Sleepless (and saucy) in Brussels


Maison Antoine, Brussels

Known as the best frites in Brussels, today I'm making a pilgrimage to Maison Antoine, Place Jourdan

It’s 4am here in Brussels, Belgium, where I’ve been working for the past few days. Long hours of meetings and a reception at the European Parliament last night (where the nibbles and drinks were lovely) have left me restless. I can’t sleep, and my mind is going over and over the plan for the day.

This plan involves attending more meetings and catching a train back to England, but will also provide a precious three-hour window, within which I will make a cross-city trek, noisily rolling my suitcase over old cobbles, to indulge in two of Brussels’s delicacies.

1. Les frites. 

Destination: Maison Antoine.

The mis-attributed ‘French’ fries were born here in Belgium. On this trip, the Frites Goddess is smiling upon me, for she has given me a hotel room on Place Jourdan, the location of what is arguably the very best frites in Brussels: Maison Antoine. This place has been serving up one of Belgium’s great delights for more than 50 years. I remember it from when I lived here, and can’t wait to try it again today. However, a burning question remains: which sauce will I choose for dipping my frites?

Among those who know me, it’s no secret that I’m a sauce woman, especially when it comes to fries. In America, the ketchup flows freely from squeezy bottles. In the UK, I’m accustomed to having to request (and pay for) extra ketchup in plastic packets. Belgians, however, take saucing to new heights, offering more than a dozen sauces for your frites, dolloped atop the crispy spears, which are served in paper cones. Maison Antoine has 29 varieties.

That’s twenty. Nine.

… Now perhaps you understand why I’m awake at 4 am.

I have one opportunity for frites on this trip, before catching my train this afternoon. I must choose wisely. Once I’ve ordered my frites, there won’t be much time to make decisions. There is likely to be a queue of people behind me, and I will be expected to know what I want. Andalouse? Bernaise? Tartare Maison? I may make a special prayer to the Frites Goddess now, asking for the wisdom to quickly choose the optimal sauce, and, while I’m at it, that I don’t burn my tongue in my haste to eat my Antoine’s frites.

2. Les chocolats.

Mysterious pillow chocolates

These little babies appeared on my pillow last night while I was out. They are not from a humble little Belgian choclatier, but are still very tasty

Destination: an as-yet-unknown but highly recommended choclatier

In a world where most chocolate is processed and sold by a few multinational companies, the small, humble chocolatier still has a presence here in Belgium, and I plan to lend my support by buying as many boxes as I can fit in my suitcase.

To this end, I have sent a message to my Belgian friend S — who invited me for dinner and a delectable chocolate cake on Monday night — to find out the location of her favourite chocolatier. This really is the only way to buy chocolates in Belgium: recommendations from Belgians. A Belgian colleague I spoke to yesterday agreed that it is hard to find the most wonderful things about Brussels unless you ask a local. While this is true in many places, I can confirm it was the case for me — when I lived here, I didn’t know half of the culinary joys of this wonderful city. Fortunately, I get the chance to make up for lost time during these brief business trips, and am lucky to now have Belgian friends, who are generous in sharing what they know.

The metaphysics of great food

Though I do love good chocolate, I am aware that chocolate growers are not always the most well-taken-care-of in the agriculture industry, so I try to buy fairly traded chocolate. This is easy in the UK, but less so here in Belgium. However, this is changing according to some reports, and I’ve noticed the Fair Trade label on chocolate bars in the supermarkets here more than ever. Fortunately, many small choclatiers do make an effort to find ethical sources for their cocoa, so that gives me some peace of mind. According to Fernando Pessoa, a Portuguese poet (1888-1935): ” … there’s no metaphysics on Earth like chocolate.” I’d agree, but would also say there’s nothing on Earth like guilt-free (fairly traded) Belgian chocolate, so I’m pleased to see the promising trends.

And to Senhor Pessoa I’d have to say that it’s a tough call which is the most metaphysically lovely on Earth: chocolate, or some well-sauced Belgian frites. Maybe by the end of today I will have an answer.

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