Meals-on-wheels gets a five-star spin in Brussels. And that's just the start of a gastronomic adventure for Food Critic Richard McComb as he explores one of Birmingham's sister food cities...
It beats a night ride on Birmingham’s Outer Circle bus route for gastronomic flair.
The on-board three-course dinner consists of moules frites and a slow-cooked veal stew followed by a dame blanche (ice cream sundae), all prepared on board and served to passengers by neatly turned out waiters. There are a couple of glasses of fizz as an aperitif, served as we set off from tram stop Poelaert, and there are wines throughout the meal.
This must be one of the most surreal, and fun, dining experiences euros can buy.
We are rattling around Brussels in a pimped up tram which has been converted from a commuter workhorse to a surprisingly plush dining room on wheels.
The vehicle looks more like a Japanese bullet train with its futuristic design than a clackerty tram. We are being served modern Brussels cuisine in a kind of 2001: A Space Odyssey environment.
It’s wonderfully weird.
Night owls and passengers waiting at chilly tram stops stare in a mixture of amusement and envy as we take a circuituous ride passed them, meandering through the city.
Two chefs prepare the food in a tiny kitchen behind the driver’s cab, heating dishes in water baths, wielding blow torches and dressing plates.
Tables have recessed circular notches for crockery and glasses, so there are no worries about spillages. Diners dress as they would normally for a night at a restaurant.
Life on the Brusselicious Tram is far from a picnic. The six chefs who have devised the seasonally changing menus have 12 Michelin stars between them. They include Lionel Rigolet of the two-star Comme chez Soi, whose starter is a veal cannelloni, crème de foie gras with green olives and 18-month old Comté cheese. It’s a bit different to a Big Mac on the back of a bus.
The tram experience (75€ per person) is one of the quirkiest attractions of Brusselicious, a year-long festival celebrating all things edible and drinkable in the Belgian capital. If you love food, there has never been a better excuse to visit the city.
A gastro-expedition to Brussels is of particular interest to Brummies.
The capital of Belgium, in common with Birmingham, is part of Délice, a prestigious network of world food cities which was founded by Lyon to promote the social and economic benefits of raising international standards of cuisine.
Birmingham is one of Délice’s eight executive committee members and later this month representatives of the organisation will converge on Brussels for a special visit.
I joined an advance party (of one) and got a sneak preview of the delights the city has to offer. There are lots of them. How can you not love a city that whips up chips, beer, seafood, chocolate and fine cuisine with such aplomb?
Frites and frites stalls (“friteries” or “fritkots”) are everywhere. Brussels may be home to the European Parliament, and therefore the grateful recipient of a million and one expense accounts, but there is also a grassroots feel to the appreciation of good food and dining out. And there’s nothing more grassroots, and quintessentially Belgian, than frites, accompanied by a dollop of mayonnaise or any number of sauces.
The bintje is the classic potato used for making chips, which aficionados insist need to be fried twice in beef dripping, at 160 degrees and 175 degrees. Frite-aholics should keep November free as Brussels will host a festival of chip stalls.
Eating salty fried potato is thirsty work but relief is at hand, at virtually every street corner, due to the profusion of bars and pubs. Belgian beer is, of course, famous the world over. There are literally hundreds of beers to chose from and the finest are treated with the sort reverence usually reserved for vintage Bordeaux. It helps to meet someone with inside knowledge and I can’t think of a better guide than Jean Hummler, the joint boss of bar Moeder Lambic (slogan “Beer is the answer”).
We meet at Jean’s bar (he has two) at Place Fontainas. There is a sleek, long bar and wooden stools and wooden tables are to the front and side of the room. The bar used sell up to 1,000 beers, including foreign imports, but under Jean’s management (he and another former bartender acquired the business in 2006) the stock has been cut back to focus on high quality artisan brews. While grazing on a board of Belgian cheeses, meats, pickles and mustard, I enjoy an impromptu tasting, nibbling on sourdough bread we have smuggled in from the awesome Boulangerie Charli. (It’s not that the bread in the bar is bad – it’s just that if you come to Brussels you have to try some of the products from this bakery in Rue Ste-Catherine.)
It may only be 11.30 in the morning, but who’s watching the clock? An opening glass of 4.5% Taras Boulba, from Brasserie de la Senne, is at the lower end of alcohol content (8% and 9% is not uncommon) and is a perfect thirst quencher. This Belgian pale ale comes with a dinky saucer of toasted barley for chewing. Gouyasse, from Brasserie des Geants, is a touch stronger at 6%, and is dry and refreshing beer blonde in which you can taste the hops and malt.
Plain strange, at least to the uninitiated, is the Kriek Cantillon (£4 for a 25cl glass). It must be the prettiest and most bitter drink I have ever tasted. Kellery cherries, from Sint-Truiden, give the beer its distinct colour and whispy cherry froth, but the first taste is like sucking a lemon.
Don’t blame the Kriek, says Jean. Blame the industrialisation and dumbing down of food and drinks production, which has left our palates in need of re-educating. “Acidity has almost gone from food and drink. Salt, sugar and fat is the key to eating today,” says Jean.
“Your palate is not ready for the acidity because everything is so sweet. When you have something acidic, you have to learn to taste again. In two or three hours, your palate will change.”
I am pretty convince one’s outlook on life in general would change dramatically after two or three hours’ glugging Kriek. Jean suggests a more realistic, if less fun, regime: “You drink one or two sips every day and after 20 days you will say ‘yes, it is acidic but it is refreshing and it has flavour.’”
Naively, I had assumed Moeder Lambic, and the revered Cantillon brewery, were the rule in Brussels rather than the exception. Cantillon is, in fact, Brussels’s only surviving traditional brewery of the huge number that used to thrive here and Moeder is one of the few bars to tap into Belgium’s exciting network of microbreweries.
“In most bars you have one lager, one white beer, maybe six or seven types of beer that are always the same. Tasteless,” says Jean, who is a member of the UK’s Campaign for Real Ale.
Jean takes me Cantillon’s brewery, a 20-minute walk from the city centre towards the Anderlecht district. Nothing appears to have changed here since 1900 and this unassuming place is a site of pilgrimage for beer lovers the world over. Inside the dark, cool confines of this backstreet unit, fourth generation brewer Jean Van Roy says: “We export 55-60% of our production globally. We could sell it all to the United States if we wanted to. More foreigners drink our beer than they do in Belgium. There used to be 250 breweries like us in Brussels. Now it is just Cantillon.”