|Pierre Marcolini - Grand Cru chocolate bar|
First off, the Air Canada in-flight magazine was the annual food issue. I love the breadth of content and the writing, and look forward to it each year: As usual En Route Magazine featured their take on the year’s best new Canadian restaurants. The top ten included no less than 6 eateries in Toronto, and two each in Calgary and Montreal. I really have to wonder, despite a long list of contributors to the deliberations (and a 2010 top ten place for Quatrefoil in Dundas), whether restaurants outside of the major metropolitan areas get sufficient consideration.
A similar list recently published by Macleans (The 50 Best Restaurants in Canada) had 12 restaurants in Toronto listed, with another two in Ottawa completing their list for ALL of Ontario! That may say something about the ascendance of Toronto as a
foodie mecca, but leads me to question how representative such lists actually are.
While I can accept that perhaps the time for some great spots in Hamilton, Burlington and Oakville may come in the future, there are some wonderful places on the Niagara peninsula that surely should have made at least one of the current lists. [Note to En Route: I’d be happy to help fill that gap between Niagara and Toronto in your list of coast-to-coast food panelists.]
Once I had arrived in Brussels, things got interesting. I checked in at my hotel on the attractive Rue du Marché aux Fromages (“Kaasmarkt” in Flemish, and of course “Cheese Market Street” in English.) Later that day, after my first meeting, colleagues arranged a communal dinner at Les Brigittines, a restaurant in the historic city centre, where Chef-Proprietor Dirk Myny serves traditional Belgian-French cuisine.
We had “Zenne Pot”, a first for me! Neither the picture nor any description can really do this Flemish dish justice. Complex and delicious, dry sausage, sea snails and cabbage are cooked in Lambic beer (gueuze Cantillon) and served on a bed of pork blood sausage (Bloempanch).
Our main course was veal cheek braised for 4 hours in another Belgian beer (Cantillon Kriek). It was meltingly tender. Of course there was more beer to start (a fine pale ale – Taras Boulba from the Senne brewery), wine throughout, and dessert to round things off. At about $63 all-in it was terrific value.
The next morning, my otherwise awful hotel served lovely fresh croissants and baguette, though my request for decaf elicited an unbelieving snort, which I took to mean ‘no’. Later, at coffee break at the conference centre, there were individually-wrapped crisp Belgian cookies, the kind one can get in many supermarkets here.
However, it was lunch during the conference that really set things apart from any similar meeting in North America. A goodly amount of time was set aside each day for a full meal of cold hors d`oeuvres, choices of hot mains, good cheeses (obviously) and desserts. A choice of red, white of rose wine was available as a matter of course.
This was not my first trip to Brussels, so I made time to stop at the extra-ordinary (some might say pretentious) chocolatier, Pierre Marcolini. His creations are based on small batches of beans sourced from single producers around the world. Marcolini has introduced “collections” of chocolate, something he might have borrowed from the fashion industry.
He sources beans from distinctive origins and terroirs, building a mystique usually associated with Grand Cru wines. As you can see in the photos accompanying this piece, his attention to packaging and marketing, coupled with the rarity of his products, means a trip to his store is an expensive outing. Still, I am amazed at the complex tastes in the bars I’ve sampled and, if anyone can make me a believer in dark chocolate, it would be Mr. Marcolini.
Even so, Marcolini is not a warrant holder to the Belgian court. That honour goes to only four purveyors among the seemingly hundreds of shops in Brussels. I stumbled on one, a company called “Mary,” which with its white and gold motif, seemed like the yin to Marcolini`s yang.
While one can order from many of these companies via the internet, for those who want something more immediate I can recommend Casteleyn Belgian Chocolatiers on Brant St. It has been a regular stop for me after a lunch in downtown Burlington, and I always order a (white) chocolate “car” and an Illy decaf coffee. A deal at about $2, and far better than any chain coffee, my order is often charmingly served by the mother of the chocolatier. I think I may drop back soon and taste test some of their products and report back on their approach to the craft.
On the evening before departing Brussels, I scored an invitation to a party at a private residence in a beautiful six level house in the suburbs. It was thrown by Henriette Bredsten and her husband Lasse to mark the launch of the Water Blueprint for Europe. It was a rare privilege to witness the large team that had delivered this landmark document celebrate their success. In style.
There were nibblies, and Lasse was serving from an apparently bottomless bottle of fine bubbly (Champagne Prestige des Sacres - Cuvée Dynastie). It turned out Lasse is a partner in Global Grapes, a wine purveyor that holds tastings in private residences among their offerings. While enthusiastically topping me up, he told me they had had the opportunity to visit the producer this September and see the harvest (see slideshow here). He also told me that this delightful sparkler was about to be exported to Canada, so watch out for it.
At the airport - after I was done with the duty-free shop which featured a vast wall and a half of various chocolates - I came upon a final, and slightly off-putting, culinary reference. There were a series of Coke machines in the concourse with a depiction of the landmark statue that defines Brussels for many visitors. I had stumbled on the original and world-famous “Manneken Pis” (peeing boy) statue as I walked back to my hotel, and I’ll admit that never in a hundred years would the marketing potential for a soft drink have sprinkled to mind…
For more great pictures, click here.