November 22, 2011

Discovering Belgium

If you read my last post, then you know this one is some sort of continuation, or better put, the first of many more to come on the subjects of my travel and culinary adventures at home and around the world.

I thought why not start with my latest adventure while still fresh in my mind. A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit Belgium for the first time. Few things in life get me so excited as the prospect of visiting a new country. Combine that with some culinary firsts and I'm quite literally in heaven. Although I must admit Belgium wasn't in my top 10 list of countries to visit in the near future. Not that I had anything against Belgium per se, but because there were probably 10 other countries I would have been more inclined to visit before. No offense intended to my dear Belgian friends. In retrospect, I knew very little about the country and its people. Had I known what I know now, I would have surely made more of an effort to visit sooner, especially as it is a very short flight away.

My trip to Belgium was centered around a potential business project but allowed plenty of time for leisure. As a matter of fact, my host was going to make sure I saw as much as possible during my short stay, so to ensure we made good use of my time there, the itinerary was more or less organized beforehand and sounded very promising. Like any good host, he was happy and more than willing to share with me what his country has to offer, especially as far as gastronomy, which I must admit I was extremely skeptical about. Even with its famously delicious chocolate and waffles, I would have never thought of Belgium as a top culinary destination in Europe. The thought doesn't seem so far fetched now considering Belgium is heavily influenced by French culture, which would have invariably rubbed off on its cuisine, and like it or not, French cuisine is one of the best in the world. Nevertheless, I was excited, relatively open-minded and looking forward to this new experience.

After a couple of unfortunate mishaps at the Barcelona airport, my flight finally arrived at Brussels airport a little over two hours after the scheduled time of arrival. We drove straight to Bruges, where we had a table booked at the 2-star Michelin restaurant of chef Gert De Mangeleer called Hertog Jan, which between the date of eating and the date of writing this article actually received a third star, the highest number of stars the guide can bestow on a restaurant. Some kick-off huh? If that's not considered a good start, I'm not sure what would be. Filled with anticipation, the one hour it took to get from Brussels to Bruges flew by, and the two hours it would take later that night to go from Bruges back to Mol, which is where I was staying, would be well worth it.

No matter what people say, the first (physical) impression counts, and this restaurant certainly passed, or more like aced the test. Just to begin setting the mood, imagine a charming, little old house out in the middle of nowhere, which apparently was originally built as a small inn, providing food and accommodation for travelers between the cities of Bruges and Zevenkerken. The first wow moment I remember was looking straight into the kitchen through big glass windows. I have a soft spot for those restaurants that offer a glimpse into the reality of a working kitchen, which they usually do through a glass window that separates it from the dining area. But this particular restaurant not only offered kitchen view from inside but also from outside the building. From at least 3 angles that I could see, inside and outside, if not a complete 360°. I forgot to go check around the back.

As soon as we walked in, we were greeted at the door by the charming hostess with a big bright smile who escorted us through the main dining area and to a more private table in a secluded corner. The inside of the restaurant had a very zen-like, elegant and minimalistic decor yet it felt amazingly warm and cozy. Probably a lot to do with the lighting as well, which in my opinion, was just right. The wooden floor was a dark shade of brown and done in a very interesting antique style that complimented perfectly the warm tones of beige on the walls and ceiling, and the crispy white linen on the tables, while offering a slight contrast to the stylish, more modern-looking brown leather chairs.

As soon as we sat down, they brought us water. But obviously not just any regular water because that would have been too boring and not 2-star worthy. This water had been purified using these special imported Japanese stones, which we could still see at the bottom of the water pitcher. Also on the table, a freshly baked loaf of bread, creamy homemade butter, delicious olive oil imported from the Motherland (Spain), maldon salt, and freshly ground pepper.

Funny how well I remember everything up to this point but once the procession began, producing one amazing dish after the next, my senses were overwhelmed in such a way that it would be difficult to remember specifics, not that I would even want to. I do remember the odd flavor, smell, texture, presentation and combination of ingredients, all perfectly arranged and harmonized like a Beethoven symphony, but most importantly, I remember how I felt during the meal. The great chefs like Ferran Adria understand that good food is all about evoking emotion and stimulating the senses. Let us not underestimate the importance of a careful selection of wines to compliment each dish perfectly, which the sommelier-manager-partner, Joachim Boudens, did beautifully.

As any true foodie would, I obviously took notes, pictures, and even asked for a copy of the menu and the wine list at the end of the meal. I could try to reconstruct it all for you but I would probably not be able to do the food, and therefore the restaurant, any justice. By the way, this was one of the longest meals of my life. We were at the restaurant for a little over four and a half hours and by the third dessert I could not bare to look at any more food. Not surprisingly, I still managed to eat the sweets they brought with our teas.

I had been particularly eager to try the cuisine at this restaurant after the waiter explained most of the products were sourced locally and in fact, most of the produce used was grown organically in their own vegetable garden out back. I'm a sucker for these things because I love eating organic fresh foods, like to know where my food comes from, and often favor sustainable, local and fair-trade. I'm one of those people who strongly belief that good-quality ingredients are the base for making amazing dishes. I was surprised to hear from my friend that a lot of restaurants in Belgium have their own vegetable gardens and that most people also grow fruits and vegetables in their home gardens. Belgium earned quite a few points for that in my book.

For some reason, I was inspired to dig deeper and find statistics about Michelin stars in Belgium. What can I say. Turns out Belgium is among the European countries with the most Michelin stars per capita. There are 133 restaurants in the Michelin Benelux 2012 Bib Gourmand List (Benelux is Belgium, The Netherlands and Luxemburg), out of which 22 were awarded their first star this year. Consider that Belgium is a tiny country with a total area of 30,528 km2 (about 20 km2 less than Dominican Republic!) and an estimated population of 11 million. That's a whole lot of good food per capita! According to an article on, Belgium has two cities in the list of top 20 most Michelin-stared cities in the world, which are Bruges and Namur. This is a great accomplishment considering that most Michelin stars are awarded in France and Japan. In this same list, France has the most cities with 6 in total and Japan is second with 4. To put it in perspective, Belgium has just as many cities in this top 20 as Spain and Italy, the US has only one (San Francisco), and the UK surprisingly has none. I can go on forever so let me stop myself now.

Of course, I didn't just eat in Michelin star restaurants while in Belgium, nor would I have wanted to. None of the other restaurants had much to envy their Michelin-stared cousins, in terms of quality of the food, menu composition, decor and service. In fact, the next night we ate at a restaurant called Helsen and at some point I complimented the waitress by saying if I was a Michelin star critic, they would surely get one star. For whatever it's worth. I was quite drunk by that point but I did mean it. She smiled, slightly bowed and thanked me.

On my last night there, we had the most amazing 6 or 8 course dinner (lost count at some point) cooked by a private chef. Again, one delicious dish after the other, superb wines and great company. What more can one ask for? The experience was even more special for me because the chef let me in the kitchen every time he was about to prepare a dish so that I could watch and potentially learn a few tricks. By now I'm sure you can imagine how much I'd enjoy something like that.

In general, I must say that I was astonished with the overall quality of food in Belgium. It could have been just luck, or my friend knew all the right spots, but basically every restaurant we walked into, even the sandwich shop on saturday for lunch, was of excellent quality.

Besides eating, it was nice to do a little sightseeing in the three major cities I visited: Brussels, Bruges and Antwerp. Just walking, enjoying the stunning and oh so charming architecture, and getting a feel for what it would be like to live there. Talking about architecture, apparently Brussels was at the forefront of the European Art Nouveau movement (referred to as Modernism in Catalonia) back when it all started in the early 1890s.

In the end, I would give my trip to Belgium two thumbs up. Wish I had two pairs of hands so I could give it four thumbs up! Sorry I just had to. Charlie Murphy skit with Rick James on the Dave Chappelle Show :) Definitely don't take my word for it and as I recommended in my last post, go and experience all this for yourself. I learned many wonderful things during my short stay there about the country and its people, the architecture and culture, political situation and of course, its gastronomy. But most importantly, this brief introduction on Belgium has inspired me to want to learn more about it so I'll definitely be going back. Besides, I still have to get to the bottom of the "french" fries conundrum, which according to local legend and just about anyone you ask there, were invented in Belgium, not France.


November 9, 2011

My Intense Love Affair

Those who know me well can tell you that two of the things I enjoy doing most in life are traveling and eating. To say I love doing these things would be a massive understatement. I'd call it an obsession or refer to it as an intense love affair, bordering on dysfunctional.

For starters, there is no country in the world that I would not like to visit at least once. Not one. I've never understood why others find this so difficult to believe. I might be inclined to visit some countries before others and some might do very little to tickle my fancy, but I'd still like to go there someday. I truly believe every country is worthy of being seen and deserves a fair chance.

While some may be content with learning about other countries and cultures through books, movies, documentaries, email forwards with power point slides, or stories from people who have been there, I'd prefer to experience things for myself. For better or for worse. No doubt a talented writer through careful selection and arrangement of words has the ability to create such vivid descriptions that transport a reader so they feel like they are practically there. The same is possible with many other art forms, like film and photography. But in the end, one is still living the experience through someone else's perception, which could never be as fulfilling as experiencing for one self and being able to form our own judgment and opinions. Is this not what life should be all about?

I'm often asked how come I'm not married or have children yet. This is one of the most annoying questions a person could ever ask me and I always consider answering something along the lines of "THAT is none of your damn business". Lucky for those who ask, most of the time I'm in a good mood and able to hold my tongue. Most of my friends from childhood, high school and university are either married and/or have started families; maybe even have 2 or 3 kids by now. Some are happy and others not so happy, although the last will hardly ever admit it. Perhaps they don't even realize they are unhappy because they just don't know any better. Most are relatively content with where they are and the choices they have made, but some undoubtedly have regrets. Well, I too have made my own choices. A conscious choice to take my sweet time. Instead of working to support a family, I work to save up so that I can travel the world. That makes me happy for now, and I'm willing to take my chances and live with the consequences. And just to make it clear, I've had no shortage of marriage proposals over the years so that must mean there is nothing wrong with me.

Then there is food and anything that has to do with it, which always manages to put a smile on my face. Whether I'm growing it, looking at it, buying it, cooking it, eating it, writing or talking about it, learning about it, or advocating it as in the case of organic and non-GMO products. Food is one of my little pleasures in life and my stomach is unequivocally one of the ways to my heart. Many of my most memorable experiences usually include sharing food or some sort of culinary adventure with friends, family and significant others. This saturday coming up, me and one of my dear girlfriends, signed up for a 2-hour Indian cooking class. And coincidentally, while in India about two years ago, I did a 2-day class with my partner at the time, who shared this interest for food and cooking. An amazing experience that will live with me for a long time.

Back when I had a nice big kitchen, one of my favorite things to do on a Saturday was to head down to La Boquería, a fresh food market located in the very heart of Barcelona's Old Town and considered one the best in Europe, where I would happily lose myself for hours; walking up and down the aisles, letting my eyes feast upon the myriad of colors and shapes in front and all around me, taking in all the different wonderful and not so wonderful smells, sounds, and most importantly touching anything I could get my little hands on, whether I was allowed to or not; pulling my old-lady trolley bag through the bustling crowds and filling it with all sorts of local and exotic goodies with which I would later happily experiment in my kitchen. But no day in La Boquería would be complete without a delicious sit-down lunch in one of the many unpretentious tapas bars or restaurants, where I was always sure to find simple yet well-executed dishes made with the freshest, best-quality ingredients available. The way it should be.

Although don't get me wrong, I love ostentatious fine dining just as well. A 6-course tasting menu at a 1 or 2 michelin star restaurant would not easily fail to provide an unforgettable dining experience. Nothing like a bit of molecular cuisine to shake up the taste buds and delight the senses, as long as the chef doesn't get too carried away. In that respect, I'm lucky to live in Spain, known for its unparalleled gastronomy and innovative cuisine. Home to some of the best chefs in the world, including Catalan-born Ferran Adrià, considered number one for many years, and who coincidentally opened his newest tapas bar (Tickets) walking distance from my house. It's practically impossible to get a table but rest assured as soon as I am able to go, I'll let you know how it goes.

But my love is boundless and covers the entire food spectrum. Some of the tastiest dishes I've had, the FDA (or equivalent in other countries) would certainly not approve of. Sprinkled with a little dirt, marinated with sweat, infused in car smoke, or with a portion of flies on the side. It's all good when it comes to street food. Sampling local cuisine as locals eat is one of the most interesting ways to really get in there and fully experience another culture. I would go as far as saying that it's a must, although you need to make sure you choose well and take the minimum necessary precautions. If you come from a developing country like me, chances are you have developed some immunity to such delicacies, but even then every country has its own elaborate concoctions of germs and bacteria, so one must be very careful in order not to end up in the toilet or in the emergency room for half the trip.

Some friends have been asking how come I hadn't written about food and some of the places I've visited yet. Guess I just haven't gotten around to writing about all the wonderful things I'd like to write about. This is mostly due to lack of time, not lack of want or will. But now that the subjects of my intense love affair have been properly introduced, expect to hear more, both often and plenty.

When I started writing this, my original intention was to share some thoughts with you about my most recent adventure. One that quite unexpectedly turned out to be a superb culinary experience as well. The idea was to start by giving you a short introduction on how I feel about traveling and food in general, but as you can see, a few paragraphs easily turned into an entire article. And if I don't stop now, it could just as easily turn into a book.


November 6, 2011

Proud Momma

I've always wondered whether when I have kids, if I ever get around to it, I might turn into one of "those" mothers who are constantly shoving baby pictures down everyone's throat. We all know the type because they seem to be everywhere nowadays. Regularly updating their Facebook page with images of the latest cutest thing their baby did since they last uploaded a picture maybe half an hour before. One picture nearly identical to the other. Kindly sharing with us on Twitter every move the baby makes. Celebrating the first and thereafter every kick, bite, smile, wink, cry, gurgle, grab, laugh, shit, word, step, tooth, sneeze, meal and noise. All either the funniest or the cutest thing you have supposedly ever seen. Now we get to start seeing pictures when the fetus is still growing inside its mother's womb. Ain't that something? So soon we can begin debating on whether the baby has mummy's lips or uncle Charlie's eyes. Naturally the father will always say the "good-sized package", which could not be more obvious to the naked eye, is all thanks to him.

I can already feel every mother out there who is reading this thinking: "Oh just wait until you have some of your own!". Yup, I'm sure I'll probably become one of those too. As a matter of fact, I already understand what it's like to feel so passionate about something you have an unstoppable urge to share it with others. Whether it's a philosophical reflection, the latest book I read, new evidence suggesting the importance of vitamin D or the dangers of genetically modified (GM) foods, my new favorite Asian restaurant, or the latest campaign from I'm almost always, passionately and energetically, trying to shove something down someone's throat. At least I admit it.

On a totally unrelated side note, I'm proud to announce that today my blog is one month old.

Ok fine, I suppose you could call me a proud momma. I want to shout it out loud and share my joy with the rest of the world. Cheesy as it may sound. Or at least with those of you who are actually reading this anyway. So I'm going to tell you all about my baby even if you don't really want to hear it. Thought it would be fun to share with you some stats from the first month in case you might be curious about its progress.

I created the blog and posted my first entry exactly a month ago on October 6th and since then it's had 882 pageviews, out of which 777 were in the last 3 weeks of October and 105 in what has passed of November. We need to subtract about 30 from that total number because those would have been me before I figured out how to stop tracking my own pageviews.

The bulk of my readers are from Spain, United States and Dominican Republic but I also have some fans in Belgium, United Kingdom, Germany, Canada, Mexico, Switzerland, Haiti, Anguila, France, Argentina, Austria, Ireland, and apparently Russia, Netherlands, Japan and Hong Kong as well. Surprised? Yeah, me too! I'm particularly intrigued by Russia because I don't think I know anyone living there and this was before I started linking to posts on Facebook. So if you're still out there, I'd love to hear more from you.

A small group of very special people have actually gone the extra mile to show me that they enjoy reading my blog by signing up to follow in one way or another and I would really like to thank them all for their support. I almost sound like I'm giving a speech at an award ceremony. There are 13 of you following with Google Friend Connect, 7 males and 6 females. I am so relieved that this number is balanced. It's not my looks. Then there are 2 people who are subscribed via RSS and another 12 who are subscribed to email updates. I'd say not bad at all for the first month. By the way, if you would like to subscribe to this blog and are not sure how to do this, check out my earlier post on "Ways to Follow this Blog".

Now let's get down to the most important aspect of the blog which would be the writing itself. So far, I've written 9 posts, which would make this one number 10. Arguably number 9 if you consider how short the first test entry was. The topics have varied widely from nutrition and historical events to survivalism and current world politics. As I promised, whatever is going through my mind on any given day. At the moment, I'm posting a new article on average every 3 or 4 days but would like to bring that down to every other day and eventually maybe even post daily.

Here are the posts and some stats in order of popularity:

        When Shit Hits The Fan
        Oct 24, 2011 · 4 comments · 94 Pageviews

        Not All Fats Are Created Equal
        Oct 18, 2011 · 2 comments · 82 Pageviews

        The New Libyan Democracy
        Oct 27, 2011 · 6 comments · 49 Pageviews

        The Meaning of Thawra
        Oct 9, 2011 · 2 comments · 41 Pageviews

        Why Start a Blog?
        Oct 6, 2011 · 6 comments · 39 Pageviews

        October 12th: A Time for Celebration or Mourning?
        Oct 15, 2011 · 4 comments · 34 Pageviews

        Great Writers: Oscar Wilde
        Oct 12, 2011 · 2 comments · 25 Pageviews

        Ways to Follow this Blog
        Oct 20, 2011 · 14 Pageviews

        Testing 123
        Oct 6, 2011 · 9 Pageviews

The total number of comments from various people throughout the different articles is 14. This number does not include my replies.

As I mentioned in my first real post, I started this blog so that I can experiment with different forms of writing and about all sorts of different topics. Writing is one of those things I've loved doing since early in life but for various reasons I stopped doing it for a while. And although I meant to start again on many occasions, I always managed to find a good excuse not to do so in the past 20 years. So the idea of a blog was one which I'd been considering for a couple of years but the actual decision to finally set it up came on one of those days when we tell ourselves "it's either now or never". This is one of the best decisions I've made in my life so far and it's been a tremendous experience. For you this might be just another blog out there but for me, its creation has set a chain of events in motion and it serves as a constant reminder that one month ago I made a decision to follow my dreams in order to see where they lead.