The Belgian Gourmet Corner

The Belgian Gourmet Corner
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Let’s hope we have an Indian summer to counterbalance a rather wet August. For a foodie, weather determines where you’ll eat and drink – inside or outside and what you’ll have: fresh crudités and grilled meat/fish with ice-cold beer or rosé/white under the sun, or more calorific food during brisk weather accompanied by beers and wines. For our autumn issue, we take you to a local Sardinian restaurant in Schaerbeek for a quick lunch or pleasant evening out. I propose a leisurely four o‘clock half & half in a Brussels café with soul, right in the centre of town. We also introduce you to a little-known edible plant with great health properties, grown right here in the city from September to June. And finally, we explore a Brussels brewery which has been in operation for more than a century in the heart of the city, finding its yeast in the very air we breathe. Welcome to Brussels, a treat for your taste buds!

The Bar – Le Cirio

I don’t like to drink at home, although my private bar is packed with a wide array of great bottles. Going out to a bar is to home drinking what the cinema is to a DVD: you’re looking for something else, to interact with others.

So what do you expect from a bar? Well, a place with an interesting group of people around, where you can just sit back and watch. A place where you forget about all your minor worries, where you can pause and relax for a while.

Le Cirio is a place where you are served and treated like a guest. And the decor, yes: you want some atmosphere because you don’t come here just to drink but also to feel the vibe of somewhere special, especially if it has some history. A place with a soul, nurtured by the souls of all its past clients, be they VIPs or laymen. Always remember that JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter in a pub! I don’t know if any writer or composer has imbibed in the Cirio and got some inspiration (Jacques Brel did, maybe), but when you enter, you instantly feel part of a community.

Of course, there are lots of tourists, attracted by the stunning beauty of this art nouveau and neo-renaissance decor, but everyone shows some respect for the premises. Coming to drink the house special is a pretext: the “half & half” is just cheap white wine mixed with cheap bubbly in a champagne flute, but the charm works.

The famous Garfield-like cat of the owner is part of the decor, as are the banquettes, where gentlemen always allow the lady to sit first. It may be just another typical Brussels brasserie with its selection of beers and Belgian food, but the atmosphere is special. Perhaps because it’s authentic:

Francesco Cirio came from Turin and bought this place in the late 19th century, to sell Italian delicatessen. The café is a classified building, and you will certainly appreciate the fact that time has kind of stopped here. It’s just what you were looking for when deciding to have that drink away from home.

Le Cirio – Rue de la Bourse 18, 1000 Brussels +32 2 512 13 95

The Beverage – 
Gueuze Cantillon

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One day at Moeder Lambic, a beer café in Saint-Gilles, I didn’t feel like having a beer. Sorry guys! A bit arrogantly, I told the waiter that I rather craved a glass of wine. He answered: “We only sell beer, as you know, but it’s not a problem – I’ll give you a beer that is the closest possible thing to wine.” And I drank my first Gueuze Cantillon, deeply impressed.

You might not like the Cantillon beers because of their acidic taste – there is almost no sugar left, everything has been transformed into alcohol. But they are beers that you can pair with food, use in cooking or sip like a wine.

Let me tell you more about this brewery, the oldest in town, which was established in 1900. It produces the unique Gueuze Cantillon beer, which allows you to literally drink a little bit of Brussels, because it’s a beer made by “spontaneous fermentation” of yeast which you can find in… the air of Brussels!

Go and visit the brewery near the Midi Station to understand how the beer is made. It’s a living museum. You can visit every day apart from Wednesdays, Sundays and bank holidays. You’ll be witness to a process that dates back more than a century ago. A sweet liquid made from the boiled, filtered sugars of wheat and malted barley, supplemented with hops, is left in the attic of the brewery, where the windows let in the air – insects are taken care of by the resident spiders – all winter, from October to April. Then the “beer wort” is poured into oak or chestnut barrels, where the spontaneous fermentation starts.

After a few days, the barrels are closed for one to three years to produce lambic, the base for the Cantillon beer. At the end of your visit, you can taste the product. Here you can spot the differences in fruitiness, acidity, bitterness and sweetness (only the faro is sweet, you may like it more than any other) in the Cantillon range.

The brewers are passionate, humorous and open-minded: they produce small batches made with grapes, fruits and other unusual combinations. And please don’t think they do it only for tourists! They opened their brewery to visitors to give it a future and not lose the know-how of the craft. Today, it’s world-renowned. A must-see!

Brasserie Cantillon – Rue Gheude 56, 1070 Anderlecht +32 2 521 49 28

The Food – 
Laeken’s cress

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Let’s start this autumn with a very local product, one of the few edible plants grown on a commercial scale in the Brussels region. The royal cress field, fed by a water source from the royal domain, was inaugurated in June 2013 by Queen Paola after a year-long effort to rehabilitate it. The source of water is important: this one is pure and healthy, but in the wild you must always rinse any river cress you find because it may carry a parasite that comes from sheep and attacks the liver.

The farm Nos Pilifs grows and harvests the royal cress, which “demands a lot of work”, according to its Director, Benoît Ceysen. If you want to sneak a peek, you can actually see the series of 27 pools hosted by an ancient railway from the cycle and pedestrian path on Avenue Van Praet along the royal domain in Laeken. The shop at the farm sells the cress, but it is also available in a few organic shops and restaurants in Brussels; don’t hesitate to ask your supplier. The farm is a unique place where mentally handicapped youngsters learn gardening and agriculture.

Cress is a gift from the gods: our ancestors called it “body’s health”. According to my favourite herbalist, the late Maurice Mességué, cress is full of vitamin C and calcium. It’s depurative, anti-oxidative, lowers blood sugar, helps chronic bronchitis and prevents hair loss! If you want to benefit from its medicinal properties, eat it raw in a salad, pure or blended. A dressing will neutralise the spiciness that is a hallmark of its botanical family, the Brassicaceae, commonly known as the cabbages (it includes mustard and rocket).

Ferme Nos Pilifs – Trassersweg 347, 1120 Neder-Over-Heembeek

Green cress soup

Personally, I love the herbal taste of cress in a very simple soup. I rinse some cress with water and remove the biggest branches. I then fry it in some butter in a deep pan. Then I add half a glass of uncooked rice, a pinch of salt and cover with water. When the rice is cooked after 10 minutes, I blend it to make a delicious thick green soup. Perfect with a tablespoon of sour cream and some coarse black pepper.

The Restaurant – 
Le Max

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I won’t use this column to enter into the acrimonious debate as to the best Italian restaurant of Brussels – it’s a never-ending story. Let me just share with you this excellent address, which very few people know because it’s a very local restaurant. Local, but Sardinian.

Roberto Pintus has been passionate about cooking since 1975, and I’m happy to tell Brussels Times readers how great his cuisine tastes. You are never disappointed here, be it downstairs in the vault for an inexpensive buffet lunch, or à la carte at street level (with the added bonus of a terrace in summer). The price/quality ratio is excellent, and you can find dishes you’ve never eaten before – I remember having a fantastic goat roast.

The Sardinian cuisine is creative but simple; its appeal lies mainly in the quality and freshness of its ingredients. Roberto was once president of the Brussels Slow Food chapter and still defends using fully traceable and seasonal products, including fish. Trust him, he’ll surprise you. He’s also got an excellent wine cellar, which you can see downstairs.

A plus: a salon on the first floor, where you can sip your digestif in a cosy decor after a very Belgian dessert, their famous dame blanche. Advance warning: the two main complaints from customers are cash only and difficult parking (it’s a residential area – better use Uber).

Le Max – Avenue Emile Max 87, 1030 Schaerbeek +32 2 733 17 88

By Hughes Belin

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