Bellying up in Brussels

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Booking a vacation across the Pond is a sure incentive to get your money’s worth out of a trip. When we first decided to travel to Europe in August the intention was to only go to the Netherlands for a bike/boat tour with friends. But when we studied the map of the Netherlands, we saw how close other cities were that held interest for us.

“Hey, here’s Belgium! Let’s drop in on Brussels and check out how our sister-church is doing.”

“And Hamburg is just north. Let’s go visit Marion.”

“And shoot, as long as we’re at it, Berlin is just a short train ride from there.”

And so the beast is released. Untamable, uncontrollable, wander-lust. Our 10-day trip just morphed into three weeks. But hey, if you’re going to go that far, best to stay awhile or at least until the money runs out.

When our boat pulled into Amsterdam harbor at the end of the biking week, we lingered on deck a while saying our goodbyes to other guests and crew (who quickly became friends) with whom we shared some sweet memories. Afterwards, we walked the short walk to the train station from the dock and boarded a train headed for Brussels.

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Saying our goodbyes to Piet, our faithful guide

 

The main reason we wanted to spend a weekend in Brussels was to attend a service at the sister church of Red Rocks Church in Denver, and pass greetings and encouragement to our family of believers there. On Sunday morning we took a train to Waterloo about a half hour south of Brussels. Attending the worship service was soul satisfying and we savored the time spent with new friends.

Speaking of savoring, we did plenty of that in Brussels.

I don’t normally do “foodie” writing but our short stay in Brussels warrants it. Fair warning – If you’re not hungry now, you will be when you’re done reading this.

It all started out with our train ride from Amsterdam. We usually opt for 2nd class train travel in Europe because there’s not much difference on the ICE trains. (And anything beats air travel.) But this time, 2nd class was full so we upped to 1st class for slightly more money on the ICE train.   Good move. A white coated waiter brought a cart to our table with wine, beer, coffee and fresh pastries – all complimentary.

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We settled into our Airbnb apartment and then set off to explore a little of the city on a free walking tour. Travel hint: These tours are available in most large popular cities in Europe. They are free but you are expected to tip the guide who is usually a student, generously (10-20 Euros per person.) Somehow, we just couldn’t squeeze Paris into our itinerary on this trip, but Brussels was a good way to get a little French fix. The architecture was a comfortable mix of Dutch and French and French is the preferred language.

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Our room with a view

Breakfast was almost always the same. Crisp, tender, flaky croissants, fresh squeezed OJ and a deep espresso with lots of creamy white foam. I could never get tired of that kind of morning jolt.

We usually seek out a local street market whenever we travel to new parts and this time was no different.  A morning spent in an outdoor market is always a good lesson in local culture. The flea market offered everything from tacky trash to antique treasures but the farmer’s market was a feast for the eyes – and bellies.

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Fresh big black figs – my favorite!

For lunch we were on the hunt for a good plate of Brussel’s mussels. We scored at Jardin Van Gogh in St. Catherine’s square.   A giant pot of perfectly steamed mussels in white wine and herbs arrived at our table along with the customary French fries. How are we ever going to eat all of that?! But paired with a dark Dunkel beer and a side salad, the mussels were heaven on the palate and we ate Every. Single. One.

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Mussels in Brussels

Which brings me to the food of choice in Brussels. Chocolate! Belgium chocolate has a reputation for being the best chocolate in the world – for good reason. We nibbled and sampled our way through at least five chocolate shops before making the choice to purchase heavenly truffles at the most famous shop in Belgium – Mary’s. This chocolate has been the official chocolate of kings and queens of Belgium for decades. We figured if it was good enough for royalty, it was good enough for us.

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Aksum Cafe in the Galeries

And what’s the best chaser for chocolate? Why, espresso of course! The Aksum coffee company pulled a perfect shot and had a not-so-shabby ambience in the Galeries, too. So we settled down to digest and savor and people watch. We lingered over coffee perhaps longer than we should have – or perhaps not long enough. Either way, we loved the idea of taking the pressure off to sightsee and instead savored the moments in between.

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Aksum Cafe in the Galeries
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The Galeries Brussels

 

 

 

 

Slow Cookery, Deliberate Dining

 

Greek Food

(In light of Greece’s financial crisis, my heart goes out to the Greek people who are caught in the middle between corruption and politics, tradition and reform, while trying to put food on their tables.  We can only hope the government will make the right decision.  Prayers for you, my friends.)

The Greeks have mastered the art of SLOW.  You see it everywhere.  No one seems to be in a rush — well, except when they speak or drive.  But seriously, a typical meal can last up to three or four hours, Greek Orthodox church starts early in the morning and goes until whenever the priest is done, it can take up to a week or more to get internet/phone/car/anything serviced, a hike is more of a leisurely stroll, an afternoon meeting can extend into dinner and drinks (which typically start at 9pm) and a Greek wedding is an all day/all night/next morning affair.  These people really know how to squeeze every bit of energy out of each moment without ever running out of conversation (or food.)

And they created the art of slow food passed down through generations. It begins in the morning when mama and/or yiayia (grandma) visit the farmers market for the fresh produce they will use in the daily meals. The market teams with women (and quite a few men) leisurely strolling and loudly bantering with the merchants.   This is a social occasion as much as it is a shopping trip.

Slow food for the soul lesson #1: People are more important than tasks.

Preparing a meal is an all day affair of cleaning, chopping, shredding, baking, boiling, and chatting. Smells of garlic, lemon, oregano and succulent meat waft from the kitchens all around town. When the family sits down for a meal the table is simply set with one plate each, a set of silverware, local wine and food enough to feed an army. On any given day you might see a fresh salad, fresh baked bread, mezethes (Greek appetizers), pastisio (basically mac and cheese), big beans, roasted vegetables, lamb kleftiko (slow cooked in parchment paper), beef stifado (slow cooked in a pot) or lemon chicken (slow cooked in the oven with potatoes). Or all of the above. Even more revered than the belly-satisfying, mouth-watering food is the time-honored tradition of creating and preparing and partaking of it together in community of family and friends – slowly, intentionally, fully.

Lesson #2: Fast “food” fills our stomachs. Slow food satisfies hunger – body and soul.

Food for the soul
1st hour: Eat, drink, talk, relax
2nd hour: See above
3rd hour: More of the same

I challenge you to slow down, grab a friend or family member and a glass of wine while you prepare this succulent recipe.  Then sit down for a while and forget about the next thing on your schedule.  Better yet, empty your schedule and enjoy.  You’ll be glad you did AND you’ll be back for more!

 

LEMON CHICKEN WITH POTATOES

3 cloves garlic
1 whole chicken cut up
2 potatoes per person 
1 teas. fresh ground pepper
1 teas. mustard
1 Tbsp. oregano
2 teas. salt
Juice of 2 lemons (plus zest)
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup water

Peel potatoes and cut into wedges.  Place in large baking pan or clay pot.  Lay chicken pieces on top.  Cut garlic cloves in half.  Slice small hole in each breast and insert 1/2 clove.  Lay others around pan.  Add oregano and pepper.  Dissolve mustard in mixture of lemon juice and zest and pout over chicken.  Add salt, oil and water.  Cover and bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour.  Uncover, return to oven and bake for 10 minutes or until golden brown.  Serve with all the juices.

Lemon Chicken baked in the outdoor oven
Lemon Chicken baked in the outdoor ove