Decadence. Previously an anomaly during my travels, the presence of rich, pleasurable items was certainty not lacking while in Belgium. The deadly trio of chocolate, beer, and food, much of which carrying a reputation as the world’s best, provided a different travel experience to what I have grown accustomed to. Easily not the healthiest way to live life, but very enjoyable for a brief aside and enjoyed in some degree of moderation. Not known for natural splendor or beauty, Belgium impressed providing a cozy, comfortable, luxurious culture that solidified stereotypes but that can satisfy even the most hardened soul.
A country with a dual identity, Belgium is split between its two principal populations, each of which carrying distinct influences. One of nine functional monarchies in the European Union, French-speaking Walloon and Dutch Flanders are divided just south of Brussels, an international center of commerce, politics, and culture. The two regions retain their own language, education, political affiliations, and distinct ways of life. The result is a mesh of peoples that on the surface did not seem to be intensely contentious, although a fair amount of nationalism does exist in Walloon. I did not have the experience of a local perspective regarding the matter, but it is evident that the two regions do resemble their mother countries, forming a “Belgian” identity that is extremely varied and far from streamlined.
I met up with an old friend from Boulder currently studying in Salamanca, Max Spiro, and we stayed with a few of his fraternity brothers from the University of Denver in Brussels for the semester. The hospitality was extraordinary, and I cannot thank the Beta men enough for the wonderful time they provided. Our trip was split into two days, one spent in Brussels and another in Bruges, a city to the north with a reputation for resembling Venice.
Brussels, the home of the European Union, is a luxurious mix of old, royal structures, modern commercial and political centers and institutions, and high-end industries of consumption. We hit the major sites fairly easily before touring the Magritte Museum, a fantastic collection of the eccentric artist’s pensive work. The commentaries and symbolism of the paintings were extremely thought provoking, and I really enjoyed the Surrealist experience.
Bruges, in the Dutch speaking north, was a gorgeous, popular small city filled with tourists and visitors making a weekend trip to see the canals and many Christmas markets present all over. It felt very Scandinavian in nature, with small, old, cozy buildings wrapped around a series of waterways. Holiday spirit was overwhelming a week shy of December, and it was nice to take a day to wander in and out of shops and stalls sampling local products and browsing crafts and souvenirs of all kinds.
The average Belgian consumes 15 lbs of chocolate a year and in Brussels alone there are over 300 independent shops. The sinful substance, along with diamonds a principal remnant from colonial conquests in Central Africa, is present in a staggering amount of shapes, tastes, and compositions, all displaying incredible taste and craftsmanship. Every single chocolatier retains a unique style and offers original products, and the sheer quantity and variety available was impressive. I could have easily spent the whole weekend (and tried to as often as possible) weaving in and out of every single shop present, if not to just see every different kind available (and not to mention the possibility of free samples). Belgians invented the praline, a cover of hard chocolate that surrounds mousse and hazelnuts inside, but that was just the beginning. There was an extraordinary amount of different styles and tastes, with everything from white to very, very dark (my favorite) and containing nuts, fruit, spices, and sugars of all kinds. Max and I sampled a variety of different dark kinds, all over 70% cocoa, from plain interiors to vanilla and raspberry nougat and probably my favorite, the original dark mousse praline with hazelnuts from the royal chocolatier Mary. True Belgian chocolate is famous for containing no artificial ingredients, and especially the dark stuff I stuck to was very filling and easily the best I’ve ever had. I ate probably a month’s worth of sugar in about two days, but few regrets and complaints remain from the experience.
Now a legal drinker (in the States), I must comment on beer, an integral part of Belgian culture that was on par with the chocolate. There are infinite amounts of selections available, and while not an animal still hesitant to test my limits physically, I tried my best to try the principal types. Every beer I had was much stronger and more complexly flavored than anything I’ve had in the States, and while certainly not a connoisseur by any means, they were without a doubt the best I’ve ever had. In a huge, packed bar called Delirium that holds the Guinness world record with 2,004 selections available, I started with a framboise raspberry that did not taste like beer and felt more as a dessert than a drink at a bar. I finished my first night with hands down the best drink I’ve ever had, a Trappist abbey beer named St. Benedictus crafted by monks who devote their lives to the craft. It had an infinite amount of flavors in every mouthful, and blew my mind. The Belgian beer experience does not resemble the out of control American college culture, and it was awesome to drink slowly and savor the immense tastes present. My final beer was a lambic geuze, only made in Belgium not by adding yeast during the fermenting process, but instead drawing on the natural bacterium present in the air. The result is a tart sensation similar to a Granny Smith apple, and while different it was really good. The house version at A la Mort Subite (in the way of sudden death), an old school French institution, was great. Belgians take their beer seriously, and along with the chocolate the selection and taste were overwhelmingly phenomenal.
Belgian cuisine is a mix of French, Dutch, and Germanic elements that was rich, hearty, and very locally sourced. Local dishes included mussels with frites (French fries), turkey cooked with raspberry gravy, sea snails in a tomato broth, and sausages and bratwurst of all kinds.
The fast food is carb-heavy but great, centering around waffles and frites, available everywhere. There are two types of waffles, the rarer and plainer Brussels and the Liege, which has caramelized sugar cooked into the batter. After a rough morning (my tolerance is very low following the physical toll my body endured) I had a plain Liege waffle from a stand in Bruges. Not tourist style, which comes with all forms of chocolate sauce, whipped cream, powdered sugar, and fruit (who said being a tourist was bad) the classic Belgian waffle was absolutely incredible. It had a piping hot appley core bursting out of the fresh cooked dough right before our eyes, and was again (three for three) the best I’ve ever had, bar none. The omnipresent frites are available with all kinds of mayo and ketchup combinations, and although I didn’t get a classic cone, the ones that came with the mussels were quite good, if unspectacular. I also had my second Bourdain moment of my European travels, sampling the “Brussels meat” selection at La Mort Subite, a very French dish in a very French place. The French on the menu translated to “pressed head,” and after inquiring to the snarky yet responsive waiter we went in on a plate of pig’s cheek covered in Dijon mustard. It was authentic to say the least, and provided an original and fairly questionable experience.
One cannot truly gain a full grasp of world tastes and foods without a sense of adventure, and I am trying to seize every opportunity possible to expand my knowledge with portions of traditional, local foods. It was definitely a weekend of treats of all kinds consumption-wise.
My time in Belgium, with little sun and sleep and ample calories and delicacies, was immensely enjoyable. I cannot thank my hosts enough, and head back to Granada on the eve of Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and most importantly, the impeding arrival of the tornado sure to follow my dear family as they descend upon southern Iberia.
Until next time,