for granted. We don’t have the same kinds of seafood as Europe, but we have our own – including really affordable salmon. And we have our own really tasty cheeses. And maple syrup! Not to mention unique game dishes, and a wide array of vegetables. Frankly, I can’t complain: I almost never feel constricted by a lack of ingredients around here. Provided I don’t ask for crevettes grises, of course…
So, that’s the wrap-up on our late-summer / early fall holiday. We’ll return with your regular recipes shortly.