Food notes from Brussels


Departing from the new terminal of St. Pancras is a real thrill, particularly as only a few years ago this station was a shadow of its former self, serving up a few sad connections to the East Midlands under its still-fabulous glass roof. It has been lovingly restored and has all the trappings of a modern international transport hub. Most notable you can now buy decent cheese, ham and Monmouth coffee at the “Sourced Market”. We picked up some Gubbeen (an Irish cheese similar to Pont L’eveque), Cudworthy (a tangy hard cheese) and Brillat-Savarin. And a bottle of champagne. And some parma ham. It seems rather decadent to reverse import the cheese and wine in this way, but leisure train travel should be a bit naughty.

Le Pré Salé

White-tiled walls and bright lights, a remnant of this fish shop’s history. Le Pré Salé is full but for one empty table, clearly designated for an inept Englishman to blunder in for a proper feed. Mussels are the order of the day – these being designated Zeeland Golden varieties. Being in season this means they are big and plump and very good eating. Now that mussels are available in the supermarket it is easy to forget there is good and bad, as well as the right time to eat them.

Here you can have mariniere, a la creme which is poshed-up mariniere, a la ail and even a la ail et creme, which seems unnecessarily embellished. The chips are predictably great. Being different I went for the anguilles avec sauce vert. The eel was tasty but bony, with an intently bland parsley sauce. This had strong echos to the liquor served with eel pies in East London. Is there a connection between classic Flemish cuisine and our shared history of trading between ports like Ghent and London? It always struck me that the eel pie and liquor is an anomaly in England – did I inadvertently hit on its ancestry? Either way, order the mussels if you go.


There is a good fromagerie at Pl. Ste. Katherine. As always you are overwhelmed by the choice on offer. I bought a crottin, a soft orange number and a St Felicien, happily nestled in a ceramic bowl. I think perhaps cheese shops should have a little ante-room to let you relax a bit before you start choosing. Perhaps you should have periodic heart rate checks. The selection as always was overwhelming – and unfortunately I noticed too late that the seasonal cheese is on the top of the counter, the first of the Vacherin Mont D’or and Tomo – a semi-hard cheese with a vine coating, soaked in Marc – an eau de vie.

I managed to rectify my mistake later in another cheese shop, slightly less distinguished, around the corner from the Grand Place. In the shop a man from Eastern Europe was buying expensive, whole cheeses indiscriminately. The woman served him reluctantly. Perhaps she felt that cheese, produced with such artistry, shouldn’t be eaten mindlessly by those without taste. Or perhaps that was just what I thought.

I managed to rectify my mistake and bought the Tomo. I also managed to hold back buying another piece of Brillat-Savarin, which really has to be one of the most luxurious cheeses in the world.


This must be the best mushroom shop in Belgium. I’ve never seen such a collection of mushrooms, I recognised girolles and trompettes du mort, and ceps. But there are countless others, all in peak condition. Prices top out at 45 euros per kilogram for girolles and cepes. In the back they have a rather exciting selection of saucisson sec – including a ball-shaped one. I asked what was recommended and was pointed at one which had girolles in, which I duly plumped for.

Place du Grand Sablon

The classic place for the watching of what we call “browny-beige” people, dressed to the nines, usually packing a small dog and usually a big attitude. Wittamer is the classic chocolate shop, notable really for the prices; 14 euros for a croque-monsieur. But the gauffre with chocolate and chantilly cream was pretty good, and the street theatre makes the whole thing value for money. There’s a Mercedes “museum” round the corner where you can get up close and personal to the new gull-wing AMG.

Bij den boer (website)

Starting a meal with a pot of crevettes grise is a fine declaration of intent for a restaurant. No accompaniment is required, except perhaps some baguette and some decent butter, wrapped in grease-proof paper. Soupe de poissons needs several things to elevate it; rouille containing a serious whack of garlic and chilli, a subtle hint of saffron (not too much) and obviously it should be from a decent stock base. This was. 6 oysters. Monkfish with more shrimps, mash, a gruyere sauce and a scallop. A superfluous dessert. A bottle of the vin de moins – this being September – a Macon Pouilly.

Gare du midi market

In common with France, Brussels tends to shut down a bit on Sundays. Luckily, the Gare du Midi market is a Sunday-only event and is at the same station as the Eurostar. The market is huge and busy. The emphasis is on cheap rather than gourmet, but being a French market there’s still plenty to get excited about. There’s the obvious North African influence here, meaning huge piles of mint, tea-making paraphernalia, merguez sausage, halal meat, spices and tagines. I also spotted huge aubergines, girolles, globe artichoke, and that great floppy green and purple lettuce that the French love slathered in vinaigrette .. If it wasn’t for the fact our luggage already weighed a ton I would have really gone to town. I did treat myself to 200g of girolles though, plus some sweet and fleshy figs.

Next time ..

A visit to Jack O’Shea – the original branch of this amazing butcher. A trip to the Atomium in Heysel. Lebonese or Moroccan food in St. Gilles.

Acer Aspire Timeline 1810TZ: First Impressions Review

I’ve always admired the idea of a netbook, but not enough to actually buy one – I suspected their lack of power in comparison to a standard notebook would be a major limitation.

But faced with an impending trip (to Korea and Japan), and having lugged my Thinkpad T60 on past trips I wanted something much lighter. However, I need enough oomph to do real work without it bogging down, as well as handling large photo editing, watching HD video. The netbooks I’d played with certainly didn’t meet these requirements.

Could the Acer Aspire Timeline 1810TZ be the answer? It gets a cracking write-up at TrustedReviews and looked as though it might be up to the task. It weighs 1.3kg and has a 11.6″ 1378 x 768 screen, a near full-size keyboard, 250GB HDD and 3GB RAM.

Most impressively, it boasts an 8 hour battery life, due to the inclusion of the CULV Intel SU4100 1.3Ghz dual-core processor.

First impressions are not great; coming from a Thinkpad background I find the keyboard rather unsatisfactory. Key travel is minimal, the arrow keys are way small, and I am having a major issue with the position of the right SHIFT key which is causing some cramp in my little finger. There’s a bit of squeak too.

But it is good enough to type at near full-speed, and with practice perhaps I won’t notice the layout so much.

I’m also not a big fan of the touchpad, I keep jogging the cursor when typing. In use it doesn’t feel hugely responsive.

Connectivity however is good; 3 USB ports, 1 HDMI, 1 VGA and an SD card reader is ample for my needs. The Ethernet port is 1 gigabit. Lack of Bluetooth is easily remedied with a £10 adapter. There is no CD/DVD drive as is standard with this form factor. But this is hardly an issue these days.

The screen is nice, pretty large and bright. It is quite reflective, as some reviews have noted. This doesn’t bother me because I like looking at my reflection.

The laptop should be ideal for watching DVDs on the plane, a decent viewing angle should be possible even on Ryanair, unlike the T60 which can barely open up to 90 degrees in the cheap seats.

8 hours battery is seriously good, and with a bit of care this can be turned into an all-day laptop. This is important because recharging is rather slow with the 30W adapter, taking 3-4 hours to fully charge.

Spec-wise this beats my 3 year old T60 in nearly every department (with the obvious exception of build quality) and only costs £429, so that’s definite progress. If the keyboard was better, I’d have reached laptop nirvana.

Abergavenny Food Festival

Abergavenny – along with Ludlow – is one of the biggest food festivals in the calendar, and happily very easily reached from our Birmingham base. Over a hundred stallholders colonise this small Welsh borders town, spreading themselves over 6 locations. There doesn’t seem to be a unifying theme to the stallholders, but there are plenty of local producers representing the Welsh harvest; cheese, lamb and mutton, shellfish, venison, beef, apples, etc.

But I have to say the festival has gotten so large now it may unfortunately be a victim of its own success. On Saturday when we went the crowds were excessive, making it hard to walk from location to location without pushing or being pushed. The covered market was periodically closed due to overcrowding. There was very little seating and so it felt a bit like hard work, unable to take a relaxed, grazing approach. I like to have the opportunity to chat more with stallholders but the queues made this difficult. If you do fancy going, I suggest the Friday or the Sunday might be a better bet.

A few highlights:

  • Trealy Farm Charcuterie – These guys make amazing charcuterie made in Monmouthshire. We treated ourselves to their own air-dried ham, semi-cured sausages and chorizo. These guys really know their stuff – the best charcuterie you will find outside of France or Spain – it is well worth seeking out, or ordering online.
  • Bellota – their imported tins of beech-smoked mackerel are revelatory, ideal served as a tapa.
  • The “Raclette” Stand – serving a melted raclette-style cheese called Ogle Shield over potatoes and gherkins
  • Cafe Spice Namaste – a London based restaurant serving up masala dhosa to the hungry crowd
  • Claws Shellfish – impeccably fresh dressed crabs served up by a man not dissimilar to Tony Soprano

There is also an event programme, we went to see Valentine Warner and Richard Bertinet do a cooking demo. They opted to do apple desserts. Valentine was a bit subdued but luckily Richard, once the crowd had tuned into his thick French accent managed to engage the crowd. I feel a bit sorry for the stooge who was taught unsuccessfully to knead dough the French way, but it was entertaining.

Meditations on Lancashire Hotpot

So, to a few thoughts on Lancashire Hotpot.

Certainly one of my favourite dishes, and now we’re into Autumn its one of the first cold-weather dishes to be re-introduced into the dinner rotation. By this time of year, British lamb is finally worth buying, and by winter it should have developed a decent personality (and thus flavour).

But even better than lamb for hotpot is mutton, and luckily Andy Step-Father not only had some in the freezer, but didn’t want to cook his signature curry. So seeing as I just only yesterday picked up one of Nigel Haworth’s hotpots, it didn’t take much encouragement to get in the kitchen.

So, to Hotpot. This classic one-pot dish can be made with as few as three ingredients: lamb, onions and potatoes. The hotpots come with Nigel Haworth’s Great British Menu recipe for hotpot. Scanning the ingredients I saw he didn’t mess with the ingredient list much – save for the rather decadent addition of a best end of lamb to finish the dish off.

But the recipe struck me as strange immediately as it seemed to violate several of what I considered to be standard practices when making hotpot.

This worried me; because there’s no more traditional Lancashire man than Nigel Haworth. What have I been missing out on by slavishly following the foppish Southern softy Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s recipe all these years? (Note: I love Hugh and his Meat Book is one of the all time classic books of all time).

So, let’s compare the differences.

1) Nigel doesn’t call for any stock or water to be added to the hotpot. Contrast this to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s recipe in his excellent Meat Book where he suggests 500ml of either lamb stock or water. This is immediately alarming – where does the sauce come from with no liquid? But it is worth noting that the half-litre of water in Hugh’s recipe results in a too watery sauce.

2) Nigel doesn’t put a layer of onions and potatoes in the bottom of the hotpot. This to me seems like an error – sorry Nigel, the soggy, fatty potatoes at the bottom are one of the highlights of this dish. With just a layer on potatoes on top, you’ll be fighting for the starch.

3) The meat is added without being browned in a frying pan first but with flour. I always think browning the meat is a good idea because those bits of caramelised lamb will add flavour to the final dish.

4) Accompaniments: Hugh reckons this needs no side-dishes, Nigel pulls out the stops with picked red cabbage and carrots and leeks. I have to say the red cabbage does work very well to cut through the fattiness of the hotpot.

5) Finally, and perhaps most crucially – there’s no Worcestershire sauce (or anchovy), meaning there’s nothing to give this dish a punch of umami and awaken the taste-buds. This is a real worry.

And yet, the hotpot at the Highwayman Inn and the Three Fishes is excellent.

So in the end I compromised; actually I didn’t even do that, I basically stuck to Hugh’s recipe, the one I know and love.

When I’m not cooking for other people I will try the Nigel recipe verbatim and see what happens.