Jun. 07, 2006 - Issue #555: Oiler Fever
Old world travel reveals time-tested foodie delights
Arriving in Brugge was a joy. Not only were Shell and I marking the end of more than 24 hours of travelling, but we were also ready to experience the reason we added four days in Belgium to our trip: great food and amazing beer. And since our fabulous friend Danielle was there to help us find our first Belgian meal, we knew our bellies were going to be pretty happy.
We walked from the train station into town, not more than a half-hour including various photo-stops. The town itself was gorgeously on hold, with its architectural history maintained and preserved. In the town’s centre, satellite dishes are forbidden.
If you gaze at the building tops and ignore the cars, time rewinds. It’s entirely unlike Edmonton, where we tear down buildings just to prevent them from ever gaining any historical status or protection.
In many European restaurants, attention is also paid to time. In particular, Danielle advised us, it’s common that a restaurant won’t open until 6 or 7 pm. Since our grumbling bellies could not be contented with wandering until then, at around 5 pm we found one of the few spots open offering more than spaghetti.
We moseyed into De Torre, a restaurant on the bank of the Brugge canals. Established in an old gentlemen’s house built in the 1700s, the restaurant was completely modern on the inside, decorated in art-deco style. Thankfully, the menu held onto tradition.
Before we placed our orders, Danielle confirmed a rumour: Flemish stew is amazing. Travel-weary, hungry and full of anticipation, all three of us ordered the same thing.
Flemish stew is a simple concept: take some beef, basic seasonings, lots of onions and cook it all for a heck of a long time in dark Belgian beer. The result was the best meal we had in Brugge. The beef was fall-apart tender, practically quivering at the sight of our forks. Served with only the barest of greens, and no veggies in the stew itself, the meat easily took centre stage.
And, yes, the stew tasted great with beer. With one glass down, we only had about 500 more standard Belgian beers left to try. Definitely worth 20 euros ($28.50 CAD) per person.
You thought that Oxford was famous for its university. Ha! It turned out that Oxford is nearly as famous for its sausages.
Max Mason took this town’s other claim to fame and turned it into The Big Bang, a restaurant serving almost exclusively bangers (sausages) and mash (mashed potatoes). With a concept like that, and a clever name to boot, it’s no wonder that our friend Kathryn took us there for a real British meal.
The menu was deceptively simple: pick a sausage; pick a mash; pick a jus. I had no idea sausages could be so varied. Wild venison sausages, lamb and mint sausages, Welsh pork and leek sausages and, of course, traditional Oxford sausages were only a few of the options. Thankfully, Max himself joined us at our table to take our orders and led us down his passionate path.
With his guidance, I opted for basil and vine tomato sausages over a rose mash and vegetable gravy. Shell had the Stilton sausages with a creamed mash and a rosemary jus. Kathryn went with the traditional Oxford sausages with a carrot and swede mash and a rich red wine jus.
When a restaurant shifts focus and looks to locally sourced gourmet ingredients, you can expect the food to be good. And it was. It was reasonably priced too, around 10 pounds ($20 CAD) per person, including a drink. The Big Bang made for a real highlight; with its blatantly simple concept, the restaurant made us appreciate what exceptional ingredients can do.
Everyone I know who has visited France came back longing for pain au chocolat. I suspect this has to do with a general lack of easy-to-find pastry shops in E-town. In Paris, boulangeries and patisseries are as ubiquitous as liquor stores on Jasper Avenue. I expected similar longings to seize me when we returned.
But it isn’t the pastry I crave. Nor is it the crêpe from that little crêperie in the Marais district, undoubtedly the prettiest and most picture-perfect of all the food we ate in Paris. Instead, I crave wine and cheese and bread, enjoyed with our friends Pat and Del along the banks of the Seine.
Why would I pick the cheap-o picnic as Paris’s food highlight? As we were indeed lucky enough to try a few fabulous restaurants, I suspect it was the inspiration for the scene.
The night before our picnic, we signed up for a superbly touristy boat ride along the Seine. While the tour guide pointed out monument after monument, we couldn’t help but notice that all the youth of Paris seemed to be enjoying the evening, in pairs or small groups, near the water. Along the entire route, people were outside with friends, food and wine.
This was not the picture of youth protests or riots. This was the picture of fun. And while cramped living arrangement might inspire these outdoor gatherings, we were inspired as well.
Beyond the baguette, we enjoyed sweet egg bread with our Brie and Comté, a traditional, hard cheese similar to Gruyère. We savoured a bottle of Beaujolais for less than three euros.
Somehow, I don’t think we’ll be able to recreate the scene in our river valley. But isn’t that what vacations are for? Beautiful memories from my trip will turn into unfulfillable cravings. And I know my cravings will go on, for French cheese, Belgian beer and British sausage, until my next trip. V
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