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.

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