Chateau de la Hulpe – a place for all seasons

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALiving in a city means that sometimes you feel the urge to get out and experience nature. It must have something to do with the fact that after 30 years living in Malta, even after nearly nine years in the Belgian capital, we still feel the urge to explore what Belgium and its neighbouring countries have to offer.

But when we run out of ideas or are too lazy to think, there is a place we turn to time and time again. Whether its winter, spring, summer or autumn, Chateau de la Hulpe and its surrounding land is a fantastic place to relax and enjoy peace and quiet.

The Domaine Solvay de la Hulpe extends across 227 hectares of greenery, woodland and ponds. It is a perfect place to go for a walk, to cycle, to take children for a picnic or to lose yourself in the serenity of this Natura 2000 side which is also considered as an important heritage site in Wallonia.

IMG_4841The Chateau is imposing but the lands are also impressive with every kind of vegetation and natural environment that can be found in this region.

You are likely to be impressed any season you go. One tip, if you want to avoid the crowds then go either during the week or else in the morning. Most people end up going there in the afternoons even though it still remains extremely pleasant.

Apart from the walks and nature, the grounds also house over five hundred works of famous Belgian artist Jean-Michel Folon. Just follow the signs to Folon Foundation and you will find the splendid collection in the farm of the castle of La Hulpe. There are more than forty years of his creations.

This is really an inspiring museum which I highly recommend visiting. Note it is closed on Mondays like most museums in Belgium.

Just outside the museum is a bistro with the most amazing views of uninterrupted countryside. However, don’t expect to eat well here. The choice on the menu is very limited. But if you head there after lunch and are lucky to have gone on a nice day, then you can sit on the terrace and have a superb view while enjoying a Belgian beer or coffee.

If you want to eat somewhere close then follow this link to my blog post on Lac to Genval.




Lac du Genval

IMG_3927I am always surprised at how few people know about or have been to Lac du Genval, just 20 minutes away from Brussels. In a way this is better since this scenic lake is not too crowded. The lake is part of the Rixensart and Overijse villages in Wallon Brabant and Flemish Brabant and is surrounded by beautiful turn-of-the century homes.

There is also a hotel by the lake, the Chateau du Lac. For those looking for a day trip out of Brussels, then you could also visit the Chateau de la Hulpe which is not too far away.

This small lake also has a number of restaurants and cafes and is therefore a perfect place to chill out either on a summer evening or during the weekend.

The walk around the lake takes around 30 minutes and you will pass by a small yacht club, beautiful houses, fishermen enjoying the silence away from the hustle and bustle of central Brussels. You can just stroll and enjoy the scenery but many people also come here to jog or bike in this scenic environment.

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERABut the reason I like Lac du Genval so much apart from all of the above is an Italian restaurant aptly named La Laguna. If someone puts me on the spot and asks me to name a favourite restaurant then this will surely be one of the first ones I would mention.

Let’s start with the basics. There is no sophistication in the cuisine. However, both the food and service have always been consistently good whenever we have gone (countless times). The obvious selling point of this restaurant is clearly its outdoor terrace just by the lake as well as its indoor window which has a splendid vista of the lake. For someone so used to water and the sea, this is probably as good as it gets 20 minutes from Brussels.

Here you will dine a stone’s throw away from the lake. The menu is varied with some specialities from Sardegna. Pasta and pizza are extremely good. I particularly like their Spaghetti alla Bottarga.

You also need to look out for their specials. I can only recommend the homemade ravioli with artichokes (only served when the latter are in season) and a bottarga sauce (mullet roe). This is a match made in heaven and something I have found only at this restaurant. Their tiramisu is also very well made.

La Laguna is also a child-friendly restaurant and the staff always make the children feel welcome interacting with them throughout the service.

The same owners also have La Fontanell which is also highly recommended but which, unfortunately we have never been to because we cannot resist the allure of La Laguna. La Fontanell has a very good play area for children at the back of the restaurant so this is really a good place to take children.

There are other restaurants around the lake but here we stick to the tried and tested. Great Italian food, excellent service and a beautiful view. What else could you ask for?


My top patisseries in Brussels

When you live just around the corner from Le Saint Aulaye it is extremely difficult to justify a detour to try other bakeries in Brussels given that this patisserie is one of the most well known in the Belgian capital. There is a risk of disappointment given that this bakery/patisserie sets the bar extremely high.

There is a reason why there are queues every morning and especially on the weekends. Whatever you try here is of exceptional quality. Whether you buy bread (for which he is famous for), his pastries or cakes, you will not be disappointed. He uses bio ingredients but on top of it is is obvious that the ingredients used are excellent. I have yet to come across a pain au chocolat which is better than the one of Le St Aulaye. You can actually taste the quality of the butter used.

A trip to Le Saint Aulaye is also worthwhile because of the other shops in this neighbourhood (more about that in a future post).

So my recommendations for the patisseries are what the Michelin guide would say as being ‘worthy of a detour’ at the very least.

1. Le Saint Aulaye

There is little more to say about Le Saint Aulaye. This is clearly my favourite and not just for the convenience of being around the corner. Go there, buy bread, croissants, pain au chocolat for breakfast and then get one of their excellent cakes. You will not be disappointed. Their ice-creams are also worthy of a recommendation. If you plan to visit take note that it is closed on Mondays.

What I like most about their pastries is actually the complexity and depth of flavours. If you have never been, you should really pay a visit. Le Saint Aulaye is also famous for his Bouche de Noel. In the beginning of December you can try them all on the weekend before making your order.

Le Saint Aulaye: Rue Vanderkindere 377, 1180 Brussels. Closed on Mondays

Panorama indoor
The interior of Van Dender (photo from website of Van Dender)

2. Van Dender

Van Dender on Chaussee de Louvain in Schaerbeek also makes exceptional cakes. They are so good we transported them to Malta for our wedding (it is a long story but one which I remember with a smile given how complicated the logistics proved to be). We discovered Herman Van Dender thanks to an Italian chef and we were clearly not disappointed. When I tried his cakes for the first time, it was like tasting something completely out of this world. Little wonder that he has won a gold medal at the Coupe du Monde de la Patisserie in Lyon. Also try his chocolates for something different. They are also extremely good.

Van Dender: Chaussee de Louvain 416, 1030 Brussels. Closed on Mondays.

The amazing macaroons of Fabrice Collignon. Photo courtesy of their website.

3. Fabrice Collignon

The shop window at Fabrice Collignon was always spectacular so when we paid a visit the first time to try his macaroons and cakes we were not surprised about how unbelievably good they were. And when I eventually bought what could be considered as the French pastry bible by Alain Ducasse, the famous Grand Livre de la Cuisine, I was surprised to discover that Fabrice Collignon was indicated as a person who contributed to the book on desserts. I was sure that it was one and the same and this can be confirmed on his website. If you have never tried his creations, then you really should go. His macaroons are exceptional.

Fabrice Collignon: Chaussée de Waterloo, 637 1050 Brussels. Closed on Mondays.

4. Pierre Marcolini

In the Sablon area, Pierre Marcolini is maybe better known for his chocolates and rightly so. But his cakes are also extremely good and on the plus side, just a bit further up from his corner chocolate shop in Sablon you can actually see them preparing their signature cakes which are really worth trying.

La Manufacture – Place du Grand Sablon, Brussels. Closed on Mondays.

5. Wittamer

Just opposite Pierre Marcolini is Brussels institution Wittamer which many would consider as the pinnacle of pastry cake shops in the Belgian capital. There is no question that the cakes are exceptional. The plus point is that you can also sit in this trendy neighbourhood and try the creations together with a tea or coffee. If there is probably one patisserie which is known even by the non-Brussels based people, then Wittamer is clearly the one.

Wittamer: Place du Grand Sablon, Brussels.

6. Yasuhi Sasaki

It is difficult to compete with French and Belgian pastry chefs but Yasuhi Sasaki, a Japanese patissier clearly can hold his own. It is a pity that the neighbourhood he is in is not one where we tend to go for shopping. But for anyone living in the Woluwe area or else going there, then this is clearly a must visit. The quality is extremely high and at a par if not better then some of the above.

Yasuhi Sasaki: 10 Avenue des Franciscains, 1150 Brussels. Closed on Wednesdays.

Do you know other great patisseries in your neighbourhood? What are your all time Belgian favourites? Don’t hesitate to drop me a line.


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.

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

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.

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.


Caffe al Dente – a wine lover’s den

Caffe al Dente has an impressive selection of Italian wines – Photo taken from Caffe al Dente’s website

Ask any Italian, and there are many in Belgium, what their favourite Italian restaurant would be and you are likely to get a very different answer from each and every one of them.

Italians take their food very seriously but probably few as seriously as Federico of Caffe al Dente. A Roman who has settled in Brussels, he is obsessed with a simple rule “Il Pesce non si serve con il formaggio”, i.e. it is a sin to serve cheese with fish.

Now there are some who argue that the client is always right. At Caffe al Dente this is not necessarily the case. If you go there, you will notice that they take this rule extremely seriously. You will find an asterisk on the blackboard with the day’s menu telling you that the pasta dish with fish or shellfish will not be served with cheese on top, and there will be other small blackboards hanging around in the restaurant telling you that you should not put cheese on your spaghetti alle vongole (with clams).

Of course, there is no question that this would be akin to a mortal sin. But while the French or the British are known to use cheese with certain fish dishes, the rule is not as rigid as it sounds. There are some regions which are starting to experiment with fish based dishes and cheese. If you look at Sicilian cuisine, you are bound to find the occasional dish such as the polpette sarde (sardine balls) having pecorino inside. I have also come across a 2 Michelin star chef Gennaro Esposito of Torre del Saracino  who stuffs calamari with smoked cheese.

But back to Caffe al Dente. This is a really great place. Firstly it has an Italian wine list which is incredible in its depth. There are wines from pretty much all regions of Italy and most of the best wine houses are covered. The prices, compared to other Brussels restaurants are also very reasonable given that the wine list shows the price for buying the wines from the enoteca next door as well as those charged in the restaurant.

The menu is extremely simple so you might go there once and be disappointed because of the choice on offer. But the mantra is rather simple. They use what is available and what is in season. So you are unlikely to eat the same thing if you go on separate occasions. They have a choice of two or three antipasti, two or three pasta dishes and two or three main courses. The same goes for desserts.

I have eaten there on a few occasions and the food and service have always been good albeit sometimes slightly slow. But then, that allows you time to savour the atmosphere, drink wine in good company and to chat with Federico who is a very interesting character.

The time we asked him about the cheese philosophy he told us that a client had once walked out after insisting that he wanted cheese with his Spaghetti Marinara. He told us how, at one point his client asked him whether he was going to bring cheese or else he might as well give him the bill. He refused to take cheese to the table and sent the bill instead. The customer walked away angrily but Federico told us that he returned a few days later with an apology and a gift for him.

I am here to offer an authentic service he had told us. Most of the people who come here come for an authentic Italian experience. How can I serve cheese with fish if that is not how it is done in Italy? You must respect the place you are in but you must also understand our philosophy. You cannot really fault him with that.

Verdict: This is one of my favourite Italian restaurants in Brussels. The food is excellent, the atmosphere nice, the wine list for Italian wines is probably one of the best I have seen outside Italy. It is like going to an Italian enoteca. The good thing is that it is in Brussels. Booking recommended because it can fill up very easily.

Caffe al dente

Rue du Doyenné 85, 87, 1180 Bruxelles

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