Monday, March 30, 2009

Lost in Bruges

It is the task of every foodie to eat and to eat well. So it was not without frustration that I found myself walking the streets of Bruges in search of a memorable meal.

My preparatory research had proved disappointing. Despite numerous googles, I had come up with very little, say for a few reviews from travel sites and some reader recommendations from TripAdviser.

I was unimpressed. Did no one eat in Bruges? Where were those trusted foodies that usually went before me, willing to share their secrets of a memorable meal?

For a city celebrated for its chocolate and beer, I found myself in the almost untenable position of not knowing where to eat. Yes, I could have given into a Michelin star but I’m generally not a fan of star ratings or their associated price tags.

No, I wanted something local —something to write home about.

For a city with more restaurants per square mile than any other European city (138 restaurants per square mile to be exact), I was a little dumbfounded. Would I be forced to eat pralines and drink Duvel all weekend? Or in the face of starvation, would I be forced to order from a tourist menu, one translated into English, French, German and Japanese.

It was thus with a sad heart that I approached dinner on Saturday night. The day trippers from Bruxelles had left the city, no doubt in search of a better meal. Restaurant upon restaurant all seemed to feature the same menu. The only difference was the prices. The closer to the city centre I ventured, the higher they rose.

I knew what I wanted to eat. It was just a case of finding it or so I told my very patient companion. And so we walked. From Markt to Gozeseputstraat back to Burg, until we finally chanced upon Restaurant De Koetse, just off Simon Stevin Plein.

We were famished by the time we arrived and promptly ordered the local beer РBrugse Zot, a very light ale, to help us study the menu. There was no choice Рwe wanted mussels or more precisely, Mossele - la biere de Bruges & cr̬me (mussels cooked in beer and cream). We thought we were done until we spotted eel Рaale im rahmssse (eel in cream sauce). Now this was something to write about.

There was a collective sign of relief. We knew that we were in for a good meal. This was quickly confirmed when we were served our apetitiser – preserved herring and a plate of sea snails, the size of pipis. The herring was infused with dill and the snails: meaty, very fresh and spicy on the palate.

As we relished what could only be described as a promising start, our eel arrived served in a wondrous, buttery rich sauce. Each piece tasted better than the next. Our enthusiasm must have been obvious, as we were given a second helping much to the detriment of the mossele that had arrived at the same time.

If I was looking to fault the meal, it would only be this. I can only imagine what the mussels would have been like, if we had eaten them on arrival. They had been cooked to perfection. Exceptional, even. The taste of parsley, celery, beer and cream, perfectly (yes, I use that word again) integrated; the ale being the most persistent of favours. The mussels were of the highest quality: fresh and succulent. The broth soaked up with rustic bread, delicious.

There was no dessert. After a day of sampling local chocolates, there was no need. In fact, we were content and exceptionally well feed.

Sloweaters guide to Bruges
Known as the Venice of the North, this city is celebrated for its canals, picturesque setting and UNESCO recognised medieval architecture. For all its quaintness, Bruges is the perfect weekender courtesy of the Eurostar from London. Three hours and you’re in a city celebrated for its architecture, chocolates, waffles, and beer.


To market, to market
It's the one thing that I crave when I'm in London, it's a good European market. So if you arrive before 13.00 on a Saturday morning, make your first stop - t'zand. It's close to the railway station and the perfect opportunity to buy some Belgium produce. The pound might be performing badly but the quality of food will be better than what you'd pay the same price for in London. If you are in Bruges during the week, you can see locals buy their fish at the outdoor market, Viz Markt.

For other take home items, take a walk along Dijver on either Saturday or Sunday afternoon (pictured above). You might find a set of Duvell beer glasses, a candelabrum or an example of the local handicraft. It is more flea market than antique fair, for that you'll need to cross the river to Galerij Bonart.

Among its many treasures and curiousities, you're likely to find a 1954 pressing of Rigaletto, that art nouveau tea set you have been looking for, or politically incorrect coffee memorabilia from the 1950s.

Galerij Bonart, Nieuwstraat 9, 8000 Brugge

When one bite isn't enough ... chocolate
There is chocolate and then there is chocolate.

With records dating back to 1693 showing the first order of chocolate from the chocolatier Maurice Scholle, you know this is a city that takes its chocolate serious. The line-up of chocolatiers is world famous: Damon, Leonidas, Dominique Persoone, Neuhaus.

Try to resist shopping at the big names and think more locally. Chololaterie Sukerbuyc, which translates as chocolate sugar belly, and the equally appealing, The Old Chocolate House, offer a more quintessential experience. With chocolates made on site, both seem closer to the family tradition of chocolate making in Bruges.

If you want a more modern experience, try Depla for its architectural showcasing of the art of chocolate.

The Chocolate House, Maria straat 1-800 Brugge, Chololaterie Sukerbuyc, Katelijnestraat 5, 8000 Brugge, Depla Chocolateir, Mariastraat 20, 8000 Brugge

We had ours from a portable shop in the main square - markt. They were crisp and hot, just the way fries should be. There’s a lot to be said for fresh hot oil. Be a traditionalist and get yours with mayonnaise unlike our fellow travellers who ordered theirs with curry sauce!

Go to one of twin take-away carts on the Market Square (Markt) at the base of the bell tower for your frites.

For one of the best deli experiences, visit Diksmuids Boterhuis, the oldest food produce store in Brugge (pictured below).

Expert knowledge of local cheeses and small goods has been nurtured by this one family for the last 75 years.

We selected a local brie from Damme, five kilometres away from Brugge, and Abdijkaas. We wanted something local that would travel well – in fact, we were told not to put either cheese in the fridge as they would last for 4-6 weeks respectively.

On the shelves, we also found speculoos, the traditional Beligium biscuit first eaten on the feast of Saint Nicolas. A selection of the delicacies that you will find in Diksmuids Boterhuis, including the thirty regional goat cheeses that they have on offer.

Also try Deldycke, for another impressive selection of chocolate, wines and local cheeses.

Diksmuids Boterhuis, Geldmunstraat 23, Brugge
Deldycke, Wollestraat 23, Brugge

With over 400 different types of beer to choose from, you're more likely to run out of drinking time than choices. Try one of the popular blanche beers such as Hoegaarden or the local ale, Bruges - Zot. Also try Chimay, one of the trappist beers. There are only a dozen or so abbey brewies in Europe, six are Trappist and all located in Belgium.

Staminee de Garre, De Garre 1 Brugge; t'Brugs Beertje, Kemelstraat 58000 Brugge.

The city of Bruges is one of its best attractions but for those who want to cultivate their culinary knowledge, go to the Chocolate Museum. This is a fascinating museum: a testament to the highly addictive nature of chocolate. Start your tour by studying Atzec and Maya cultures, before travelling to Spain and reading how it was the Oaxaca nuns who first added sugar to drinking chocolate.

Wijnzakstraat 2 (Sint-Jansplein)8000 Bruges

Thank you: As always, a special thank you to my travelling companion and fellow sloweater, LBM.