Food notes from Brussels

Eurostar

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.

Cheese

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.

Champigros

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.

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