Does anyone really care about tourist traps?

IMG_6042One of the most famous streets in Brussels among tourists or people on business trips is the Rue de Bouchers. It can be found just a few metres away from the Grand Place.

Walking from the street at the Grand Place area last week on the evening when Belgium was playing against South Korea and locals were obviously nowhere near any restaurant without a television set, I could not help but wonder what makes people visit such restaurants around the world.

What are they looking for? Why would locals consider such places a tourist trap but so many have no qualms in sitting down and eating there. What is so attractive about waiters greeting you in all languages as they try to guess your nationality to try and get you in?

In the case of Brussels, are the mussels and fries served in such places so different in quality to restaurants which cater mainly for locals? Do the tourists who sit down to eat in such places care about the difference? Are they more interested in the experience of eating al fresco as the day gets longer as long as they sit and enjoy a glass of beer or wine? Is the location more important than quality?

What triggers such behaviour? Is it the wisdom of the crowds?

This is a common phenomenon not only in the city I know best. Tourist traps can be found pretty much in every city. The more tourists a city attracts the more you are likely to find such places. Take cities like Paris and London. They are among the top most culinary destinations but get it wrong and you are likely to end up being extremely disappointed.

Have you ever noticed how many times bars, restaurants and cafes in the best locations or with great views have the lousiest service? Is there a correlation between location and quality? Do places which cannot attract customers on the basis of location go the extra mile to please their customers for this reason? Are they more passionate about the food they serve, the provenance of their produce?

But for the many who frequent such places, does it really matter?

 

Five of the best ice-cream shops in Brussels

Brussels has its fair share of ice-cream parlours. And while the thought of ice-creams in Italy make you salivate even at the mere mention, there are a few ice-cream shops in the Belgian capital which are worth trying given they take their ice-cream very seriously. Some, like the Comus & Gasterea are even worthy of a trip to the centre just for the sake of trying new flavours.

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The salted caramel and roast coffee ice-cream from Comus & Gasterea

20140630-225312-82392010.jpgWhen we went for the first time to Comus & Gasterea I was trying to convince the children that they could try some exotic ice-creams like aubergine, basil, carrot, mustard or olive oil ice-cream. The eldest (5 years old) was tempted even though he still has a love hate relationship with vegetables.

Nevertheless, on the day we visited there were no exotic flavours. Instead what he had were 8 different ice-creams including chocolate, speculoos, lemon, ‘roasted coffee’, salted caramel, cassis, strawberries and vanilla. The ice-cream maker is part of the Slow Food movement and there is no question as to why this is the case. He only uses products which are in season and only if he is convinced that they are good enough to make great ice-creams.

This is the kind of place you will want to return every so often to see what is in season and what tickles the fancy of Michel, the ice-cream artisanal maker. We tried the vanilla, strawberry, cassis, salted caramel and ‘roasted coffee’. All were excellent but the best was probably the salted carmel. This was easily the best ever salted caramel I have ever tasted. At a price per scoop of ice-cream (Eur 1.50) which is probably cheaper than some of the more commercial ice-creams, this is really worth a visit. You will find this ice-cream shop just off Place St. Catherine  on the Quai aux Briques.

My second favourite ice-cream place is a tiny shop on Rue Bailli in Chatelain called Framboisier Dore. The ice-creams and sorbets here all burst with flavour. I particularly like the sorbets with seasonal fruits as well as the more traditional chocolate and speculoos flavours.

Two other ice-cream shops have become institutions in their own right. In Uccle, on Rue Vanderkindere on the side of Avenue Brugmann you will find Il Gelato and Glacier Zizi. It is difficult to choose which of these two is the best. Both are excellent in their own right and are within 100 metres of each other. Go there on a nice summer evening  you are bound to wait in a very long queue as hundreds of people flock to this neighbourhood specifically to try these ice-creams.

The fifth on the list but just as good as the previous two is Capoue which can be found in various neighbourhoods in Brussels. If you are lucky, you may come across the occasional flavours which are really worth trying. You can find Capoue also in the Bois de la Cambre which makes it another great reason to visit this park in the summer months.

So if you are in Brussels in any of these neighbourhoods in the coming weeks try one of these places. And why not, take a detour if necessary. Sometimes it will be worth your while.

 

 

Belgium day trips 2: Gaasbeek and the Waterhof farm shop

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The Waterhof farm

Amid the gently rolling hills of the Pajottenland just outside Brussels lies the beautiful village of Gaasbeek. This is one of our favourite spots just outside the Belgian capital and for a number of reasons.

The first reason is a splendid medieval castle, the Gaasbeek castle which has evolved from a strategic stronghold into a spacious country house. One of its most famous owners was the Count of Egmond.

While on the other side of Brussels you will find the Chateau de la Hulpe, Gaasbeek, to the West of Brussels makes for a great alternative. The castle lies within an extensive park which was already laid out in the 17th century. It has impressive avenues and narrow winding paths as well as beautiful beech trees. From the park you can see the beautiful countryside with numerous cows grazing in the fields. It is indeed impressive to think that this is just a few kilometres outside the city.

You can visit the castle and the museum garden. Moreover, the lands also house the Graaf van Egmond brasserie. Just opposite the castle you can find a brasserie with a great outdoor playground for children which includes a bouncy castle. This is a great place for children to play.

IMG_9163But the hidden secret of Gaasbeek and probably the best reason to return from time to time is a farm shop just outside the village. The farm is called Waterhof and it is one of those places which are so charming that you wish to discover more of them in the surrounding countryside.

Firstly the farm makes its own milk thanks to its more than 60 cows. Given that the artisanal method of producing their products is time consuming, the Waterhof farm have invested in a robot which milks the cows automatically and you can also see this in action when the farm or shop is open. The farm, which is more than 500 years old (with the oldest standing building  dating from 1813) makes superb ice-creams using their own produce. You can also buy butter, cheese, yogurt (excellent), puddings, chocolate mousse and butter milk (lait battu). You can also buy pastries, juices as well as a wide range of potatoes and seasonal fruits and vegetables.

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One of their speciality ice-creams served at the farm, the tiramisu

The highlight is a courtyard where you can try the superb range of ice-creams served. When its cold, there is also space inside. This is really a superb place to take children. Not only do you treat them to excellent ice-cream but they can visit the barns where the cows go to rest after grazing the fields in the hills around the farm. There is also a small barn with calves open for visitors.

Verdict: This place is so good I hesitated before writing about it lest this becomes too commercial.  If you are going on a hot day, make sure to take a cooler bag to transport the ice-cream and other produce. You will not be able to resist the temptation of buying a few litres for home. Drop me a line if you try it and if you know of other similar places in Belgium.

 

Santorini – a wine region worth discovering

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Santorini’s views can be breathtaking. Its wines are however worth discovering

It might sound like a cliche but Santorini is all that you can imagine about a Mediterranean island if not more. This volcanic island offers crisp blue seas, breathtaking views, glorious sunsets, excellent produce (particularly tomatoes and aubergines) and incredible wines.

The latter may come as a surprise for people not necessarily in the know. Greek wines can be surprising in their quality. But in terms of island wines, the ones which come from this beautiful island in Southern Aegean are exceptional.

If you have never tried the white wine Assyrtiko, which has a potent dryness and minerality with strong hints of lemon, then you are clearly missing something really special. Just like with Riesling, the first time I tried this grape variety, I was immediately hooked.

The volcanic soil of Santorini is great for grape growing and while many might consider the conditions to be too harsh for wine growing, both the land and the climate make for exceptional wines with great ageing potential.

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The Domaine Sigalas vineyards

The wine makers to look out for in Santorini, and those which are also available outside the island are Domaine Sigalas, Hatzidakis and Gaia – not to be mistaken for the wines of Italian wine giant Angelo Gaja.

Another white grape variety is Athiri which is also an indigenous, white variety. Athiri is an aromatic variety, of lower acidity than Assyrtiko and lower potential alcohol. This is also blended with Assyrtiko making a very interesting combination.

Among the reds is the lesser known though equally excellent Mavrotragano, a red variety indigenous to the island.  This grape came close to extinction but is again being grown by a number of wineries on the island. I can confirm that this wine has exceptional ageing potential. I have tasted a few 2004 over the years and still have a few in my cellar.

When in Santorini we visited the winery of Domaine Sigalas close to Oia. The wine tasting was exceptional in that you tasted the wines pretty much in the middle of the vineyards in a perfect setting. Despite being a small island, Sigalas produces around 300,000 bottles of wine annually and their wines are exported to many countries including Germany, France, Belgium, Austria, Holland, England, Cyprus, Switzerland, Hong-Kong, Shanghai, Sweden, Singapore, Australia, Brazil, USA and Canada.

We were told that the vines in Santorini are extremely old and have resisted to phylloxera (which is attributed to the fact that that the volcanic soil is well drained). This means that the vines did not need to be replaced during the epidemic of the late 19th century. What is interesting about the Santorini wines is that the vines are planted far apart to get as much exposure to dew as possible and they are often made in the shape of low-spiralling baskets, with the grapes hanging inside to protect them from the island wind.

My recommendation is to try the wines from Santorini if you come across them whether in your favourite wine store or a restaurant or wine bar. You will surely not to be disappointed. The white Assyrtiko might well be among the best wines you have tried in many years.

 

 

 

Monschau – a beautiful German town on the border with Belgium

 

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Monschau, the main square

Summer has started and we have had our fair share of barbecues already. Crisis point was reached a few days ago when we ran out of our special mustards with tarragon and Riesling which we had purchased from our annual visit to Monschau, Germany during the Christmas season.

We had never visited the idyllic town during spring or summer for some reason and have always associated the town with winter especially given how spectacular it looks when it snows. So, we did what some might consider a crazy day trip, which is heading to Monschau to stock up on mustard lest our barbecues suffer from the lack of magic ingredients.

Now you might probably have realised that when it comes to food, I do not cut corners and am bound to take a detour if I can procure great ingredients. But, given the fact that until a few years ago, I was not really keen on mustard, you will understand that the Monschau mustards are indeed special. All it takes to convert to the joys of mustard are a trip to Dijon or Monschau, away from the commercial stuff you find in supermarkets.

But back to Monschau. Monschau is a beautiful town located in the hills of the North Eifel within the Hohes Venn – Eifel Nature Park in the narrow valley of the Rur river.

The historic town centre has many preserved half-timbered houses and beautiful narrow streets which look as if they have remained unchanged for time so long. The setting is fantastic given the town is literally in a valley and is surrounded by beautiful hills.

The town is extremely picturesque. In summer, all the restaurants and hotels have tables outside making dining al fresco a joy given the stunning vistas and fresh air.

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The Monschau city hall

A few shops are worth visiting including some cafes which serve typical German cakes. A bakery just off the main square has typical German breads and sweets from the region while the special mustard shop sells a lot of regional produce including alcohol and pork products.

Mustard here varies from the classic, which is spectacular used in a salad dressing, to tarragon, garlic, chili, green pepper, old German, Horseradish, English curry, caraway seeds, lemon, orange, tomato, currant, honey with poppy seeds, fig, Riesling, wild herbs, ginger and pineapple as well as the new beer mustard which also promises to lift our coming barbecues to something special.

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One of the many restaurants in the town

The drive there from Belgium is also spectacular. You pass through Eupen, a  very pretty Belgian town from the German speaking part of Belgium and then through the the Hautes Fagnes, which is the highest point in Belgium at an altitude of 694 metres.

Verdict: A great place to visit both in summer and winter. If you go in winter, try to visit when it has snowed because the charm of the place is incredible. In summer the town also has great charm.

 

 

 

 

Serious or not? The proof of the pudding is in the eating

Alain Passard is one of the most influential chefs in France. Thanks to my friend Eric who pointed me to this video, here you can see what it means to use top quality ingredients.

Passard is a chef who is obsessed with working with quality products, he has even created his own kitchen gardens for his restaurant.

Here in this video, you cannot but wonder whether he is serious or not about serving such a dish. Just a touch of olive oil at the end, some salt and that is it. No vinegar, no dressing, just prepped vegetables, salad leaves and herbs mixed together to bring about an explosion of freshness.

Does the dish work? Who knows. You may need to take a trip to Paris to try it at his 3-Michelin Star restaurant L’Arpege.

For sure, you need to be incredibly confident of the quality of the ingredients to let them shine like this. But it is also a lesson in simplicity and creativity.