Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Travel Finds: Belgium.

On the way to Lindau during one of the University Orientation trips, a group of friends and I decided to play the game of trying to describe our countries with only one word. New Zealand had the honour of having "sheep" as a description, Sweden was summarised by the word "trees," and Belgium, of course, was aptly associated with "chocolate."

And with good reason.

Their chocolates, even the dairy free ones I had the pleasure of having, were more luscious and more decadent than anything else I’ve had before. According to our companions this was due to the lack of preservatives in the chocolates, as each one was freshly made in small chocolatiers hidden within the suburbs of Belgium. Lucky me was fortunate enough to have visited one of these dainty little shops in Antwerpen, the city that I became my home base over the duration of my stay in Belgium. From what I’ve seen, being a chocolate maker is a serious profession- it ain’t easy resisting all that temptation, you know.

I bet these guys' jobs aren't so easy either: they have to work with making hot chocolate all the time. Since hot chocolate in these parts are made with genuine melted chocolate, they have pools of the stuff waiting to be devoured. I must admit that this, and the smell of the chocolate wafting in the chilly autumn air, were what had drawn me in to Quetzal. It's conveniently tucked away just around the corner from the Grote Markt of Antwerpen, and for a seemingly small cafe they have a lot of chocoholic offerings available. Surprisingly they even had a non dairy milk alternative, much to the joy of my chocolate loving soul. Spiced hot chocolate and chocolate + fruit fondue, check!

Of course, Belgium isn't known just for chocolate; they've also got these magical little cookies called speculoos. If you're from the neighbouring countries, you might know them by the name speculaas (Dutch) or spekulatius (German), too. I must admit that prior to travelling to Belgium I had no idea what these things were, despite everyone else in the world's infatuation with it in its spread form. All that changed after a couple of mouthfuls of the stuff, because next thing I know, I was gobbling it up like a bear preparing for hibernation. Hah. Although now that I think about it, it is kind of like nut butter and cookies doused with generous amounts of spices mixed in one big jar, so what’s not to love? 

If anything, I think our animal friends would also love the lack of their byproducts in the most popular speculoos brand, Lotus. My personal favourites would have to be the 6-grain speculoos biscuits and crunchy speculoos spread. At less than 2 Euros each, I think these would make great albeit somewhat heavy presents for people back home. However, keep in mind that as Hoots the Owl says, cookies are a sometimes food, okay? Okay, good.


Aside from Antwerpen, I had the privilege of visiting three other destinations in Belgium too, the first one being Brussels. You know, that place where what most people think is the most horrid member of the cabbage family hails from. The miniature cabbage look-a-likes that taste even nastier than real cabbages? Yeah' that's right, blame this city for incepting that yucky vegetable that no one even likes. Hah.

Okay, I was joking; I actually do love brussels sprouts, and I was rather disappointed by the lack of their species in the Belgian capital. Perhaps I was looking at the wrong places, or maybe they just aren't in season. Or it could be both. Nevertheless I was shattered to find chocolate shops and waffle stands (sadly non-vegan) everywhere, but none of these tasty little guys. Darn. 

One the bright side, the cities I visited had numerous branches of this chain store called Exki; it's basically was a quick and easy salad, wrap and sandwich wonderland for health oriented herbivores and omnivores alike. From memory they had a hummus, beetroot, carrot + coriander filled wrap, a quinoa + eggplant salad, a roasted vegetable and chickpea dish, as well as three soups which were all marked vegan. One item would cost more or less 4 Euros, although it is a bit cheaper if you have the food for takeaway instead of eating inside. 

I naturally gravitated towards fresh wholesome salads after having all the chocolates I had just a few hours prior to lunch time. My salads of choice were Genova (lentils, peas, onions + capsicum), Goa (jasmine rice, capsicum, papaya, onions + spices) and Exki Carrot (carrots, parsley + vinaigrette). I must say that I liked all the salads since each one had a little something special about them. The bits of papaya in the Goa salad were a welcome surprise, as was the citrus juice squeezed into the Exki Carrot. Neither could beat the little pickled onions in the Genova salad though, which really was my favourite.

Oh, and I almost forgot: Exki makes really delicious Fair Trade Orangettes too!

Towards the end of my visit, I passed by some of the Art Nouveau architecture Belgium has to offer. I was in search of Victor Horta's buildings in particular, one of which is open to the public: Maison & Atelier Horta. For those who are thinking of visiting this stunning masterpiece, be aware that it can be tricky to find as it's not exactly in a touristy area. Nonetheless, I think it is worth it just to see the beautiful craftsmanship of this building; think fluid curves, smooth white marble against aged wood and delicate flower-shaped lamps. It's a shame that no photography is allowed within what is now known as the Horta Museum, but the exquisite iron work truly is a feast for the eyes. 

Just as I was about to leave the area, I stumbled across more beautiful things to look at; in this case, it was a cabinet filled with La Tsampa's salads, quiches and pies. Initially the facade might make it look as if La Tsampa is just another health food store, but don't be fooled for the restaurant lies inside. I found that the staff present at that time were confused about what was vegan though, so if you are very strict about your diet or have allergies to specific animal products then I'd recommend you confirm with the staff more than once. Politely, of course. The menus were also marked with which products were vegan, and that is how I found out that their apple pie was indeed. 


The second destination outside of Antwerpen, which also happens to be my personal favourite, was the charming university town of Ghent. With more vegetarian restaurants per capita than many other larger cities in the world, a design museum, and a lot of fascinating architecture, I don't think it would be hard for you to understand why. 

However, just as a word of precaution, be aware that an abundance of the vegetarian restaurants in this lovely little town open only for lunch and dinner. That means not a lot of places open between 2pm to 5pm, so I would say learn from my mistake and eat lunch at lunch time. That is if they're even open at all. Remember, Sundays are a day of rest and practically nothing opens, including supermarkets. 

Unfortunately for me I did not realise that even on a Saturday, the much talked about all vegan buffet Komkommertijd serves only for dinner. The other option had closed at 2pm too, just 10 minutes before we'd arrived. As a final resort I had some grilled vegetables and a cheese-free vegetable pizza at Marco Polo Trattoria, and although it wasn't the best it was sufficient.

It wasn't until after we'd left that I found this fruit and vegetable store which doubled as a small cafe. It was conveniently located just a few leaps away from the City Pavilion of Ghent, but I can't seem to remember what it was called. That aside, it was here where I found some vegan food sold deli style; each dish could be bought in a small or a medium sized container, then its price calculated per 100g. 

It was interesting seeing the variety, which on that day included pineapple curry, seitan bolognese, roasted vegetable caponata and a lentil salad. The adventurous person that I am I tried the two things I was not very familiar with: pineapple curry and seitan bolognese. Despite my Asian roots and the abundant use of pineapples in Filipino cooking, I have never had curried pineapples before. It seems to be rather popular in this part of the world, since SPAR had vegan pineapple curry dips in Austria too. 
It's safe to say that I will definitely be wanting to try making my own version, although I don't see myself regularly eating it. But then again, that's what I thought about speculoos. 

Outside, the store had some of the cutest fruits I've seen too. They were called kiwiberries, and they were exactly just that: kiwis, in berry form. I took my aunty's friend's advice of trying them, and despite the 4 Euro price tag I have no regrets. Each kiwiberry had such as intense kiwi flavour packed in one tiny bite; it was amazing. 


Last, but definitely not the least, was the city of Brugge. Like many other places in Belgium, chocolate shops were scattered all over town; however, what was more abundant were the intricate lace work and antique shops. At first I was not very pleased with arriving in Brugge past 6pm when most shops close, but now that I think about it it was perhaps a good idea- otherwise, I would've ran out of money very quickly. 

Aside from chocolate and speculoos, I'll finish off with the meal that must've been the unhealthiest I had throughout my travels in Belgium: a hazelnut burger with chips + spicy veganaise from Frituur Veggie Eetboetiek Royal. Right here right now I could make up a lame excuse as to why I didn't bother looking for a healthier dinner, but instead of doing so I'll just be honest: I was craving a big fat burger with hot crispy chips. The spicy veganaise was just an added bonus, and a very tasty one at that. 

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