“It’s all about addiction,” says Laurent Gerbaud, who runs a chocolate tasting workshop or as Belgians call it the “Chocolate Atelier” on a charming Brussels street.
He points at the exquisite assortment of dark brown chocolates, arranged on a tray in a specific order—the order in which we must savor then to discover how each piece is richer and more intricately tasting than the previous one. “It’s all about how all the different flavors play on your palate,” Gerbaud adds, “so as soon as you finish eating one piece, you want another.”
Belgium chocolate is arguably the best in the world. For Belgians, chocolate-making is a cherished tradition and a serious business, with many famous names, such as Leonidas, Neuhouse, Pierre Marcolini and others—mastering the taste for decades. With so many producers, many of which have been in this business for generations, an aspiring chocolatier had to find a special niche. Gerbaud, who is a newbie, by Belgian standards—he first dipped into this deliciousness only about 20 years ago. Even more surprisingly, he started his business far away from home, in a place where no one would expect to do it—in China, where he lived for a while after graduating college. This unusual beginning led him to experiment with new, uncommon flavors. Rather than using the traditional ingredients such as sugar, cream or caramel, he began to toss in some salt, sprinkle on sesame seeds, and mix in local berries.
Under Gerbaud’s supervision, we slowly work our way through the tray, starting with simple yet rich chocolate pieces, and then moving onto the more complex ones—topped with salted pistachios, sprinkled with Berberis berries or hiding dried fruit underneath their brown sheaths. At the end, Gerbaud insists we try a regular piece of chocolate from a supermarket store. The results are shocking—what tasted familiar and pleasing before, now resembles cardboard. “See I told you,” Gerbaud says, chuckling, “This is addicting. You’ll never be able to taste chocolate the same way.”
The epicurean experience needs to be washed down by a substance of matching magnitude—a challenge that’s rather hard to master. So we head down to another Brussels’s landmark to rediscover a new take on yet another Belgian gastronomical classic—its beer. Stella Artois may be nearly synonymous with Belgian, but that’s not what you find at the Brussels Beer Project. Here two friends, Sébastien Morvan and Oliver de Brauwere, embarked onto a different journey—but not unlike Gerbaud’s. Smack in the middle of the capital, they are disrupting the brewing traditions, creating novel beers every day. “There are so many different ways to make beer,” says de Brauwere. “In Belgium we’ve been making the same beer for decades. We wanted to create something different, something new.” Similarly to Gerbaud, Morvan and de Brauwere built the foundation for their Beer Project far away—on the American continent. “We were students,” Morvan recalls, “and we saw the emerging microbrewery scene in America. We thought it was really cool, and we wanted to create something similar at home.”
Beer in the Making
Behind him, a member of the brew crew climbs up a ladder and opens a vat, in which beer-making is happening right now, and checks the temperatures and other vitals. It’s no longer 1450, when the monks in secluded abbeys made the brew in wooden kegs, de Brauwere says. It’s the 21st century, so the process is computer-controlled and precisely measured. But it doesn’t mean that there’s no room left for experimentation, Morvan says. In fact, the team experiments every time by creating new flavors often from unlikely ingredients—such as apples that grow in the city’s gardens and otherwise would go to waste or stale bread that would’ve been tossed away. Creativity permeates the air, as if tightly woven into the rich, addictive aroma of hops, making it nearly impossible to leave—especially when Morvan de Brauwere keep bringing more and more delicious concoctions to taste.
Antwerp Panoramic View
Antwerp greets us with low, grey clouds that hang so low it feels they’re about to spill onto our heads. The rain drizzles occasionally, threatening to pour with all its might any second. “We are not exactly a sunny destination,” says our guide Tanguy Ottomer, a cheerful Antwerp local who doesn’t seem to be affected by the weather one single bit. “But we’ve learned to make do. We smile, laugh and have fun regardless.”
As we follow Ottomer around his city huddling under umbrellas, we discover another side to Belgian creativity—the little plumes of color. The weather turns grey here quite often, so Antwerp residents learned to fight off the gloom with dabs of bright hues. Against the nearly uniformly grey landscape spattered with water droplets, shine pink umbrellas, yellow rain jackets, and bright purple scarves. Even bikes in this city come in a rainbow of shades, as do flowers bursting out from hanging planter pots. More vivid shades beckon through the fashion outlets’ doors. And the designer scarves and handbags glow through the shops’ windows—like a rainbow behind the droplets of water sliding on the glass. And suddenly, as if painted by a cheerful artist, the rainy city doesn’t feel so wet and melancholic anymore. What’s more it looks like a shopping Mecca.
To get the panoramic view of the city we climb up the stairs at the Museum aan de Stroom or Museum of Antwerp. As we snap pictures, Ottomer brings our attention to the tiny metal fixtures on the red brick walls, shaped like little hands. This is the legend of how Antwerp got its name, Ottomer says: Antwerpen, from Dutch words “hand” and “werpen”—to throw. Years ago, a giant named Druon Antigoon controlled the bridge on the river Scheldt, demanding a hefty toll from those crossing the river—half of their possessions. For those who refused, he cut off one of their hands and threw it into the river. Antigoon was eventually slain by a warrior named Brabo, who cut off the giant’s own hand and tossed it away—and that’s how the city’s name Antwerp was born.
As we stroll through the city, we also learn more modern legends, such as the story of the Antwerp Six. In the 1980, six young graduates of Royal Academy of Fine Arts of Antwerp loaded up their fashionable creations into a truck and drove to London to demo them at a fashion fair. At the time, their designs appeared so avant-garde and unusual that they were dubbed as the Antwerp Six, making their city into a renowned fashion destination. What else is Antwerp famous for? “It’s the largest European port by surface space,” Ottomer informs us—and adds humorously, “that’s because we don’t use space efficiently.”
In the afternoon, the clouds finally melt and the sun comes out, warming up the cobblestones of the old streets. The crowds head out to restaurants and cafés, and the city suddenly becomes crowded. We wiggle into a small and crowded Frites Atelier Amsterdam, famous for its creative twist on the classic Belgian dish—the potato fries. Here Michelin-star chef Sergio Herman experiments with toppings and flavors, from a Flemish stew to truffles to a peanut sauce, making the long wait and lack of chairs and sit down spaces worthwhile. “These fries are absolutely delicious, please eat as many as you can,” Ottomer encourages us. “Just don’t call them French fries, please! They’re Belgian fries. Belgian!”
Once we’re done with the frites, we spend the afternoon walking along the cobblestone streets and wide-open squares, and dropping into fashion shops and ateliers. As a very last spot to admire before we leave, Ottomer takes us to the Antwerp historic train station. But before we head over, he presents us with a classically Antwerpan and uniquely Belgian treat: a pack of cookies shaped like little hands, which gave the city its name. “It’s a symbol of friendship,” he says, before he bids us his farewell.
Liège Train Station
Smaller and quieter than Brussels and Antwerp, Liège welcomes with its recently built avant-garde train station—a maze of rounded, swirling walls and infinite train tracks. Although it’s a very impressive feat of modern architecture, it doesn’t necessary please everyone in Liège, says our guide, Anne Kopijasz. Some people think it’s out of sync with the rest of the town’s beautiful old-fashioned buildings.
But if there’s one thing all Liège residents would absolutely agree is that the town’s beloved bakery Gaufre de Liège, makes the best Belgian waffles ever. Kopijasz brings us a box of them, enough to last through the morning, as we explore the quaint streets and charming squares. Liège’s another claim to fame are its folkloric puppet duo, Tchantchès and Nanesse. Created at the end of 19th century, the characters represented a working-class Belgian couple, featured in endless theater performances across the city.
Marionette shows may not be as common in Liège today, but the puppets live on. We find them displayed in the Amon Nanesse restaurant where we savor the centuries-old traditional Liège cuisine and sip peket, the juniper berry-flavored brandy, which comes, like many things in Belgium, in bright colors—magenta and violet, bringing back the memories of Antwerp’s vibrant, rainbow-like fashion bags.
In the afternoon, we brave Montagne de Bueren, Liège’s 374-step staircase—to climb above the city for a panoramic view. On top of the hill, we sit underneath the apple trees that still bear some fruit. As we step carefully among the many fallen apples, it suddenly feels like another deja vu—these are exactly the type of leftover fruit that the Brussels Beer Project uses for their beer flavors rather than letting it go to waste. Like a lively mosaic, the pieces of Belgium begin to come together into a colorful picture of the country and the culture. From frothing beers to the unique chocolate flavors to the motley Antwerp hues, one can really feel at home here, and yet never feel bored, but always be longing for more.
It’s addictive. That’s how Gerbaud described his chocolate-tasting. But that’s also true about many other things in Belgium—the fries topped with beef stew, the crisp vanilla waffles sprinkled with syrup, and the bright umbrellas that make you smile despite the rain. It’s an addictive country. Once your savor it, you just want to come back for more.
And you should.
Photos by Lina Zeldovich
Top photo: Brussels by night