Belgium day trips 2: Gaasbeek and the Waterhof farm shop

IMG_1262
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.

IMG_9170
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.

 

Advertisements

Beat your fear – how I overcame my phobia of cheese

IMG_6135Phobias are irrational and unexplainable. Cheese until a few years ago was my achilles heel. Few people could understand how someone who could be so obsessed with food and wine had a ‘fear of cheese’. This was not an allergy but rather real fear.

I recall a day when I was still at school and a friend had placed a piece of cheese in my school bag as a joke. I never used that bag again. I remember protesting with my father to refrain from using the same knife he had used to cut a piece of cheese to cut bread or spread butter. I even would tell him to wash his hands before handling anything else.

Such was my fear. Now, with the benefit of hindsight a fear of cheese is not only irrational, it is also ridiculous. This was not an allergy. That would be perfectly understandable. Can you imagine never eating a pizza with mozzarella. Hard to believe but true.

So you can just start to imagine what a big deal it was to actually try cheese for the first time. I overcame this phobia thanks to my wife who  talked me into trying what in Malta we call fresh goat’s cheeselet, similar in taste to ricotta which was the only ‘cheese’ I liked.

It took a few weeks to convince myself that I would try this cheese which has a similar texture and taste to ricotta but which was out of bounds because of this fixation.

I still remember the day in Gozo, the second island in Malta, when served with this mild goats’ cheese. The anticipation was tremendous. But as soon as I tasted it for the first time, my reaction was a rather incredulous one. I remember smiling and then wondering ‘what was all the fuss about?’.

The next hurdle to overcome was Mozzarella di Bufala and again the reaction was pretty similar.  As soon as I tried it, I again remember that the reaction was a similar one. Then it was an overdose of pizza with mozzarella to compensate for what I had missed in the past.

The conversion to Parmigiano Reggiano was more painful. I recall going to Fulvio Pierangelini’s Gambero Rosso, at the time considered as the best Italian chef who had an exceptional restaurant in a small Tuscan town near Bolgheri called San Vincenzo. I promised myself that I would try whatever was served to me in this restaurant.

The tasting menu looked safe given it was mainly fish-based but I opted to add suckling pig as an additional dish on top of the tasting menu. All was fine until the kitchen sent an amuse bouche which was a small ‘cannolo’ stuffed with mince of suckling pig. It was sprinkled with Parmigiano Reggiano. I started sweating, my face turned red and I panicked. The table next to us realised something was wrong because they were looking at us constantly. There was clearly no turning back. Leaving the dish there would have led to lots of questions and probably a visit from the chef to our table to ask whether there was a problem.

And then, I plucked up the courage and tried it for the first time. Those were probably the longest moments of my life. But again my reaction was one of wonder. What was all the fuss about? Not only was the taste mild, it actually boosted the flavour of the dish.

So for the time being, only blue cheese is off limits though I must say that this is again more psychological than rational. Actually, I have tried Roquefort once and again found it rather mild except for the smell which takes some getting used to.

Proof, if any was needed, that I overcame the phobia, came a few weeks ago at Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana. There served with his signature dish, the five ages of Parmesan, I actually thought that it was one of the best dishes I have ever tastes. Such are the wonders of life.

The moral of the story is to fight your fears and try to beat the irrational.

Here are my tips

1. Talk yourself into fighting your fear.

2. Believe that you can beat your fear.

3. Read about what you are afraid of. In my case it was reading about food and wine including articles about different cheeses, pairing with wines etc. If you are  afraid of flying, read travel books, think about places you would like to visit or about planes. You get the gist.

4. Start gradually and increase the dose step by step.

5. Speak about your conquest. Be enthusiastic and tell anyone who wants to listen.

6. Ideally find someone with whom you can share your steps.

7. Good luck – you can beat your fear.