Sunday, January 11, 2009
Belgium: the Land of Beer and Chocolate
After Gilles’ parents returned to Canada, we traveled to Belgium to ring in the New Year and enjoy plenty of chocolate, beer, and waffles. Belgium was not a country that we were previously interested in visiting, but due to its proximity to us and rave reviews from friends, we decided to give it a try. As usual, we were not disappointed by what we saw! We split our time between Brussels (the capital) and the quaint medieval town of Bruges.
The highlight for many tourists visiting Belgium is sampling the beer and chocolate, two culinary treasures that the Belge have been renowned for for centuries. There are over 400 different types of Belgian beers; remarkably each one has its own glass. The main classes of beer are: white/witbier, trappist, abbey, lambic (unique to Belgium), ales, and seasonal beers for Christmas-time. Most restaurants serve ten to twenty different beers, but we were in two whose menu listed over 400 varieties! Imagine not only stocking that many different beers, but subsequently having to stock that many different glasses! We managed to try 21 different beers, including one that smelled like a blueberry strawberry shortcake doll I had as a child, and one that smelled like cherry lifesavers. Some of the beers we tried were reminiscent of ones I have had from the Quebec brewery Unibroue. We liked all but one or two of the beers that we tried, not a bad record!
Mmmmm, chocolate! While in Belgium we felt like Homer Simpson in his ‘Land of Chocolate’ fantasy. I am sure we had chocolate three times daily, and if we were ever running out of supplies, there was guaranteed to be a chocolate shop only a few steps away. We learned about the history of chocolate in the chocolate museum in Bruges, then marched straight over to the nearest chocolate shop for more goodies. We sampled chocolate from about seven different shops; our favourites were Dumon, Neuhaus, and Pierre Marcolini. The Marcolini shop looked more like a fancy jewelry store than a chocolate shop. His chocolates were well worth the hefty price and the long line. We returned home with almost 1 Kg of pralines (filled chocolates, a Belgian invention), and are using them to stave off the resultant chocolate hangover. As a side note, in our well researched chocolate opinion, Bernard Callebaut, the Belgian chocolatier who has set up shop in Calgary, offers a product that rivals what we tasted in Belgium.
A couple of additional notes about Belgian cuisine: they consider fries an essential part of any meal, they have the best mussels we have ever eaten (combined with fries = moules frites), and the waffles are incredible!
We did much more in Belgium than eat and drink, but chocolate and beer is much easier to describe than what we saw. Bruges had a few seasonal sites set up that we took part in: an amazing ice sculpture display inside a cooled tent. It included an ice bar with shotglasses made of ice, and an ice slide that chilled our bums as we slid down. There was an outdoor skating rink in the main town square. Most people do not learn how to skate here, so we spent more time dodging adults and children on their backsides than we did actually skating, but it was fun nonetheless!