Travels & Traditions: Brussels, Belgium - #104

Brussels is the capital of Belgium. It is also the capital of what is trying to become a United Europe. And it is an ideal city for the honor. The population of Belgium is made up of three different cultural groups that speak three different languages -- French, Dutch, and German.  The people of Belgium are polite, tactful and neighborly... perfect for the capital of a new Europe, and ideal for a visiting tourist. 

During the next half-hour we’ll take a look at Brussels, and make two short excursions nearby.  We’ll sample some of the unusual beers of Belgium, including one flavored with cherries... we’ll discover why the hand of a giant became the symbol of the city of Antwerp... we’ll stop in to one of the most colorful festivals in Europe... and check out some traditional Belgian foods.  So join me, Burt Wolf, in Brussels -- on TRAVELS & TRADITIONS.

The revolution of 1830 that produced a free and independent Belgium started here at the Brussels Opera House. The opera being performed had an aria in which a singer cried, ”Far better to die than to live in slavery. Away with the foreigners!” The audience took the words to heart, got up, walked into the streets, and started the revolution that got rid of the Dutch. Opera is still very important in Brussels.

To have an opera start a revolution is surprising, but so are many things in Brussels. Brussels is the headquarters for NATO and home to more than one thousand international corporations. It is sophisticated and cosmopolitan, and at the same time, filled with historic sites, cultural attractions and helpful people, most of whom speak English and enjoy speaking it with Americans.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): Belgium is easy to get to. It’s right in the center of western Europe and flights come in from major cities all around the world. If you’re coming from England you can come on the Eurostar train that runs through the tunnel underneath the English Channel. When you get to Belgium you will be sitting on an imaginary line.  It’s a line that divides the speakers of Romance languages in the southern part of Europe, like French, from speakers of Germanic languages in the northern part of Europe, like Dutch.  The line runs right through the center of Belgium.

The fact that most Belgians speak two languages is constantly brought to mind... all street signs are symbolically in both French and Flemish. 

The most famous symbol of Brussels, however, is the Manneken Pis... a bronze fountain in the form of a naked boy. It was constructed in the early 1600s and there are a number of stories about its meaning. But all the stories make the same point:  the people of Brussels are courageous, they have stood up to oppression, and the statue expresses their attitude towards the oppressors.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): In 1746 a bunch of French soldiers stole the statue. The King of France was in town at the time, and he was so annoyed and  embarrassed that he had the soldiers arrested and put in prison, he had the statue returned, and then he made the statue a “Knight of St. Louis” -- which meant all the French soldiers had to salute it.

The King also gave the statue a uniform of gold brocade. The idea of having different uniforms for the statue caught on and today there is a museum with over six hundred costumes.  He dresses for special occasions. Carnival... flight training class... Dracula’s Birthday... Mozart’s Birthday... and Elvis’s Birthday.  He was always close to the king.

The museum faces out on the Grand Place, which is one of the great squares of the world. It was once the main marketplace for the city, a fact which is echoed in the names of the streets that lead into the square:  Butter Street. Meat and Bread Street. Herring Street.  During the 1400s the Hotel de Ville was built on the square as the center for the local government, and the food market became less significant.

On the first Thursday in July, the square is the site of the “OMEGANG” pageant. Over two thousand costumed participants parade past the King of Belgium. The event dates back to 1549, when it was first presented to King Charles V. 

The streets surrounding the Grand Place contain dozens of shops offering Belgian Lace. By the middle of the 1500s Belgium had become the lacemaking capital of Europe. Brussels was the center of the business and over ten thousand people in the city, mostly young women, were employed in production. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): Lacemaking used up so much of the available labor pool that it soon created a shortage of serving maids -- a situation that was unacceptable to the wealthy families of Belgium. And so a law was passed that said that lace could only be made by girls under twelve.

The lacemakers of Brussels created handiwork that was considered to be the best; the threads were the finest and the designs the most beautiful. During the past hundred years the fashion for lace has declined, and today it is an item of special interest. Fortunately, there’s still quite a bit of interesting lace in Brussels.

Brussels has some of the most elegant shopping areas in Europe. One of the most charming is just off the Grand Place. It dates back to 1847 and is known as the Royal Arcades. It consists of three shopping galleries covered with glass roofs and lined with fashionable shops.

If, however, you are just looking, then try the museums. Brussels has dozens of interesting collections and exhibitions and three of the most interesting are right next to each other.

The Museum of Art and History is one of the most significant in Europe. It covers the entire history of art, with outstanding examples from almost every period.  The museum has a fascinating collection of church altars that were made in Brussels and Antwerp during the 15 and 1600s. At the time, a painter got paid three times more than a sculptor.  As a result, sculptors working on a church needed to supplement their earnings. One way was to make the carvings for an altar.

The Royal Army Museum and Museum of Military History has weapons and equipment covering centuries of European conflict... including over 300 vintage aircraft.

And even though it’s just next door, Autoworld is a trip. You can trace the history of the motor car from 1886 to 1975... four hundred and fifty cars from twelve different countries. 

The Royal Museum of Central Africa is also fascinating. During the 1880s Belgium’s King Leopold II took control of the entire Congo basin in Africa, an area half the size of western Europe, and he ran it as his private property. He commissioned this museum to house his Congo collection. If you’d like to do some of your own collecting, there are at least a dozen excellent African art galleries in the city.

At the end of the 19th century, regal architecture was very fashionable in Brussels. Brouckere Square, named after a mayor of Brussels, was at the center of the city’s social life. And the buildings on the surrounding streets reflected the community’s interest in the majestic.

A good example is the Hotel Metropole. It opened in 1895 and was designed to express the great luxury that was available in Brussels at the end of the 19th century. The entrance hall is a French renaissance foyer in marble. Vaulted ceilings... crystal chandeliers... Oriental rugs. The reception area looks as it did over a hundred years ago... polished wood... brass trimming.  Beneath the Corinthian columns of the bar are palm trees, a reminder of Belgium’s expansion into Africa. 

The hotel was also designed to express the coming attractions of the 20th century... the age of high technology. There’s an outside terrace and a cafe that were already famous in the 1800s. Contemporary designers often feel that less is more, but the Belle Époque boys who built this room clearly believed that more is more. 

The hotel also has a Michelin-rated restaurant, and I asked the chef to prepare some of the traditional foods of Brussels.

Food lovers agree that some of the finest food in Europe is served in the homes and restaurants of this city. The major influences on Brussels’ food came from the French, but you can also taste elements that came along during the years when Belgium was ruled by the Spanish and the Austrians. 

Waterzooi is one of the most famous dishes. It’s somewhere between a soup and a stew. Chicken is poached in a broth of aromatic vegetables and saffron and finished off with a touch of cream. Saffron came to Belgium with the Spanish.

Another Flemish classic is beef stewed in beer. Cubes of beef are browned with onions, stewed in rich Belgian beer, and then flavored with a touch of red currant jelly and red wine vinegar. The jelly and the vinegar give the dish a sweet and sour edge. It’s served with boiled potatoes, and more of the beer that it was made with.

A specialty of the town of Liege is a warm green bean and potato salad with a bacon vinaigrette. Potatoes and green beans, still hot from cooking, are mixed together with freshly sautéed bacon, then dressed with a warm vinaigrette. 

The Belgians’ love of cooking with beer shows up again in chicken braised in beer with Belgian endives. This is a popular family meal, often served as soon as the first endives come to market in September. The Belgians also make some of the world’s finest chocolate, and the chefs of Brussels use it to make a classic Chocolate Mousse.

These days the chefs of Belgium travel around the world and constantly modify their approach to cooking. As a result, many traditional distinctions are disappearing. But some constants remain.

Belgian seafood is always important, especially mussels. The most famous dish in Brussels is Steamed Mussels with Fried Potatoes.  Brussels is famous for its Belgian Fried Potatoes.  Until the Seventies, there were Belgian Fry stands all over town.  There aren’t many these days, but this classic -- near the site of the 1958 World’s Fair -- is still open.

The seasonal arrival of the herring run each year is announced in every menu. Belgian waffles, freshly made in storefront shops, are the most common street food. 

Brussels has also had a long-standing relationship with the cookie. And the best place to see it is the Dandoy shop in the old city. It has been run by the Dandoy family since 1829. Their most famous cookie is called a speculoos. They are a type of gingerbread and traditionally given to good children on St. Nicholas Day, the 6th of December. The word speculoos is Latin and it means “mirror.” The cookies come out of a hand-carved wooden form that mirrors the image of St. Nicholas.

When it comes to drinking in Belgium, beer is the national choice. A Benedictine monk who was canonized as St. Andrew is credited with spreading the brewers’ skill throughout Belgium.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): St. Andrew wanted to know why wealthy people had a longer life expectancy than the poor.  He eventually decided it was because the wealthy drank beer, in moderation, rather than water.  And he was right.  At the time, water had so much bacteria it could kill you.

The heat in the beer-brewing process killed much of the bacteria and made it safer to drink than water. Today Belgium produces over six hundred different beers and beer experts have chosen some of them as best of class, worldwide. Two of the most unusual are Kriek and Framboise. Kriek has a cherry flavor; Framboise tastes like raspberries. The brewers say that organisms in the air around Brussels give these beers their special flavors and they can’t be produced anywhere else.

A traditional place to taste the beers of Belgium is a cafe called Mort Subite, which means “sudden death.”  Years ago the Kriek at Mort Subite had a high alcohol content but it tasted just like cherry juice. A thirsty guy could easily drink two or three glasses... then try to stand up and fall to the floor, dead drunk. That’s where they got the name “sudden death.” This is not an elegant cafe. It is old, noisy, smoky and totally authentic. Life before things became “politically correct.”

For a look at life at the top of the gastronomic scale, you can pay a visit to Comme Chez Soi, which means “Like our place.” It is one of the top restaurants in the world, with almost as many chefs as patrons. The table to get, and you must ask well in advance, is the one in the kitchen. It gives you the feeling that the entire staff is devoted just to you.

Most visitors to Belgium, either for business or holiday, end up passing all of their time in Brussels, which is okay. But the distances between Belgian cities are extremely short and a train ride of less than an hour will bring you an additional perspective on the country. Take Antwerp,  for example... it’s only forty-five minutes from Brussels. Antwerp was built on the Skelde River, which runs out to the Atlantic Ocean. For more than two thousand years Antwerp has been a major port.

In the middle of Antwerp’s central marketplace is the statue of Silvius Brabo, and it comes with a legend.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): There was a giant who lived near Antwerp, right on the river.  And he would charge an excessive toll to any ship that passed by his castle. As an added inducement to make the payment he would chop off the hand of anyone who tried to avoid the toll. He had an economic stranglehold on the city. Silvius was a Roman soldier who had the courage to kill the giant and as a final act of victory he chopped off the giant’s hand and threw it in the river.

There’s the defeated giant. And there’s Silvias.  Free from the giant’s control, the city prospered. The textile industry made many people rich. They built one of the largest cathedrals in the world. Antwerp became a center for book publishing and diamond cutting. Great artists worked here. And everybody who could afford it became interested in good food.

Antwerp was the hometown of Peter Paul Rubens, the great 17th century painter, and his home and studios are open to visitors.  If you enjoy the art of the 15, 16, and 1700s, stop into the Royal Museum of Fine Arts. It houses over a thousand works by the old masters.

In the center of town is the Cathedral of Our Lady. It is the largest and most beautiful Gothic church in Belgium. A number of Rubens masterpieces hang along the walls.  And when you come out of the cathedral you can pop across the street to a pub filled with religious statues. It’s called “The Eleventh Commandment,” which they claim is... “Thou shalt enjoy thyself.”

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  It’s easy to fall in love with the city of Antwerp, but if you fall in love on a more personal level, then Antwerp is the town to commemorate that love in a most traditional way.

Antwerp is the world center for diamonds.  The business came here in the 1200s. Today the city has two thousand diamond companies, with over thirty thousand employees. More than seventy percent of the world’s annual diamond business passes through Antwerp, at a value of more than thirteen billion dollars. They even have a diamond museum that will teach you everything you want to know about about these glittering stones.

Diamonds appear to have been mined first in India and until the 1700s that was the only source. The criteria for evaluation has been the same for thousands of years.

The quality of a diamond is measured by the “four Cs”: Cut, Color, Clarity and Carat.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The carat is a measurement of weight with a food reference, but probably not the reference that comes to mind.  The word “carat” comes from an ancient Greek word and refers to the bean of the carob plant. Carob beans have a tendency to uniform weight at two-tenths of a gram, and in ancient times they were used to measure the weight of pearls, precious stones, and diamonds.

In terms of gastronomy, there were three shops in Antwerp that attracted my attention.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  This is Goossen’s Bakery, and it’s very famous for their wonderful breakfast breads, and I’m gonna go and get one, but there’s always a line.  So rather than waiting here with me, why don’t you go down the block with my cameraman?  He’s gonna show you a great biscuit shop.

In addition to its other baked goods, Phillips Biscuits produces a sweet cookie in the shape of the hand that Silvius took from the giant.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  I’m getting closer -- only about four people ahead of me -- but you don’t have to wait around for this.  This time the producer will take you to a great chocolate shop.

Burie Chocolates has a monthly theme which it celebrates in various edible forms. My visit coincided with the World Cup. Burie also has come up with a technique for putting a picture on a chocolate bar. Give them a photo and they will print it in white chocolate on a dark chocolate bar.


BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  What I was after was this very traditional breakfast bread; little bit of whole grain in it and lots of raisins... and this other bread, which is yeast-based also, and it has some egg yolk in it, raisins, and then it’s coated with powdered sugar.  They slice ‘em up and toast ‘em and they’re fabulous for breakfast.

And finally, as you walk around town you may notice that above the street lights there are statues of the Virgin Mary. But the reason behind this is less pious than you might expect. The owners of the building on which the street lights hung were taxed. But if a statue of the Virgin Mary was placed above the light, the tax was suspended. I could not find a single lamp without a statue.

About twelve miles to the south of Brussels is the town of Waterloo, which is thought of as the battlefield where the army of Napoleon was defeated by the British army led by the Duke of Wellington.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): Actually, Waterloo wasn’t the battlefield; it was just the town from which Wellington sent the dispatch announcing his victory. Nevertheless, if you are a history buff you will enjoy a visit to the area.  And if you’ve been working out on your Stairmaster and you feel you’re in really great shape you can try the 226 steps to the top of the Butte du Lion and survey what was once the field of conflict.

I should mention, however, that from a gastronomic viewpoint the outcome of the battle was completely different. The Duke’s dish, Beef Wellington, which is basically a loin of beef wrapped in pastry and baked, has virtually disappeared from contemporary cooking, while the Emperor’s fluffy-light Napoleon is still found in pastry shops throughout the world.

The end of the Napoleonic era returned power to the old royal families of Europe. The 1700s were trying to make a comeback. Just a short drive from Waterloo is a chateau that symbolizes that lifestyle. It is called the Chateau De Seneffe, and it was built by an Austrian count in 1763. These days it’s owned by the Belgian government and it is a museum open to the public. It has a number of interesting elements. The inlaid parquet floors are some of the finest in Europe. There are ceilings decorated with gilded stucco. The entire structure is an extraordinary example of period craftsmanship.

The chateau also contains an amazing collection of silver objects, over eight hundred pieces -- one of the great silver collections of the world. 

And around the chateau is a splendid park and a series of picturesque outbuildings. A close look at a time when being a count, really counted.

Because of the diversity of the Belgian population, there is a constant desire to maintain ancient traditions that are specific to each village. One result is an almost endless round of annual festivals.  And one of the most picturesque is the carnival in Binche.

The participants are called the Gilles, which means “joker” or “clown.” Only honored members of the community are allowed to wear these costumes. On the day of the parade the Gilles get up early in the morning and spend a few hours drinking champagne. About mid-day a drummer and a trumpeter come by the house, pick up the Gilles and bring them to the center of town. The Gilles gather together and form a circle. The rhythms become more intense. The Gilles begin throwing oranges to the crowd, and everyone dances into the night. An acquired skill, both for the participants and the audience. 

So what’s really going on here? Well, I’ve heard two stories about this event. Some authorities say it dates back to 1549 when it was presented to Charles V. He was the ruler of Spain and was deeply involved in the conquest of South America. The costumes of the Gilles were designed to look like Incas in honor of Charlie’s success. Other authorities have told me that the story of the Inca influence on the Gilles is totally undocumented. Personally, I like the story. Presenting history can be like horse racing. You pay your money and you take your choice. 

Well... that’s a brief look at Brussels and two short excursions nearby. I hope you enjoyed the trip and that you will join us next time on TRAVELS & TRADITIONS . I’m Burt Wolf.