Disclosure: A technical error sent an unedited draft of this story to readers on email, Facebook, and Google +. This is the version I wanted to publish.
Hotel de Ville [City Hall] on the Grand Place, Brussels, Belgium
Brussels is an important city for several reasons. Politically, it is the capital of Belgium and the European Union. Historically, it’s importance as a fortress town began in the 10th
century. Architecturally, the Grand Place is designated a World Heritage Site of striking 17th
century design and construction. But the importance of Brussels, to me, is tied to memories of food I ate there thirteen years ago while visiting a friend. For the past five years we have lived next door to Belgium, in France. In February it was time to revisit. We set out on a little road trip.
In 2002, while we were living in Taiwan, my friend Nancy invited me to Brussels where she had moved several years before. She and her family lived in an attached row house of many ascending levels. The guest quarters were on the top floor, under the eaves. The ceiling angled sharply down from the peaked roof. A big skylight opened to fresh air, clouds, sun, or neighboring rooftops. Wooden floorboards were painted white. On the bed was a puffy duvet covered in green and white gingham. An adjoining bathroom housed a large bathtub and towels that were warmed by a radiator attached to the wall. I called it the Heidi-hayloft-room because it reminded me of the Swiss children’s book by Johanna Spyri. I flew out of Asia into a fairytale.
A small boy who believed he was Batman also lived in the household. It was nearly impossible to separate costume and character from the child. I was the guest in a house-of-many-levels with a miniature black caped, masked action hero and his parents. At his French pre-school, Brady acquired a perfect accent that I can only dream about for myself. And, like everyone in Brussels, he adored pommes frites.
Frites are a national snack food as well as a side dish. Locals and tourists eat them like popcorn at the movies. Storefronts are dedicated to selling paper cones of frites, right out of the fryer, with a choice of sauces. They are eaten with tiny plastic forks. Each order is freshly made and always just right–crispy on the outside, feathery light on the inside. I believe Belgians perfected making frites precisely because they know that eating them outdoors on a freezing day warms your insides. On our recent visit we shared a cornet on two bitingly cold days. And stayed warm to our bones.
side by side friteries
sauces are tastier than you might think
cornet with a dollop of spicy samourai sauce [delicious!]
When Nancy took me to the Grand Place of landmark architectural fame, she said, “Here. You MUST eat this. Right now.” I was handed a hot waffle, wrapped in paper, from a street vendor’s cart. On the outside it looked like any waffle, except it was thicker, and more irregular around the edges. I bit into a surprise. Partially melted, caramelized crystals of sugar crunched and then dissolved into pools of syrup, filling my mouth with warmth and sweetness. In that moment, time, place and taste blended together. A blustery winter morning, an historic square with ancient cobblestones and gothic spires, and a mouthful of fresh waffle. I never forgot it.
My food writing mentor, MFK Fisher, has her own version. As a young woman living in France in the 1920s she belonged to an Alpine hiking club. Most of the members were much older. She felt a bit lonely as the only foreigner. One very cold day, reaching the top of a steep hill and catching her breath, an old general said to her, “Here! Try some of this young lady!” He gave her a pale brown piece of chocolate. She writes, “In my mouth the chocolate broke at first like gravel into many separate, disagreeable bits. I began to wonder if I could swallow them. Then they grew soft and melted voluptuously into a warm stream down my throat.” Another member of the group came bustling up to say, “Wait, wait! Never eat chocolate without bread, young lady! Very bad for the interior, very bad.” She continues, “And in two minutes my mouth was full of fresh bread and melting chocolate, and as we sat gingerly, the three of us, on the frozen hill, looking down into the valley…we peered shyly and silently at each other and smiled and chewed at one of the most satisfying things I have ever eaten…”
MFK’s hillside bread and chocolate. My perfect waffle. Two fine food moments. Fisher calls them “peaks of gastronomic emotion”. She intellectualizes, “It is, I am sure as much a matter of spirit as of body. Everything is right; nothing jars. There is a kind of harmony, with every sensation and emotion melted into one chord of well-being.” Still, these moments are very personal and often hard to describe.
Return visit 2015, I learned that waffle vendors are no longer in the Grand Place. Nearby, shop after shop sold waffles, mostly loaded with extras. We snapped a few photos, but it wasn’t what I wanted.
Then, on a side street, I spotted a parked truck with the words, “Gaufres Chaudes”. A man was making waffles in his van. What he handed me was smaller and not as dense as I remembered. The inside had a thin layer of sweetness but no crunch to the bite. Perhaps he used a finely grained sugar that readily melted on the griddle. The taste was fine. I was hungry. It was cold. But it wasn’t the same.
the lone street vendor
but not the same waffle
The best food revisit turned out to be mussels. Moules-frites, en Français, because they always come with fries. I ate them for the very first time at Aux Armes de Bruxelles with Nancy. And then recently, I ate them at the same restaurant, three times in three days, with my husband. We found no reason to go elsewhere. It’s that special. Belgians go there for a mussel fix too.
September to April is the best season for jumbo mussels from Zeeland, which is a southwestern province in the Netherlands. It is the ONLY region from where to obtain this particular type of mussel. So our server said. Other mussels, and those eaten throughout the year, are not the same. Smaller. Different. Not as tasty.
They were served in a big bowl, frites on the side and always bread to sop up the sauce and veggies at the bottom. Determining the best flavor of sauce was strictly trial and error. My husband found his favorite on the first try–white wine and cream sauce [au vin blanc et crème]. Second time, I asked for a made-up combination, which became my personal best–white wine, lots of garlic and spicy red pepper [au vin blanc, beaucoup d’ail, et piment]. It’s not on the menu, but the kitchen obliged.
The broth is full of chopped onion, celery, fresh parsley, and once, tiny asparagus tips. It is an intoxicating combination–a bowl of plump jumbo mussels, steamed heat and aromas from the sauce wafting up, followed by the pleasure of eating them one by one. We smiled and sighed between morsels of mussel and bites of frites.
two ways to eat: using shell as utensil
or the conventional fork
The choice of accompanying beverage required more trial and error. Belgian beer was good for the beer drinker. A glass of red Bordeaux was good for the red wine lover. Unanimously, our recommendable favorite was a bottle of white burgundy Chablis. Order it immediately and begin sipping while you wait.
Mussel memory was still great despite the intervening years. Sharing the experience with a loved one was especially poignant. Together, we know what it means to have a “Fisher moment” of complete gastronomic satisfaction. Mussels in Brussels. C’était bon.
flowing chocolate, another story
- Aux Armes de Bruxelles
- Rue des bouchers 13
- 1000 Brussels
- Tel: +32  2 511 55 50
- Open 7/7 from noon to 10:45PM, Monday to Friday
- Until 11:15PM Saturday and 10:30PM Sunday