This past weekend, Matty, Sean and I took a train from Paris to Brussels, Belgium. We had five goals for our weekend in Belgium, much like those who are on safaris in Africa: to drink Belgium beer and to eat moules, frites, chocolate and waffles, not necessarily in that order. We accomplished our goals quite nicely.
In short version, our weekend could be summed up as beer, beer, moules, frites, beer, beer, beer, waffles, beer, chocolate, chocolate, chocolate, beer, frites, and waffles. (That’s leaving out the absinthe and Grec in which Matt and Sean decided to partake after I went back to the hotel to go to bed after we had been drinking for 10 hours straight). Before we left, during my negotiations with Sean in the middle of Target about which over the counter medications that were necessities, we debated the finer points over whether Pepto Bismal was different than Immodium. In the end, only Immodium made the cut, but on the train ride back from Paris, I recalled the main difference between the two. Pepto Bismal lists “overindulgence in food and drink” as one of the conditions it treats. Sean kept asking me what was wrong on the train, and I moaned, Overindulgence in food and drink…Overindulgence in food and drink…
In the somewhat longer version, our weekend to Brussels was a lot of fun, but we all concluded that one weekend in the city was enough. (Although Matt repeatedly mentioned, usually at a café sampling various Belgium beers and lambics, each in their own uniquely shaped glass, This would never get old. I could do this all of the time!) When asked about his experience visiting Brussels before we left, our friend Brad, who opted not to go with us, only said, Brussels is…interesting. You’ll see.
If Paris is refined, uptight, and classy, Brussels is coarse, bawdy, and quirky. The language in Brussels is somewhat of a hodgepodge, with French spoken mostly, with some English, Flemish and Dutch thrown in. The French influence tricks one into thinking the city is like Paris, but you quickly learn that it is not. For one, the café culture is ubiquitous, but completely different than Paris. I saw no one sipping mineral water or espresso in Brussels. Instead, everyone was drinking some form of beer. People were seated around café tables, instead of lining up in the stadium style seating like they do in Paris. I didn’t realize how immaculate Paris’s streets and landscaping are until viewing the graffiti and litter present in Brussels. Many stores were closed in Brussels, and the empty streets felt like downtown Pittsburgh on a weekend. While Paris allegedly has a lot of immigrants, one rarely sees them, but some of the neighborhoods we walked through in Brussels felt like we were in the Middle East, with children climbing on a mock camel and women in traditional garb. The most obvious example of the differences between Brussels and Paris is Brussels’ main tourist attraction: the Manneken Pis, a statute of a little boy peeing. Manneken Pis also has companion statutes elsewhere in the city: one of a girl squatting and one of a dog lifting his leg. Nice.
Even if Brussels is a little on the raunchy side, raunchy can be kind of fun. For one thing, there’s the beer. We visited Delerium Cafe, a place Matt dubbed “The Disneyland of Beer.” The bar had rows of copper taps, with endless amounts of Belgium beer to try. After all, one grows weary of drinking wine all of the time in Paris.
As for Manneken Pis, his “Friends of Manneken Pis” take him very seriously, and we were lucky enough to witness the changing of his outfit, a regularly scheduled ceremonious event.
When we passed by the statute again later in the day, people in brightly colored costumes danced and sang, while the woman who changed his outfit earlier stood in the fountain, holding up shot glasses to the “pee” stream. The “pee” was now some sort of alcohol instead of water, which lucky recipients in the crowd received. Meanwhile, a man with a serious mustache pushed around a cart with a replica of the pissing boy leering down at the crowd. To clear the street of people, he lurched the cart forward, sending “pee” through the air towards unsuspecting bystanders.
Brussels wasn’t all raunch and debauchery. The Grand Place, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a site to behold with its Gothic architecture surrounding you on all sides. We had lunch consisting of fancy salads and pasta on a street filled with cute little cafes, interspersed with art galleries.
Brussels also has, of course, some of the world’s finest chocolatiers. The chocolatiers turn chocolate making into a fine art, like the creation of wine or cheese. I think it was the chocolates that blew our budget for the day, but tasting some of the world’s finest chocolates was worth it. Since I don’t discriminate in my chocolate (Sarris or Hershey, I won’t turn either down), I was curious to try the Belgium variety, most of which are handmade.
We visited what according to my research are the top three chocolatiers – Pierre Marcolini, Neuhaus, and Wittamer. I also visited the mass-produced Leonidas for good measure, where I got three filled chocolates for the price that I paid for one at Neuhaus.
In Wittamer, the woman behind the counter waived her hand towards bars of solid chocolate, saying, Here is the dark chocolate. She continued, wrinkling her nose, And here is the milk chocolate, for the Americans. I laughed to myself, and promptly purchased my favorite – the milk chocolate of course – along with some filled pieces of dark chocolate. I certainly would never turn down any dark chocolate offered to me, but none of the dark chocolate I’ve had in the United States could compare to the flavor and creaminess of the milk chocolate. Further taste testing revealed that I could change my milk chocolate eating ways pretty easily if I lived in Belgium, particularly if I directed my chocolate eating towards Pierre Marcolini.
We were told in Pierre Marcolini that Pierre himself hand selects all of the beans. The labels list the origin of the beans, specifying whether the chocolate was made from blended beans or from pure origin. While many of the other chocolatiers focused upon creating different types of filled chocolates, Marcolini mostly featured solid bars of chocolate, with no nuts, creams, or jellies to interfere with the tasting experience. Hands down, the three solid chocolate bars I got from Marcolini were leagues above any other chocolate I’ve had in my life, and better than the other chocolates I purchased that day.
Since you can take the girl out of America, but you can’t take America out of the girl, my favorite was Java Lait, a chocolate featuring beans solely from Indonesia that contained 50% cocoa, cane sugar, soy lecithin, and Tahitian vanilla pods. My second favorite was the limited edition dark chocolate I purchased, with beans from Oriente and Cuba, containing a minimum of 78% cocoa. Its ingredients are cocoa mass, sugar, cocoa butter, soy lecithin, and natural vanilla. Following closely behind was the Chocolat Au Lait, which contains 35% cocoa, “a lightly caramelized milk powder with a subtle taste of honey”, cane sugar, soy lecithin, and Tahitian vanilla pods. Note the complete absence of high fructose corn syrup, and other names you can never pronounce.
All of the chocolate was fantastic, but Pierre Marcolini was the clear winner (and naturally, the most expensive, at 80 grams of chocolate priced between approximately 9-13 US dollars). Behind Marcolini was Neuhaus, and Wittamer, the chocolatier with the snide comments about Americans’ chocolate palette, trailed behind. Leonidas, the mass produced chocolates, were definitely good as well, although I didn’t purchase enough to rank them with the others.
We also stumbled upon a lambic tasting tour that featured pairings of regional, natural cheeses. We planned to tour Cantillon which is the only brewery tour offered in Brussels. They have been brewing lambics there, in the same way, since 1900.
We paid for our tour, and were told we would get two free samples at the end. Walking through the brewery, we noticed people drinking and eating. As we stood there, trying to figure out what was going on, a guy behind one of the stations laughed, and said, Guess you are wondering why everyone has little glasses and you don’t, huh? Why, yes, that is exactly what we were wondering.
After paying some more money, we were allowed to join the tasting, which turned out to be one of the best parts of the weekend. Matt’s brother-in-law Dennis dabbles in beer and wine making, and is an expert in the different types of beer and wine. He told us we had to try to lambics while we were in Belgium, because they are only produced there due to the prevalence of a certain type of wild yeast and bacteria. And try lambic we did. At the tasting, we got to try 16 different types, from a young lambic, to an old lambic, to a young gueze (a blend of different Lambics), to an old gueze, to a kriek (with sour cherries), to framboise (with raspberries), to a pale-ale type Lambic, to a vigneronne (with Muscat grapes), to Zwanze (with elderberry flowers) to Faro (with brown sugar candy). We’re told by Dennis that most of these lambics are not available in the United States, and to the extent that they are available, they would cost about $120 a case.
All of the lambics had a somewhat sour taste that was strangely delicious. The cheeses ranged from creamy and delicious, to extremely pungent, but you couldn’t deny that each cheese was perfectly paired with its lambic companion.
My favorite was the Lou Pepe Framboise (very different and less sweet than the more mass produced Lindemanns Framboise; it is made by blending lambics from the same brewing season with a high level of raspberries and inducing secondary fermentation by using a limited amount of liqueur; paired with Delice des Bois cheese, which is a triple cream cheese stuffed with stewed forest berries). Matt’s favorite was the Cuvee Saint-Lamvinus (a rare and unique beer produced using Merlot grapes soaked in Lambic aged 2-3 years in barrels from the Bordeaux region of France; bottled without any blending and carbonation induced by adding liqueur; paired with sausage with Boletus mushroom) and Sean liked the Cuvee St-Gilloise (a beer produced using cold-hopped Lambic aged 2 years, which brings out flavour and gives it a more bitter aroma and palate; paired with Trappe d’ Echourgnac, which is a cheese made from cow’s milk produced in the tradition of Cistercian monks and matured with walnut liqueur).
Needless to say, whether it was the 16 lambics, or the high alcohol content of the Belgium beers, but we had a grand time in Brussels.