Europe's political capital is proving there's more to Belgian food than waffles, chocolate, beer and sprouts
Paris is overrated. Sure, the French capital is internationally renowned as the fine dining center of the universe.
But the pendulous whiff of snobbery in the air which causes waiters to instantly turn their noses up at the very word ‘ketchup’, means even the piece de resistance of gourmet cooking can put a foodie off his meal.
Enter Brussels. A city better known as the capital of dull, grey European bureaucracy, Tin Tin and artery clogging guilty pleasures such as waffles, chocolate and beer.
The Belgian capital is loudly trumpeting its fine cuisine, celebrating 2012 as a Year of Gastronomy and describing itself with the quirky tagline Brusselicious.
And rightly so. Because for those who dare to venture off the well-worn tourist trail around the city’s medieval Grand Place, there awaits as many pleasing gastronomic surprises as gay Paris.
What was once a shady, run-down neighbourhood lined with traditional butcher shops and a fish market, Place Sainte Catherine has been transformed into a foodie Mecca.
With its trendy bars, restaurants and, of course, chocolateries (this is Belgium after all), it’s no surprise the area is fast becoming popular with both residents and tourists hankering for a bite of traditional Belgian grub other than moules frites and waffles.
While Place Sainte Catherine is still known for its fish and seafood, the ocean fresh food is now served with a glass of chilled white wine, either at the bustling outdoor bar at Noordzee or in one of the plethora of brasseries and restaurants which line the church square and streets shooting off it.
Situated right on the main square, Brasserie Jaloa may have been the home of impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh at one point, but now the only tortured art you’re likely to see is an exquisitely presented dish from its mouth-watering menu.
Not to be confused with the similarly named Michelin star restaurant nearby, but owned by the same people, the brasserie offers a mixture of Flemish and French cuisine around the 15 to 20 Euro mark.
Despite a tempting range of meat on offer, the bumper catch of fresh seafood on ice outside the eaterie was too much to resist.
After wetting my appetite with a glass of Chardonnay and a starter of open lobster ravioli with citrus and lemongrass (16 Euro), my partner and I dove finger and toothpick first into a platter of oysters, crab, clams, mussels and prawns so generous, it would make even Captain Birdseye weep.
With its clean, white interior, Brasserie Jaloa is certainly chic but by no means haughty or pretentious. The restaurant represents style with a smile.
Our stomachs full, we were met by our gastronomic guide for the day Paul Sanders, who led us down Rue De Flandre, which was once crammed with butchers and meat sellers. Some converted restaurants and cafes along the street, like Le Pre-Sale, still have the old iron meat hook railings and porcelain tiles.
Although the district has undergone a process of gentrification, inevitably attracting young, cafe-hopping professionals to the area, many of the buildings have retained their character and historical roots.
Search out the tiny atmospheric alley of Rue De La Cigogne for a step back in time and a snapshot of what Brussels would have looked like when it was criss-crossed with working, but admittedly smelly, canals.
Leaving Sainte Catherine, we rejoined the hordes of camera clicking tourists, rotating for photographs in front of Brussels’ most famous landmark, the Manneken Pis.
The cheeky statue of a small urchin pissing is supposed to embody the city’s ‘irreverent’ nature and it’s long been the custom for visiting VIPs to donate a costume, dressing the incontinent boy in outfits ranging from military to Mickey Mouse.
He was pimped out in a cap, chain medallion and blue jacket when I fought through the crowds to take a peek.
The Manneken Pis’s overactive bladder is no doubt on account of the Belgian people’s favorite pass time and one stereotype which I was more than happy to indulge in – beer drinking.
Brussels offers a mind-boggling choice of beer taverns, but for an authentic tipple in a pub with oodles of character and history, head to the partially hidden but unmissable A La Becasse in Rue de Tabora.
Accessed from a small alley leading from the main street, next to a waffle shop with a giant chocolate Manneken Pis in the window and noticeable only by a tile mosaic decorated with a picture of a snipe wading bird, it dates from the late 19th century and claims to be one of the oldest pubs of its kind in the city, although that seems a stretch.
The tavern’s speciality is Lambic, a very sour, cloudy concoction, similar to cider and definitely an acquired taste to be sipped slowly not gulped in one go.
Two or three beers later, we wobbled back out, bleary-eyed, into the harsh afternoon light, slightly tipsy and looking for a sweet treat to take away the sharp taste of the Lambic.
For some, the tantalizing scent of fresh waffles wafting down seemingly every street in Brussels’s historic center may be too much to resist.
But biscuits are a lighter alternative and Pain A La Grecque is a Brussels delicacy.
Although translated as Greek Bread, its origins are far less exotic.
Its current name is actually the result of a mistranslation from Flemish to French.
Historically it was made from leftover pieces of bread and was literally called ‘From the gutter’.
Depite its less than salubrious beginnings, its sweet almond flavor makes it a moreish treat to rival even the most decadent waffle or chocolate.
The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach and the same maxim can be applied to travel.
After all, if you want to discover the soul of a city or country, you should do so by eating your way there.
And Belgium’s vibrant capital is not only tasty, heck, it’s Brusselicious!
For more information on Brussels visit www.belgiumtheplaceto.be
Transport and accomodation
GSN recommends the five star Royal Windsor Hotel for both luxury and comfort.
Located moments from the Grand Place, it not only offers all of the city’s historic sights on its doorstep but also stylish comfortable rooms. It has the perfect blend of inviting charm and modern sophistication.
I travelled to Brussels direct from London St Pancras in less than two hours on the swish and smooth Eurostar.
Your ticket will take you all the way to the central station, which is a just a few minutes walk from the hotel.
Not only is it a more environmentally friendly choice of travel, the extra baggage allowance and short check-in time means much of the hassle of air travel is mercifully gone.
Your Eurostar ticket will also get you offers at cultural attractions as well as in restaurants.
For full details on travelling by Eurostar, see below:
Eurostar operates up to 9 daily services from London St Pancras International to Brussels with return fares from £69. Fastest London-Brussels journey time is 2 hours. Tickets are available from eurostar.com or 08432 186 186.
Eurostar Plus Shopping offers passengers a 10% discount at xandres, one of the leading brands in Belgian fashion in cities across Belgium including Brussels, Antwerp, Ghent, Knokke, Kortrijk, Namur and Waterloo .
Women who are looking for unique pieces with a trendy twist will find collections and professional advice in a beautiful and inspiring environment. Simply present your Eurostar ticket and foreign passport at the cashdesk in store to receive the discount (within five days from the day of travel).
Eurostar Plus Culture is a unique partnership between Eurostar and some of Europe’s most popular museums and galleries in Brussels, Paris and Lille . Travellers simply present their Eurostar ticket to take advantage of 2-for-1 entry into paying exhibitions.
Brussels galleries include : Bozar, the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium (including the Museum of Ancient Art and the Museum of Modern Art) and the Musical Instrument Museum.