Category Archives: Belgium

Faces and Places

Norwegian Guide, Bergen

I just got back from a week in Indonesia. Although I enjoyed the experience and meeting up with both new and old colleagues on this trip, I missed my family badly and couldn’t wait to be back home. This wasn’t always the case, of course. In my younger days, before I got married, I was quite excited about traveling.

In fact, when I turned 21, I went backpacking through Europe for a month and never felt anything but the thrill of the open road. That trip was and will forever be a defining moment in my life. In a way, it was an important rite of passage to adulthood and a declaration that I could go out into the wide world and take care of myself. In those few, precious, glorious autumn days of my youth, I left the coast of England and made my landfall in Belgium; crossed through the Ardennes into Luxembourg; went through Germany on the way to Denmark; took a long train and ferry ride to Norway; retraced my path and went to Austria; thought of heading to Greece but bailed out into the then Republic of Yugoslavia; finally returning to Belgium.

The earth has circled the sun many times since then but as I reflect on that trip, I realise as much as I had enjoyed the scenery, the architecture, history and culture, the fondest of memories are the people I met along the way.

  1. Belgium. There was an English father with his teenage son who were spending two weeks cycling through Europe. We met quite a few times as we chose a similar travel route. It culminated with a quiet but beautiful evening on the verandah of a small Youth Hostel in the Ardennes sharing stories and several rounds of beer with other fellow travelers. It was great. There was also that Youth Hostel in Namur with its hippie American staff and their wonderfully bohemian barbeque party.
  2. Luxembourg. I met up with the son of a famous cartoonist. Together we had some wild adventures in this ancient kingdom which would have made the authorities frown with disapproval but which make the memories all the more precious. You can read more about it here.
  3. Germany. It was a long train ride so my traveling companion and I decided to practice a few choice phrases in Hebrew on a couple of unsuspecting Isreali youths. In fact, we only knew about three phrases but it was enough to have one of them enquire if there was a large Chinese Jewish community. We enjoyed playing with their minds!
  4. Norway. I will always remember that very sweet and friendly guide at the cultural village in Bergen. It was pouring with rain and the two of us were the only ones mad enough to show up but she still graciously took us around. A fun interaction and a very fond memory.
  5. Germany. The visit to Herrenchiemsee was interesting but spending a rainy afternoon doing laundry with two Southern Belles from America was special. One was a nurse and the other a student of politics. Somehow, we got talking about the Kennedy era and the American Camelot.
  6. Austria. Arriving late in Salzburg, I teamed up with an American student to find a beer garden for food and drinks. We had a wonderful time under the stars talking about politics and life in general. We also had a great meal and liberal amounts of beer which resulted in a mad adventure trying to find our way through the maze of streets to our Hostel. It did not help that neither of us could walk straight but bouncing off the walls of the narrow cobvled streets was fun in its own way.
  7. Yugoslavia. This was a nation of colourful characters. Starting with the bus conductor that insisted in speaking to me even though I did not understand a word he was saying. At Plitvice Lakes, I enjoyed the company and the stories of my B&B host who was an elderly Dutch lady who had lived in Indonesia and had now found her heaven in Yugoslavia ( I often what happened to her during the war). Then I actually ran into a group of dissidents that printed an underground newspaper. They actually kept me company for a couple of hours while I waited for a train. On the train, I then met an attractive and vivacious Aussie girl (Kate) and the Yugoslavian soldier who commandeered my phrase book so that he could hit on the former.
  8. Austria. Back in Vienna, I spent my time in the company of two Aussie girls, Kate and Gai. We made a good team. One girl could be counted on to find great shopping, the other was an expert at finding coffee and cakes and I was the one who could actually read a map and navigate. We all had a very interesting but scary encounter with an elderly man with wild eyes who kept prodding us with his walking stick while asking, “Hitler gud, ya?” We did the culture vulture thing for a few days and promised to keep in touch, buddies for life and look each other up…….but never did.
  9. Belgium. My second time back in Belgium and I was caught by a nationwide transport strike. I celebrated my 21st birthday with a Canadian student, a Welsh Parole officer and an Irish Artist. I wandered the streets of Brussels with a Moroccan student even though we communicated only by sign language. Finally, I made a run for the ports and back to U.K. by hitching a ride with an American pastor (the driver), an American couple and a British student.

Finally though, I should not forget my friend, partner in crime and occasional travel companion (although we started the trip together, we split up a couple of times before finally separating as he went on into Greece and I stopped at Yugoslavia). Now he, is a great character indeed but I think I will elaborate in my next post.

World Food Spot 9: Vlaamse karbonaden

I did this. I mean I cooked this. It is one of the few dishes that I do reasonably well. I realise that this photo looks like a pile of *unmentionables* but that is more the fault of my poor photographic skills and poor sense of food presentation than any fault of my cooking. It may look a bit suspect in this photo but trust me, it is delicious. I last cooked this for a Christmas party and suffice to say there were no leftovers and it got many compliments.

My last “World Food Spot” post focused on Belgian beer and this dish is both Belgian (Flemish, to be exact) and uses beer in the recipe. Ladies and gentlemen, may I present to you, “Vlaamse karbonaden” or “Beef Braised in Beer”.

Recipe:- (to serve 4)

  1. 800 g of topside beef cut into 2.5 cm cubes.
  2. dust with seasoned corn flour.
  3. Fry 2 thinly sliced Spanish Onions in 50 g of butter using low heat until onions are golden in color.
  4. Remove the onions with a slotted spoon and use oil in pan. Raise heat and brown the beef in the oil.
  5. Return onions. Stir over moderate heat. Use some corn starch in water to thicken if necessary.
  6. Gradually pour in 600 mL of dark beer. I used Guiness Stout.
  7. Add bouquet garni consisting of 2 parsley sprigs, 1 thyme sprig, 1 bay leaf.
  8. 1 tablespoon of tarragon wine vinegar.
  9. Add sugar to taste (about 1 tablespoon)
  10. Add Pepper and salt to taste.
  11. Cover and cook on low heat for 1 hour.
  12. Take a slice of brown bread. Remove crust. Spread a tablespoon of dark French Mustard or Honey Dijon Mustard on the bread.
  13. Tear the bread into 3 cm square pieces and add to the pot.
  14. Continue to simmer on low heat for another hour, stirring occasionally and allowing the bread to disintegrate and thicken the stew.
  15. Check taste at end and serve.

The net result is that the beef melts in the mouth and has a mix of bitter and sour taste that works very well the beef flavor. I love this and I recommend this dish highly.

Happy cooking.

World Food Spot 8: Belgian Beer

Beer. There is something special about this amber fluid, this liquid gold with its thirst-quenching and revitalising qualities. It is arguably, the world’s oldest and most popular alcoholic beverage and drinking it is like drinking in history. Written records of beer date it back 6,000 years BC in Egypt while chemical evidence of beer production exists for as far back as 3,500 years BC.

For the benefit of tea-totalers and wine-sipping gentry, beer is basically a drink produced by the fermentation of a starch-based substance (most often malted barley) using yeast. However, the history of beer making is a fascinating one in which the process evolved with time and there were some distinct innovations. The use of hops (Humulus lupulus) to flavor the brew during fermentation and different fermentation techniques like top fermentation and bottom fermentation were some of these innovations.

However, the characteristics and personality of a beer can be made so different and unique by the choice of the starch-based substrate, the choice of yeast used, the fermentation process and temperatures, the addition of flavoring agents like hops or fruits, the use of clarifying substances and even the nature of the water used. In this way, each brewery can make a beer unique to itself.

I am sorry to say that North American beer is pretty weak and dilute. Many say that the Czech beers like Pilsner Urquell lager are the best in the world. I have indeed tried this and it is very good but I find it hard to say that one is the best beer. Instead, I enjoy the wide range of tastes, flavours and textures of beers and that is why I have to recommend Belgian Beers.

There is no other place in the world that you can sample so many varieties of locally brewed beer. How many, you ask? I do not know other than it is in the excess of 750 varieties. Many of them have a long history and many are brewed by monks in monasteries.

Okay, why do I like beer so much. Could it be the smooth way that it flows down the throat? Could it be the fruity or alternatively rich bitter flavour? Could it be its ability to quech the thirst and to hit the spot? Could it be its beautiful golden and amber colour or alternatively its rich and dark tones? Could it be its coolness or the thickness of its head of foam? Could it be that warm feeling that radiates through your body after you drink it? Yes! Yes to all of the above ……..and Belgium is the place to try it.

All photos sipped from Belgian Beer, a wonderful blog dedicated just for Belgian Beer for serious scholars or drinkers.

This is my favorite amongst the readily available commercial beer brands.

Squirrel’s Secret Spot No: 9 Bruges

PhotoCredit: LGS (1. View from Belfry; 2. The beautiful canals; 3. Jerusalem Church; 4. Inside the Church; 5. Windmills; 6. Romantic canals and horsedrawn buggies)

This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a gem; a portal to a different age. The old town centre transports you magically back to the Middle Ages for this compact 430 hectare site has hardly changed since its heyday from the 12-15th Centuries when it belonged in the Flemish court. Today, it lies within the boundaries of modern day Belgium.

This city made its wealth as a trading port and as a centre for the wool trade and for weaving. Later, it would also become famous for producing intricate lace. This delicate craft is still demonstrated and displayed at a local museum.

For the visitor though, it is like a wonderland with its cobbled streets revealing historical and architectural marvels at every turn. You can find the influences of the First Crusade in the form of relics found in certain churches. The Jerusalem Church is said to be a replica of a church found in that distant Holy City. Another landmark is the Belfry with its 47 bell Carillion which is still played till today.

The canals are beautiful and both surround the city centre as well as penetrate into it. Some parts of the canals weave past tightly packed buildings and might be reminiscent of Amsterdam or Venice while others are bordered by belts of green which are a great place to rest weary feet and have a picnic. Around the edge of the city there are also picturesque windmills to enjoy.

At a certain time of the year, the streets come alive with clourful and gay period costumes and parades which represent all the guilds that once made the city wealthy. This is probably one of the best times to visit except for the accompanying crowds.

Bruges is a place to immerse oneself in history in a pleasant environment and at a wonderfully slow pace. It is also a very romantic location and to top it all off, the cuisine and the local beer are also exceptional. It packs a lot into a small compact space. You could probably see it all in a day but it would be so much better to savour its charms over a week.

World Food Spot 4 : Pommes Frites

Some tempers and patriotic fervor may still be flying high over whether fried strands of potatoes should be called “French” fries or “freedom” fries, but in the culinary arena it is of little consequence because the champion is Belgian and the name is “Pommes frites”.

Frites are thick strips of potatoes which are fried twice to give its characteristic crispy outside and soft insides. It is often served in a paper cone with a dollop of sauce on top. It is the wonderful choices of sauces that add to the charm of frites. British like their “chips” soggy and soaked in salt and vinegar; Americans like their fries sized up and dipped in tomato sauce; Malaysians would prefer sweet chilli sauce. Frites connoisseurs can chose from scores of sauces.

The origin of frites are somewhat debated between the French, Belgian and even the Dutch. The Belgians are given the benefit of the doubt as they are by far the largest consumers of frites and of potatoes per capita. The Belgians also have a strong tradition of having stalls selling frites in every town. These are more than 7000 of these “ frite kots“ in Belgium and they can have a lot of character. The Belgians even tell a little story about its origins. During winter, a certain village traditionally fried small fish which was available from a river near. However, one year due to harsh weather, the villagers did not have any fish. Somebody tried frying potatoes cut into strips like fish and that is how the pommes frites began.

Back to the variety of sauces. Frites have begun to invade USA and one shop in New York offers about 30 of these sauces and these have been rated for us by Geegaw and friends. They are all Americans so their taste may not really represent the global view but it was the only taste test I could find on the web. I remember trying and enjoying the following; tartar sauce, rosemary garlic mayo, pesto mayo, Dijon garlic mustard, Curry Ketchup Special and curry sauce.

Another regional variation which merits some attention is poutine which is a French Canadian staple and a welcome body warmer against the bitingly cold Canadian winter. Poutine is like thick frites but it is always accompanied by beef or chicken gravy and cheese curds. Probably a nutritionist’s nightmare but all the more reason it comes highly recommended.

Gross, Messy, Unhealthy but DeliciousPoutine

If one of your new year resolutions is to eat healthier, then the good news is that you still have a few days to try pommes frites and poutine.

Squirrel’s Secret Spot 2 : Han-sur-Lesse

I celebrated my 21st birthday in the company of strangers while stranded in Brussels due to a general strike which paralysed the otherwise efficient public transport and train services. I shared my birthday meal with an unemployed English parole officer, a Canadian Microbiology student and an Irish musician sitting in a restaurant within a relatively deserted Grand Place on account of the rain. I am reminded of this, as this is my 21st blog entry and both are a milestone of sorts.

I enjoyed Belgium very much. The people were friendly and helpful in many languages, that is to say that as a people, they were very impressively multi-lingual. Life, at least in the countryside, is bucolic and slow-paced. The beer was both good in quality and abundant in variety. Belgium may easily have the greatest number of beers in the world. Finally there are the frites which are thick French fries ( I do not support the campaign to call them freedom fries – it’s very immature). Frites are served with a variety of sauces and it’s the sauces that make it particularly memorable.

There were two places in Belgium that stood out in the Lone Grey Squirrel’s little mind. Today, I would like to share about Han-sur-lesse. Located in the Ardennes and near the scene of the Battle of the Bulge in the Second World War, even today the painful memories are awaiting in the mass cemeteries of war dead that are maintained in the area. Yet, strangely, I felt at peace there in the midst of the lush, green pine forests.

The main attraction tourist attraction at Han-sur-lesse is the grotto consisting of a cave and underground river. However, the whole atmosphere, the green sights, the sound of water and the smell of pine all contributed to a tranquility of mind and spirit. I arrived late in the afternoon which meant it was too late to visit the caves and I would have to spend the evening there. In fact, the time was well spent sitting on rocking chairs at the Youth Hostel deck, swilling back Belgian beers and swapping travel stories with an English father and his teenage son who were cycling through Europe and a Canadian stained glass craftsman. We drank and talked late into the night as the peaceful darkness of the Ardennes Forest enveloped us.

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The next day was the trip to the caves which was interesting enough with a fair complement of staglatites and staglamites and other rock formations. (How to remember the difference between the two? “tights” come down while “mites” climb up). The highlight of which for me was definitely coming out of the cave by boat on the underground river as it emerged back to the surface. Frequently, there is a mist that forms near the cave exit and the mist hovers over the river making for a very mystical feel. Once again, with the river flowing through the forest, I felt peace, wonderful peace, in my soul.

(Dear reader, blog technology has not advanced sufficiently yet otherwise you would have had a rendition of me singing the last part of the sentence which is italised and in bold. I am actually a very good singer but for best effect, it may help you to just imagine Andrea Bocelli singing it to the tune of an inspirational hymn and reaching a crescendo. Thank you. I am now imagining your applause.)