By Don Heimburger
Photos by the author and courtesy Visitbelgium.com
What’s a 13-letter word that starts with a “B” and combines the capital city of Belgium with the concept of excellent food?
“Brusselicious” is the 2012 theme for Brussels’ Gourmet Year, and a fitting description of this city of 1.1 million that boasts no less than 19 Michelin stars among its dozens of top restaurants.
In 2006 Brussels was the capital of Fashion and Design, followed soon after in 2009 as the capital of the Comic Strip. Now it becomes the city of Culinary Delights, but locals and in-the-know visitors to this cosmopolitan city, with German, French and Flemish influences, enjoy their Brusselicious lunches and dinners every day of the year.
FRENCH FINESSE, GERMAN PORTIONS
The old saying is that the Belgians cook their food with the finesse of the French, but serve it in generous German-sized portions. Some specialties of Belgian cuisine include moules frites (mussels and fries), Waterzoo (fish or chicken stew), Stoemp potato (potatoes and vegetables mixed together), and Salade Liégeoise.
So what’s cooking in Brussels in 2012?
There’s a fairly long list, but it all begins with Brussels’ traditional menus, which start with fresh meats and produce, and are then honed with a top chef’s creativity and skill. In Brussels this is just the way they do it. After all, they have a reputation developed over the years, that they refined plate after plate.
Cones of fries, clams, waffles and sprouts are prepared to exhibit on Brussels’ streets during 2012.
- Brussels’ gastronomy will be on the move this year when a new designer tram will be introduced that will provide meals on board as guests roll around the city. Menus will be arranged by two-star chefs, and food will be served to 34 people on board the train during two-hour-long dinner parties. Departures start on Tuesdays and go through Sundays. This novel “meals on wheels” idea will appeal to the combination railfan and foodie.
An artist creates a large cone of fries for display.
- As many as 35 giant artist’s reproductions will be introduced to the streets of Brussels during 2012 as well. Early in the year, artists were finalizing their creations in an old factory building called Carthago Delenda Est. Giant brussel sprouts, chocolate bars, mussels, pints of beer and giant cones of fries were masterfully being sawed, glued and screwed together to remind the city of its food heritage.
- As many as eight themed dinners are being sponsored, from a Banquet des Miserables to mark 150 years of the finishing of Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables, to a Belgian Wine Growers Dinner, a Five Senses Dinner (sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch) and a Medieval Ommegang Banquet (Ommegang recreates a famous celebration of 1549 on the Grand Place in honor of Charles V and his son Philippe II).
- The Bocuse D’Or Europe is the highly prestigious gastronomic competition held for 20 of the world’s top chefs this year in Brussels, who compete over a two-day period to claim top honors. The dozen best chefs then are entered into next year’s world finals in Lyon, France.
- How about a Chocolate Week? With evening events, visits to chocolate workshops and a Chocolate’s Fair in town, what’s not to like?
- A restaurant festival, publicized as the biggest gourmet event in Belgium, is coming to Brussels September 6-9. Imagine 100 restaurants and bars serving up their best dishes—with cooking on the spot—in a Brussels park.
Speculoos biscuit shop
TOP OF FOOD CHAIN
The 2012 culinary program doesn’t stop there, not for a city that loves to be at the top of the food chain. There’s a “Chipstands Festival” (you heard it correctly). So the city with some of the best frites (French fries) in the world will sponsor a competition and special events based on the fry. Would you like ketchup or mayo with that?
On a cooking platform 15 feet above the ground, Brussels’ star-studded top chefs will surprise and delight audiences with their “Dinner in the Sky” skills in the middle of the city. Also in August and September, the famed 650 tasty Belgian beers get their due during a weekend at the Grand’Place with tastings and more.
The city is also offering its own bottle of Brusselicious Beer, made by adding brown sugar to a bitter lambic. Lambic beer is produced by spontaneous fermentation: it is exposed to wild yeasts and bacteria that are said to be native to the Senne Valley, in which Brussels lies. It is this unusual process which gives the beer its distinctive flavor.
Other events are also planned, such as a Thai Food Festival, a Savoring Brussels Festival (dedicated to the flavors of fresh produce), and a Brussels Wine Weekend with open houses at some of the wine cellars and wine bars throughout the city.
BUSINESS, BUT RELAXED
Brussels is, despite its European Parliament designation, a business center that appears to be relaxed at the same time. A tour of this multilingual city revolves around the Grand Place and its many gilded houses and the ornate town hall building (see it at night for a spectacular view).
Check out the Mont des Arts and its museums: the René Magritte Museum occupies the house in which the Belgian surrealist painter worked. On the ground floor of the museum is the apartment where the painter lived and worked from 1930 to 1954; exhibits of the artist are on two upper floors.
At the Belgian Comic Strip Center you can meet the comic strip character Tintin and his sidekicks, created by Belgian artist Georges Remi, who wrote under the pen name of Herge.
Walk to another part of the city and see the huge stone columns and a good view of the lower part of the city from the immense Palais de Justice, and visit the Atomium, with its gleaming spheres. It’s said to be “neither tower, nor pyramid, a little bit cubic, a little bit spherical, half-way between sculpture and architecture, a relic of the past with a determinedly futuristic look, museum and exhibition center; the Atomium is, at once, an object, a place, a space, a Utopia and the only symbol of its kind in the world which eludes any kind of classification.” The Atomium was the main pavilion and icon of the World’s Fair of Brussels in 1958.
If you’re in the market for shopping—or just window shopping—Brussels has it. Walk over to Avenue Louise and see its shopping arcade, or Boulevard de Waterloo, Rue de Namur or Avenue de la Toison d’Or for some upscale finds from classic to trendy.
Now back to Brusselicious food. One other very famous food delight is the Belgian waffle. I learned there are actually two types. One is the Belgian waffle, a light, fluffy waffle eaten with or without syrup and served at the more prestigious restaurants and hotels. Then there’s the thicker Liege waffle that is smaller, sweeter, heavier and more filling. You can find the heavier waffles served at stands everywhere in Brussels, usually with toppings such as whipped cream, strawberries, cherries, confectioner’s sugar, or chocolate spread.
If Belgium has a national cookie it is the Speculoos. Originally created for children to celebrate Saint Nicholas day on December 6, the treat is now widely popular and often found along with a cup of coffee in restaurants and bars as a side treat.
So add waffles and Speculoos to the large selection of foods that keep visitors going back to this vivacious gourmet city.
And to think, all this high cuisine started with the lowly Brussel sprout, from which the city gets its name. It just goes to show how inventive the Belgians are in the kitchen. They’ve taken the art of preparing and cooking food to new heights over the last few decades. Some would call that a Brusselicious endeavor. I’d say it was a call for dinner…in Brussels, of course.
IF YOU GO…
Brussels has a number of interesting districts to visit. The Brussels Card is valid for 72, 48 or 24 hours and allows you to visit 30 Brussels museums. It includes a public transport ticket and a full-color guidebook, as well as discounts at some tourist attractions and stores. Go to www.brusselscard.be.
The 2012 Michelin Guide shows the following Brussels restaurants have earned Michelin stars:
Comme Chez Soi
Le Chalet de la Forêt (New addition)
Jaloa (New addition)
La Truffe Noire