Saturday, 28 December 2013

Christmas in the foreign: Brussels and Maastricht

We came back from New Zealand on a late Eurostar, arriving at Midi in the dark, laden with baggage. It was cold. It was early December. We’d been eating asparagus and drinking chilled white wine in the sun only a couple of days before. But, jetlagged as we were, there was something which perked me up on the taxi ride home: the Christmas lights. Brussels, I salute you, you Continental types do know how to decorate. Each area seems to have its own designs. All white, all quite understated, but all the central area, the major streets, and quite a few others, had lights up. It made the fact that it got dark at 4pm a little easier.

Two visitors – my friend A and my mum – also made the pre-Christmas-weeks fun, as we shopped for Christmas presents together and did the touristy things which the Dutchman and I don’t do on our own. Last year, before I was living here, I had a brilliant weekend trip with H, drinking hot chocolate and laughing at the Christmas market (one of my abiding memories is the looks we got for opening a bottle of Prosecco on the Eurostar on the way over…!). The Brussels Christmas market was a little disappointing. There was not much that one would actually want to buy. I think we were all expecting the kind of German market that gets shipped over to Oxford and most other English cities, with pretty little wooden huts and nice artisanal products. Eh, not so much. A shame. I enjoyed walking through the streets and just looking, A drinking mulled wine and I warm spiced calvados to stave off the cold. Next year I think I would like to go to Frankfurt or Cologne.

The other Christmassy thing which I loved here was the crèches in the Cathedral. All created by different ethnic groups or associations, dotted around the Cathedral by various chapels. There were some really beautiful, well-made ones, some amateur some crafted by artists, and most kept their identity as a focus – the Nativity in China, in Africa, in Haiti…

To inject a bit of Englishness into the proceedings, I made many mince pies, with the mincemeat my mother and I made back in October. We gave some to our landlady, took some to the Dutchman’s parents for Christmas Day, I will make more as our contribution to the annual Rotterdam Christmas meal with the Dutchman and his friends, and of course I ate a fair few. We still have the boozy, fruit-packed, darkly crumbly Christmas cake too, again made back in October and fed by my mum right up until the week before, but it doesn’t photograph well, especially sans marzipan and icing, at the Dutchman’s request.

We were in the UK before Christmas, briefly, for my PhD graduation (on my birthday!) and to see family. We woke up together on Christmas morning, had our stockings (delivered by Father Christmas, even though one of us had already had a visit from Sinterklaas in early December), went to church, had a delicious lunch of spiced apple and parsnip soup, and then travelled to Maastricht. The Dutchman’s father made a simply outstanding meal (five courses, very nouvelle cuisine, all well-executed) and we exchanged presents. On Boxing Day (the reason behind the name of which I have explained to many, many people) we had coffee with the Dutchman’s very sprightly 94-year-old grandmother and then came back to Brussels. I can’t deny that I missed my parents and our family traditions, but I was happy to have had Christmas together.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Behind the Scenes at the Museum

Well, at the Opera House.

When my lovely friend A came to visit last week, we finally acted on a tip given to me over a year ago by Belgian Waffle, to go on the ‘behind the scenes’ tour of the Opera House, La Monnaie (De Munt). We were completely unprepared for what this dull Saturday morning had in store for us.

La Monnaie is responsible for Belgium. For a hilarious history lesson, see Belgian Waffling’s post here, but the short version is that riots started during an opera led to the creation of this independent nation. (The Dutchman is convinced that if it still belonged to him, the roads would not be in such a poor state, but I digress.)

The tour starts in a way rather unassuming way. You are not in the Opera House, but the building behind it. This is the first surprise. The tour begins in the ateliers, the workshops. In fact, most of the tour is here, only heading over to the actual Opera House for the final twenty minutes or so. We were not complaining. (Tours are run in French, Dutch, and English if the audience is there, but we found that our guide often forgot to repeat herself in English. Never mind, we had plenty to occupy us.) The guide began her talk in front of row upon row of costumes for Hamlet, the latest production. We were given a bit of history, but swiftly moved on to talking about the work that is done here, and the production teams which work year round to supply costumes, sets, and props for the shows.

First stop was the painting studio, and the various workshops for set design:

Chaotic but obviously dedicated, this is a side of theatre production that one doesn’t often see. I loved the fact that the plans were lying about, that one could see the names of famous operas casually scrawled on the backs of flats, and that all that magic comes from paint, wood, metal, and hard work. Perhaps the most amazing aspect of this area was the 'assembly room' where they check the sets before taking them across to the Opera House itself (bottom left photo above). A cavernous space, marked all over with measurements, the industrial look is about as far removed from the final setting as you could get.

My favourite part of the tour was wandering through the costume department:

There were rows of sewing machines, boxes and boxes of bits and pieces, bolts of cloth, and notes everywhere. After walking through the rooms where they make the costumes, we saw the storerooms - an archive of previous operas and other productions. The guide told us that the costumes and props for one opera are 'copyrighted', as it were, to that specific production, and cannot be reused for any other production. Apparently they auction off the surplus every so often, when they run out of space.

I also loved the little in-between spaces, where props from old operas had been used to decorate the spaces: a giant bookcase from Don Quixote near the lifts, costume sketches on the walls, and those beautiful wings hung up like coats.

The last stop in this building was to see the miniature theatre, an eighteenth century copy of the theatre at Bayreuth:

Our guide also gave us a ‘show and tell’, which added to the experience, but made me feel a little like we were a visiting school group. We handed round a severed head modelled on a famous singer for a role where he was executed and a make-up artist’s notes for travelling productions. It was certainly interesting and a nice addition, but I think it would have been hard to impress us after being allowed to walk freely through the workshops (especially for me, who once harboured the desire to be a Theatre Designer). Time had really flown, and having started the tour wondering if we would actually see the Opera House, I was quite disappointed to leave the ateliers.

We entered the Opera House through the artists’ entrance, a stark contrast to the plush velvet-and-gold main entrance. Like the workshops, the Opera House was mostly empty, giving us the space and time to appreciate it in a way I don’t think you would when filled with people. For example, the sweep of the staircase and expanses of rich carpeting are more impressive when you can see the full scale. Inside the theatre itself, we sat in the ‘best seats in the house’, centre of the front row of the balcony (I think the sight line is called something like 'the Prince’s Line'). We also stepped into the Royal Box – the worst seats in the house for actually seeing the opera!

View from the Royal Box - looking out to the audience, not the stage!
(Please excuse terrible phone photo.)
The tour made me want to see a production at La Monnaie, but it also made me want to explore the backstage areas of other theatres. I don’t know how well-known this tour is, but I honestly think it’s one of the best experiences I’ve had in Brussels. Especially when followed by a massive cone of frites with mayonnaise.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

The Other Side of the World (2 of 3): New Zealand - North Island

Whangarei - Bay of Islands - Matakana - Leigh Coastal Walk - Coromandel Peninsula - Mount Maunganui (Pacific beach) - Rotarua and Tamaki Maori Village - Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Park - Lake Taupo - Tongariro Alpine Crossing - Napier (Art Deco town) - Gisborne (Cook's First Landing) - Lake Waikoremoana - Cape Kidknappers (Gannets) - Martinborough (wine) - Wellington (Te Papa, Old and New St. Pauls, Botanic Garden via Cable Car - Soames Island trip)

- The Whangerai Falls were the first thing we saw on our first full day, involving a hike through lush, dense bush, walking across a swinging rope bridge, and emerging at the base of the falls.
- A boat tour through the Bay of Islands was the best way to explore this area, including seeing a whale and going through 'the hole in the rock'. The weather started cloudy and grey and brightened to beautiful blue skies with scuds of white cloud, and then ended with a moody storm.
- Wai-O-Tapu Geothermal Park was full of exciting things like boiling mud, 'champagne' pools, and weirdly coloured water (due to mineral deposits). Plus the Lady Knox Geyser they set off every morning!
- We attempted to do a short hike round the waterfalls which lead to Lake Waikoremoana, but after a few lovely vistas the heavens opened with hail the size of golf balls. Cue hasty retreat to the car.
- Other days had better weather - for example the day I swam in the Pacific Ocean for the first time ever!

Town & Country
- What can I say about the Tongariro Alpine Crossing? It was simultaneously one of the best and worst things I've ever done. The Crossing is a 19.4km hike up a volcano (the route taking you up the charmingly named 'Devil's Staircase') and then ACROSS THE CRATER EDGE and down the other side, through ankle-deep volcanic ash and then, further down, woodland (which involved fording a stream - a great way to find out if your boots are waterproof. Or not.). You should get spectacular views across the countryside, and also amazing views of the volcano and its blue lakes. Well. When we did it, it was not so much that it was raining, as that we were INSIDE the clouds. It was foggy and wet and cold and horrible and we basically did the entire thing without stopping, in five hours. I'm quite proud of myself!
- Wellington was windy but so much fun! The Te Papa Museum is enormous, full of interactive bits and pieces and a wealth of information. We did a walking tour of the city, including going up the cable car to the Botanic Gardens, and happened across a memorial service at the 'Beehive' government building.
- Makatana, oh Makatana. You are the most hipster place I have ever seen! I love you and your antiques and crafts market, but I love your food market more. We ate: an excellent pie with cream cheese pastry (ever so flaky), a whitebait fritter (allegedly a great delicacy), a massive caramel brownie (aw yis), and drank fantastic coffee and smoothies (but no craft beer, because the Dutchman was driving, solidarity and all that).
- The wine tasting in Martinborough was a lovely day's activity. There are many vineyards within walking distance of each other, so we had a nice tour of cellar doors. Everyone was friendly, we tasted some excellent Riesling and Sauvingnon Blanc, and a surprisingly amount of red wine. We stayed in a rather nice B&B that evening.
- Napier and Gisborne were the other two towns we visited, when not tramping through bushland. Napier is famous for its Art Deco architecture, having been completely rebuilt in the 1930s following an earthquake. It made for a nice morning's walking. Gisborne was a little disappointing. The town is the site of Cook's first landing, which is commemorated by a few statues, but little else. There was an excellent museum about encounters between Maori and Pakeha (Europeans).

The Unexpected
- We saw our first Kiwi at the Kiwi North sanctuary which was an amazing experience!
- One Gannets at Cape Kidknappers
-I also loved the impromptu trip we took from the Wellington City & Sea Museum, consisting of a guided tour by a curator and then a ferry ride to Soames Island, an amazing island with a sad history of human quarantine - although they called it the 'Ship'n'Chip' tour which is clearly missing a trick; 'Fish'n'Ships, surely!
- Another highlight was the Maori Cultural Evening we attended near Rotaroa. You arrive on a bus, which is your tribe for the evening, and are treated to a welcome ceremony and taken on a tour of the 'village' with various activities - such as learning the Haka, as the Dutchman did! - before dinner is served. They cook the meal in a hungi, a pit, which produces some of the most tender smoky chicken I've ever had, plus kumara (sweet potato) and carrots, all served in enormous portions. It was, as one of our table said, a bit like Christmas!

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

The Other Side of the World (1 of 3): Hong Kong

New Zealand is about as far away from Brussels as you can get. It is FAR. So far, that the aeroplane has to stop to refuel half way there. We took the opportunity to have a brief stop in Hong Kong: two days of jetlag and eating.

First impressions do count, but I don't know if I would feel any differently about Hong Kong if I experienced it without a massive TIME HANGOVER. It was muggy, it was noisy, it was crowded. I really enjoyed my time there, but two days was enough. The novelty of the Mid Town Escalators hadn't worn off yet, and I was still curious about the market stalls on the street selling more varieties of fermented um, things than I knew existed.

We had no idea what time our bodies thought it was, and although we were shattered, we didn't want to waste any time. The first we did as tourists was ride the Mid Town Escalators to the port (I love the translations of the rules - do not wail against the flow is good advice for life!), to catch the Star Ferry to Kowloon. There we visited the Temple Street Night Market, which was a riot of neon signs and all kinds of stalls (fake bags, ornate chopsticks, mobile phone cases, bunches of herbs). We ate dinner in a tiny place, with no idea what anyone was saying or what we had ordered to go in our noodle soup. After that, the night had really fallen, and we headed back to the dock to see the 'Symphony of Lights'. We'd already seen the impressive skyline of skyscrapers, which light up the horizon, but the show was much-vaulted in the guidebooks, so we were prepared for something spectacular. To be honest? It was a disappointment. Nothing really happened that was any different from the usual night scene, apart from green lasers haphazardly running across the sky. It was the skyline itself which was impressive - see the photo, bottom right, above - with all the lights and the sheer presence of the big name brands and banks, not the 'show'. We stayed in the cool air for quite a while, though, talking about what to do next. I had one non-negotiable trip in mind. Tea at the Peninsula hotel.

The Dutchman and I got dressed up and tried to look as if we were rich enough to do this every day. Tea at the Peninsula is regularly included in lists of 'the top ten things to do in Hong Kong', and rightly so. Ok, so it isn't in any way traditionally Chinese, but it is traditional: the British influence is still present in Hong Kong, with the trappings of the colonial era nowhere more present than in the ritual of high tea. It was spectacular, both in food and location. I had delicate jasmine tea, whilst the Dutchman went for an Assam. We had a selection of little savouries, including an open cucumber sandwich which was perfectly seasoned and a bite-sized salmon quiche. The scones - one fruit, one plain - were enormous. The cakes were easily the best part (aside from people-watching!) and two gave a nod to Chinese cuisine: slices of green tea cake heavy with plums; cassis and tapioca squares. We both liked the pink confection best - see that swirl of pink in the glass? That's whipped vanilla cream and raspberry marshmallow, hiding fresh raspberry purée. (I also took photos of every meal we ate on the flights. Not nearly so interesting.)

Another 'top ten' experience was riding the cable car slash tram up to Victoria Peak, which gave spectacular views over Hong Kong island and across the bay to Kowloon. On the way back down, we passed the Foreign Correspondents' Club, which made me imagine Ernest Hemingway and Patrick Leigh Fermor drinking gin in club chairs. Not that either of them did that here, but, you know, I love the stereotype of the FCC. We did a lot of walking, wandering about the various neighbourhoods: the 'entertainment district' was rather seedy, but it was fun to look around; the Dutchman ran round the tiny Kowloon Park about fifty times whilst I read the guidebook and plotted dinner destinations; we stared up at all the major banking buildings in Central. The one thing we didn't see was much dim sum. We'd been expecting enormous feasts of little packages of steamed and fried deliciousness, but it seems to be such a 'breakfast' thing that we didn't catch it in time. (This was my fault, being an ignorant Westerner, who baulked at the idea of eating 'dinner' in the morning. Somehow I couldn't face rice and noodle soup that early in the day. I needed orange juice and something bread-like.) But oh the char siu pork! The hoi sin roast duck! The five spice beef brisket! The explosion of spring onions on soup! The slurp of noodles from a bowl!

I wasn't sad to leave Hong Kong, because we were headed to New Zealand - rather than the end of the holiday, it was the only the beginning! If we'd stayed longer I would have liked to have seen the Buddha on Lantau Island, but apart from that it was an excellent stop off.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Art Nouveau

Huis G. Hele / Maison de la Francite & Charlier Museum
 October sees the Art Nouveau Biennial in Brussels, where many private houses are open for guided tours, as well as museums and other public buildings. Victor Horta's distinctive style is everywhere in Brussels, one of the things I love about the place. The tall 'maison a maitre' houses are all very elegant, very - how should I say this? - European, but Horta's beautiful organic shapes stand out. There are two near us - an always-closed photography museum, Espace Contratype, and the 'Horta house' museum. We visited two other houses of the Art Nouveau tradition this weekend, with the Dutchman's parents.

Huis G. Hele / Maison de la Francite

In my dream home, I would have those stained glass French windows (top left and top middle). I think they are perfect. One of the things I didn't realise was how light it would be inside. Apparently he loved light. I'm used to tall ceilings here, but the combination of large windows and space was notable. We had a tour in English, but to be honest I would rather have just wandered about. There was colour and pattern everywhere - murals on the ceilings, marquetry and mosaics on the stairs, and plenty of stained glass. This building now houses a Francophone community organisation, and the chances to peek into the modern rooms was an added bonus - how do people live in these spaces, without turning them into monuments?

Charlier Museum

This tour was less successful, perhaps because the museum wanted to promote their exhibition of Indian paintings more than they cared about the Horta connection. But they should! Because this was one of the first commissions he had (outside of Ghent) which shows the beginning of his particular brand of architecture. I got the impression that it was sort of a pity appointment by Henri van Cutsem. The house was originally two separate buildings, and has a story to tell which explains one of the reasons for all that light. The large green room - the main exhibition space - was created by knocking the back rooms of the houses together, creating an odd shape that Horta celebrated in his glass ceiling. (The two photos top right show the back of the two houses, looking pretty cobbled-together, whereas you can't tell from the front and inside that they were once separate.) But why the glass ceiling? Because what do you need, if you're an art collector? Wall space. So Horta designed and built huge expanses of flat wall space, with no windows to get in the way of the paintings. Practical and beautiful. Most of the house was decorated as it would have been when completed, in the 1890s, which is to say, it is full of the van Cutsem family's antiques and does not look at all as if it was designed by Horta when you're inside.

One of the most obvious traits of Art Nouveau is the fluidity of line - window tops are often rounded, not square; the wrought iron designs on balconies are rarely straight; bannisters and other wooden elements are manipulated and smoothed out... But what Horta does with his architecture is take it one step further. His houses are as 'organic' as possible: he wants the different elements to blend into each other, not stand apart. So where there are metal bars on the windows, they meet the stone walls with some sort of rounding or protrusion to obscure the join. The one I like best, though, is the way he rounds off the edge of the building, where it meets the street:

I wonder if the people at Espace Contretype get sick of Horta-tourists?
There is no right-angle join but instead an attempt to smooth the transition from pavement to wall. It's these considerations which make the buildings. Yes, I love the stained glass and the organic shapes - and there are far more beautiful examples of Art Nouveau decoration than these two houses - but what I liked about the Biennial was the history behind it, the stories of why Art Nouveau is like that, and it's pretty much all from Horta. The first time something being the Belgians' fault has been a positive, in my opinion.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Autoloze and Brocante

There is no explanation for this sculpture.
It was Car Free Sunday here in Brussels this weekend, a day when public transport is free (try explaining that to a Japanese family desperately attempting to shove their metro cards into the machine) and the streets are full of bicycles and junk. The Belgians love a good flea market. Any excuse, and they’re out there, displaying their worldly goods on bits of carpet or tarpaulin. Car Free Sunday is a wonderful idea to raise awareness for greener transportation choices – as well as public transport being free, cars are actually banned from the city centre, and you need a permit if you do want to drive – but the lack of vehicles on the roads also allows communities to use the space for other things…

These images all come from our walk down Rue de la Page and around Place Chatelain (where the top left photo with the hamster-esque plastic balls was taken), from where we continued across the eerily silent Avenue Louise (a major route through the city, with about six million lanes of traffic) to Place Flagey, where the usually busy Sunday market was heaving with people. On the way back, we passed a tram moving slowly and sedately along Avenue Louise, accompanied by bicycles of all kinds with riders of all ages in some sort of pro-cycling parade. I wish I had photos of some of the groups we saw, but my Blackberry camera is not too happy with moving images.

The variety of STUFF on the streets at times like these is amazing. ‘Brocante’ appears to apply equally to both ‘vintage collectors’ items’ and ‘stuff that is broken so I don’t want any more but you might’. People appear to use it as an excuse to clear out, and I do wonder if they ever manage to sell these things. There are antiques dealers as well, and stalls which look a bit more professional (perhaps specialising in something), but my experience is that if you’re going to sell something, the weirder the better. Some of the more ridiculous offerings – limescaled kettles without lids, wickerwork baskets with massive holes in, piles of beaten-up trainers – are not included here, but I hope these photos capture the idea. I love the old house number plates, that combination of blue and white seems so French to me. But alongside those? A tangle of screws and odd brackets. Various bits of ironmongery, including door locks. A single wooden coathanger. I did see a beautiful Singer sewing machine table, but alas it was already sold. We could have consoled ourselves with all the Johnny Halliday CDs one could want, but, instead, we visited Lilicup for a beautiful lemon and lavender cupcake (eaten walking back across Chaussee de Waterloo with no cars to be seen in either direction):

Monday, 30 September 2013

Soup as a displacement activity

This post was in the drafts folder from the time I wrote it (last Monday) until now...

The weather is unsure of itself. It was SHEETING it down t'other week, and now it's warm enough to sit on the balcony during the day. I am not sitting on the balcony. I am huddled in the library or at home quietly wimpering to myself as I attempt to cram ALL OF THE KNOWLEDGE into my brain before the viva on Thursday. I have some rather nice charts, have covered my copy of the thesis with colour-coded post-its, have created pages of key points for each chapter, and cried all over the Dutchman about how inadequate I am (I have now passed my viva, with NO CORRECTIONS, and all that knowledge has now fled my brain).

Anyway. At the weekend I made soup, as a displacement activity in an attempt to take my mind off the worry about the dreaded viva, and it was good.

Six ingredients: leeks, onions, potatoes, stock, butter, seasoning. That’s it. There are some delicious later additions, but essentially if you’ve got those five, you’re ok. Leek and potato soup is the perfect weekend lunch, in my opinion. Mmm, lekker!

This is one of those recipes that isn’t really a recipe: ‘put some stuff in a pan and cook it.’ The reason I wanted to write this down is that I sometimes forget about those recipes that are so simple. When I’m planning the week’s meals it’s nice to know that there are things that take no effort but are delicious. Also there’s a bit of a Jewish grandmother thing going on in my kitchen adventures. I would love some kind of magic fridge and pantry that could provide you with whatever you wanted at the drop of a hat, and right now my freezer is full of nicely portioned leek and potato soup and mini chicken and leek pies, which kind of sums up the Dutchman’s culinary desires for autumn.

Leek and potato soup

Rough quantities only. Serves about 6 (and freezes very well)

- 1 onion
- 3 leeks
- 3 medium potatoes
- 2 pints vegetable stock
- knob of butter
- salt and pepper to season

PLUS! Anything and everything you'd like to add - crème fraîche, fresh chives or parsley, croutons, parmesan...

You will also need a blender if you want the soup properly smooth. A food processor will turn it into a rough consistency but never make it as smooth as a blender can. We have a Philips blender, which I suspect the Dutchman bought because some tiny portion of the price will go to his beloved PSV, so obviously I recommend that as an option if you're in the market.

1. Put Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons on. Singing along will make you stop worrying about memorising quotes related to Peter Middleton's theory of 'Distant Reading'.
2. Peel and chop the potatoes*, and place them in a large pan of water with vegetable stock**.
*As you’re going to be blitzing them, cut them quite small to help your processor. Also… the smaller they are the faster they cook and the faster you get to eat!
** I used one cube for two pints of water. I should probably advocate making your own vegetable stock, but ain’t nobody got time for that shit.
3. Whilst the potatoes are boiling, thinly slice the leeks and onions and gently fry them in the butter. (I used my weird soy spread instead and felt that it was no worse for that – the luxurious buttery feel comes more from the smooth potato, I think, than from the actual butter itself.)
4. When the potatoes are fork-soft and the leeks and onions are nice and tender, add the leek mixture to the potatoes to combine. Blend in batches, tasting for seasoning.

We were going to eat the soup with a dollop of crème fraîche and fresh chives, as in the photo above. Then the Dutchman had a brilliant idea - hello olive oil bruschettini!

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Meat free Friday doesn't have quite the same ring to it, does it?

Here is a moan: grocery shopping in Brussels requires the GDP of a small African nation. In England, there are always supermarket own brands and deals and cheap options. Here, there are no cheap options. You can't look at the shelves and think 'ooh I'll treat myself to the organic Duchy Originals baked beans rather than the Tesco Value this week', it's all Duchy Originals all the time. (Do Duchy Originals do baked beans?) (It's not actually Duchy Originals. Charles hasn't invaded Belgium. But you get my drift.) So we've decided to do at least one dinner a week without meat. Meat free Mondays has been a thing for quite a while now, I believe, but I'm a free spirit and won't be tied down by alliterative demands.

Butternut Squash is something I love. I love all kinds of squash, pumpkin, etc., and the markets have just started bringing in the weird looking orange things in all shapes and sizes. I shall investigate further, but for now, the sweetness of the butternut works well here.

Butternut Squash and Spinach Lasagna

Recipe adapted from Recipe Rifle, who got it from Pippa Middleton. (My dinner is less than six degrees away from royalty.) Extreme exegesising all my own. Serves 4.

- a medium onion or three shallots so strong they make you WEEP
- a smallish butternut squash, about 750g
- fresh sage leaves
- 2 garlic cloves, depending on your allium love, or some squirts from a garlic paste tube (the greatest invention of ALL TIME)
- 200g fresh spinach
- 8 fresh or dried lasagna sheets
- nutmeg, salt, pepper, olive oil
- white sauce (made with about 60g each butter and flour to 400ml milk)
- as much parmesan as you like (see 3a of method for REASONS)

You will also need some sort of tin to cook this in. Obviously. I used a 7 inch springform cake tin, because it was the only thing I had that was about the right size. Cake tins are round and lasagna sheets are rectangular. Tessellation, bitches!

1. Preheat the oven to 200°C.
2. Peel the butternut squash, discarding the seeds, and cut it into very thin rounds (Esther says to cut to about the thickness of a pound coin, which is much thinner than you think). Cut the onion into similar rounds.* Roast the butternut and onion, drizzled with a fair amount of oil and torn sage, for about twenty minutes, stirring occasionally. If using garlic paste, stir this in when it's cooked, or it will burn.
* The Dutchman cut my shallots for me, because this batch cause much weeping, and he did a rough dice, which worked fine.
3. Whilst this is cooking, make the white sauce. People seem to be scared of lumps in making white sauce. I've never had a problem with my mum's method. I'll not post anything here as people usually have their own ways of making white sauce, but if you follow the link to Recipe Rifle above, Esther has a fool-proof method that you might like to try if you're unsure.
3a. I did not add much cheese to my sauce. I also made it with soy spread and almond milk instead of butter and proper milk. This is because I have recently been diagnosed as intolerant to dairy. I think this is a bit of a wanky thing to say, it always makes me think of Americans saying 'could I get a soy latte?' and as it isn't an allergy I try to 'make good choices' but don't eliminate it from my diet completely. I know that proper allergies are a terrible thing - coeliacs, for example, can really suffer if you're not careful and it's great that there are so many alternatives on the market, but I find that I manage my body's intolerance best by just restricting dairy. Using a strong parmesan means that you don't need to add that much anyway. I also didn't put extra cheese between the layers, as the original says, but I did sprinkle some on top. I also added the nutmeg to the cheese sauce rather than to the spinach, basically because I forgot. End of ramble.
4. Wilt the spinach. I don't add any water in the pan, just put it on a low heat and hit it with a spoon for a bit. Then for this recipe it is important to get as much water out of it as possible, so stick it on a bit of kitchen towel and smoosh it about a bit.
5. Layer up the lasagne. Esther blanched her dried pasta sheets first, many of her commenters said they didn't need to. I used fresh because they were cheaper than dried (wtf). Lasagna on the bottom, then a third of the butternut and onion mix, then a third of the spinach, then a bit of sauce, repeat until done. I ended with pasta, which means needing a bit more sauce on top to ensure it doesn't dry out. 'A bit more' turned into 'a fuckload' but the Dutchman did not complain. Sprinkle with cheese.
6. Bake for half an hour, or until the top is nicely browned. I served this with a green salad (with honey mustard dressing) and cucumbers (sprinkled with vinegar) to balance the sweetness. We ate half last night and then half this lunchtime, reheated, which seemed to work just fine, if making the pasta a little crispy.

Monday, 16 September 2013

EAT! Brussels Restaurant Festival

And what is a restaurant festival when it's at home, then? Well, EAT! Brussels was a chance for restaurants in Brussels to show off and attract new customers, all collected together in the Bois de la Cambre, a forest park area (which includes a man-made lake complete with its own fancy restaurant, Chalet Robinson [warning: website plays music and may inspire feelings of extreme envy]).

From top to bottom: Tibetan fried tasting plate; Indonesian chicken curry; Hungarian goulash.
The Dutchman and I felt that some were more successful than others. Our first stop was the Le Tibet booth, who gave us a mixed plate of fried things with the hottest, spiciest, most lip-tingling sauce I have ever encountered. The one at the top of the photo - essentially a Tibetan Cornish Pasty - was excellent, the others kind of forgettable. The Indonesian chicken curry felt lacklustre, as if someone had just dumped some pieces of chicken in coconut milk and left it for a while, and if that's the level of cookery you're presenting as a lure for people to come to your restaurant, then I'm certainly not going to make the effort to visit you. The third photo above is of the quite frankly marvellous Hungarian venison goulash. YES. We ended up licking the sauce - with juniper and red wine - from the plate when we'd finished. But the potato dumplings were a bit stodgy and an unappealing grey colour inside, and I think it would have been better with bread for mopping, but perhaps I'm just greedy. We also attempted to get Congolese food (goat curry, chicken wings, fried plantain) but after standing for ten minutes whilst the eight women behind the booth ignored us, we gave up.

But there were some delicious delicious positives...

Babdar: lamb m'rouzia:

Fork-tender lamb, slow slow slow cooked so that the spices and meat are completely fused. There's a multi-layered taste - cumin, ras al hanout, a sweet burst from the raisins, crunch from the almonds, and the cous cous soaking up the gravy. Whilst I'm very glad that we shared the plates, as it meant we got more tastes, for this one there was a bit of a battle to keep the forkfuls even. We will definitely be heading to Babdar to see what else they've got to offer.

Strofila: baklava cigars (with champagne!)

I do love a good baklava. These had a touch more clove than I would usually go for, but they were full of pistacho and deliciously sticky from the honey, and tasted wonderful. Unfortunately, we could not do the planned taste test between these guys and O Liban (a Lebanese restaurant we've been meaning to go to) because they had run out! Oh woe. But there was champagne! We'd bought a pass which included a number of extras, such as water, coffee, and an Aperol Spritz (fizzy, bright orange, bitter, strangely compelling) and champagne. I felt that these little things added to the experience. I wouldn't have paid for a glass of champers on top of buying the food, but by getting this deal we ended up with a glass of something with every plate, AND to round it all off, SECOND PUDDING in the form of a scoop of salted caramel icecream from La Coupe which was absolutely gorgeous.

All in all, I really enjoyed myself. It was nice to wander around, choosing what we were going to spend our tokens on, looking at all the options available and planning future dinners out. Brussels seems to have a lot of festivals or special weeks (I'm keeping my eyes peeled for Chocolate Week coming round again) and it just feels festive and fun. And it gave me the gift of m'rouzia. NOM.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

To Dutchland!

Two lovely things already this weekend, and later today we're going to this!

On Friday, we went to the Dutchman's friend's wedding in Rotterdam. It was an evening event, with a Baptist-esque ceremony - all in Dutch, so I had very little idea what was going on for an hour - complete with a band with bongo drums and electric guitar. The reception was fun, lots of drinking and pretending to understand conversations, a capriana bar, and a salsa workshop! There was no sit-down dinner, but I did eat a deep-fried meatball croquette thing, which was an experience I won't be forgetting in a while. The cupcakes were chocolate sponge with vanilla cheesecake and vanilla sponge with strawberries baked into the middle. Obviously I tried both, to be able to give a full report.

That night we headed on to Amsterdam, to stay with the Dutchman's brother and his girlfriend. (They live at the top of a house right on a canal - a beautiful flat with gorgeous views, but man were the stairs steep!) The reason for going to Amsterdam was to visit the Rijksmuseum.

Oh, oh, oh, I was not disappointed. It is a beautiful, imposing building, which they have completely re-done inside. It's all white walls and clean lines - which reminded me, although I know I'm being massively parochial, of the way they re-did the Ashmolean. There's a cycle tunnel through the middle of the building, which breaks the ground floor in half, but also gives, along with the skylights, a lot of light to the internal space.

What I liked most about the Rijksmuseum was the Masters' Gallery, where the Dutch Golden Age is celebrated. The walls above the paintings are covered with murals naming famous painters, and it was quite marvellous to see famous paintings in the flesh. However, what I also liked was the fact that it is obvious, at a glance, where the most famous paintings are, from the crowds huddled round - see above photos of this for The Nightwatch and the Vermeer hangings. We had so much fun. Not only did the Dutchman get involved, at my behest, with a militiaman painting, I also got a lot of strange looks for posing, pretending to weep, in front of the stern carving of the Royal Charles, captured and pulled triumphantly back to the Netherlands by the evil Dutch as their prize for winning the Battle of the Medway. Unfortunately this photo has now been lost because I stupidly thought that if the camera said it had finished uploading it would have actually finished uploading and therefore did not check before deleting the photos off the camera. Cockfetch. Memories of tasty oude kaas (literally 'old cheese') sandwiches and Dutch Apple Pie are comforting me.

I love Rotterdam, because it is where the Dutchman studied and where many of his university friends still live. When we go there it is always for a social occasion, and I've always had an excellent time. I like Amsterdam (despite the fact that it has been tipping it down on both the times I've been there), with its pretty canals, but I definitely feel like a tourist, and have still got so much to see. We must go back to the Rijksmuseum, as we didn't get a chance to see the more modern exhibits, and I want to go to the Anne Frank house. I love Dutchland, it's laid back and friendly and full of interesting things. Including my boyfriend. (Boom.) If you're interested in Dutch art, or the infamous ten year renovation of the Rijksmuseum, I highly recommend Andrew Graham-Dixon's BBC documentaries, The High Art of the Low Countries (in three episodes) and A Night at the Rijksmuseum.

Friday, 13 September 2013


Brussels is a strange place: simultaneously so beautiful and so so ugly. Yes, there are a lot of Ugly Belgian Houses, but this city is full of Victor Horta buildings, wrought iron balconies, little details and grand facades. The metro stations reek and most of them would not look out of place in post-Apocalyptic East Berlin, but there are also parks and palaces and sweeping vistas. Not to mention the chocolate, beer, and frites which can distract you from looking up. But there is one thing which I find hard to cope with: the grey. In the light, with a blue sky, the grey stonework and paint looks chic. I've never seen so many different kinds, tones, and shades of grey in one place before, and it works, sometimes. It does. Tall houses with slightly fading grandeur; elegant shopfronts; imposing official buildings. But then, when the sky is grey and the pavements are grey and the buildings are grey it is hard not to feel grey, too.

So today I wanted some sunshine, which severely lacking in this environment. The Indian summer has given way - to either brutal downpours or that annoying rain where it's patchy and not heavy enough for an umbrella but give it ten minutes and you're soaked (man the fuck up, rain, commit to it or go away). I have completely bastardized a dish I love from Al-Shami, a Lebanese restaurant in Oxford (I cannot recommend their sharing mezze menu enough): baked fish in a tomato sauce. Vibrant red. Aromatic. Warming.

Served with green beans and rice, and a large glass of Riesling:

And afterwards? More sunshine:

Lebanese-ish Baked Fish in a Spiced Tomato Sauce 

Recipe made up out of my own head and not much like a proper Kousbariya or Samaka Hara Ma'a Banadora at all. Makes dinner for two with leftover sauce.

- 200g firm white fish, such as cod (oh god all the names of things in this place are odd and I don't know what I'm doing staring at nondescript pieces of fish and trying to guess what is what)
- a small amount of flour
- 1 onion, diced
- 1 or 2 cloves of garlic, crushed (depending on your love of the stuff)
- 4 ripe tomatoes (I used San Marzano, de-coring the white part but keeping the juice and seeds)
- 1 red pepper, sliced
- 1 heaped tsp cumin
- 2 heaped tsp each fresh parsley and coriander
- plus olive oil and salt and pepper to taste

1. Preheat the oven to 200°C. Heat a small amount of oil in a frying pan. Dust the fish with flour, and fry it off for a minute or so each side so it is nicely browned. Remove and place in an ovenproof dish.
2. Wipe out the pan and add more oil. Gently fry the onions, peppers, and garlic, adding the tomatoes when the peppers start to soften. Add one generous teaspoon each of cumin, parsley, and coriander. Cook this sauce, bubbling, for about five minutes. Taste and season as necessary.
3. Pour this sauce over the fish, enough to cover it. (At this point I kept about a third of the sauce back in order to make another bastardized dish - huevos rancheros - for lunch the next day, but the important thing is to generously cover the whole fish. You will also notice from my photo above that, at the edges of the pan where the sauce is thinner, it may burn. Combat this by using a smaller pan. I didn't have anything suitable. *Cue ungrateful my-kitchen-is-soooo-ill-equipped moan*)
4. Bake the covered fish for around 15-20 minutes, depending on the thickness of your fish.
5. Either sprinkle the rest of the parsley and coriander over the top, or bring the herbs to the table so that people can add their own to their portion. But do bring it to the table in the cooking pan, so that you can do a nice cheffy flourish when breaking through the sauce to reveal the white fish below!

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Library Adventures!

No, please don't run away. I did honestly have some library-based adventures. This is the Belgian National Library - or the Koninklijke Biblioteek van België, if you're the Dutchman - and is where I'm spending a lot of my time at the moment:

They have a courtyard garden (top right) and a terrace (bottom left), overlooking the square (bottom right). The library is set on the Kunstberg, the 'Art Mountain', upon which many of the major museums sit, next to the Royal Palace. It is an interesting building. Modern. Open-plan reading rooms. So different from the Bodleian and my beloved Duke Humfrey's Library. The lockers are all named after famous Belgian writers and such.* I can't get over the fact that they don't let you (!!!) choose your seat (!!!) - you hand in your library card to the woman at the reading room entrance and she hands you a number, seemingly at random. This is now where you must sit. As a creature of habit (always always 248 in the BL, H11 in DH) I find this strange. What if you like more or less light, to sit near the window or away from the doors? Bah. Anyways. This is not the adventure. Adventure number one is the ALLOTMENT ON THE LIBRARY ROOF.

(* Apparently Poirot and Tintin don't count. I deliberately started my attempt at a nice arty representation of this at Georges Simenon, as one of the few I knew. That either makes me very uncultured or these Belgians not that famous. Probably the first. Me and Maurice Gilliams are becoming very well acquainted.)


There is an allotment on the roof of the library. An actual allotment. With a biodome and vegetables you can buy. It is amazing. I basically slunk round, took these photos, and left, but I sort of regret it. There were three distinctly hippy types weeding and talking to people, and I did want to know more. I saw tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, chillies, beans, and various herbs, and the signs indicated others would grow in season.

And then on my way back down, I had adventure number two...

The Librarium

I have no idea whether I should have just wandered in, or whether I should have been allowed to take photos, but I am glad that I did. The Librarium is a kind of museum of the book. The sculpture at the entrance is made up of pieces of paper with words such as 'library', 'book', and 'reading' written in many different languages. It's a striking piece. I've seen it out of the corner of my eye when on the way to the reading room, but today for some reason it was more brightly lit (although I was the only one in there).

Exhibits track the history of books and manuscripts, from stone tablets, scrolls, and early printing, through to innovations and curiosities such as miniatures and pop-up books. What I liked most about it (apart from the eerie quiet) was the way technology had been integrated.

Touchscreens abounded: display case information; a booth where they show a different illuminated manuscript every month, with 'turnable' pages; ipad-esque video screens for choosing your language and subject...

Every day I walk from our apartment to the library, set out my books, and make notes hoping to cover all the possible things I could be asked in my viva. I am attempting to allay the panic with a vast pile of books and highlights and notations and quotes. I'm not sure it's working. But today, today felt good. An allotment on the roof and a wunderkammer in the basement. Belgium, you continue to surprise me.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Delhaize Dinner

In an attempt to revive my quite frankly lacklustre French skills, I have decided to try and cook at least two dishes from the supermarket magazine every month. The current rentrée edition includes ideas for exciting packed lunches (draw faces on quiches) and an article on that cool new trendy foodstuff, the crumble.

The results? Well, I think my kitchen French came through for me, although how much of it was actual textual comprehension and how much of it was looking at the pictures and basic reasoning I don't know.

I intended to make the rosemary chicken skewers, but lacked one vital element: the skewers. Instead I fried off chicken pieces with onion and rosemary, which was perfectly pleasant but nothing special or particularly complicated to write more about. To accompany this, I went for green beans (the Dutchman's favourite) and a spinach and chickpea warm salad/side dish/thing. There were two elements of this (recipe below) which made it stand out. First, the chickpeas are flavoured as they cook by the additions to the water. This is a simple idea which I'd never heard of before - ok, yes, you add chickpeas to stews and so on, but just plain boiled chickpeas? It added a little something. In this instance the flavourings were garlic and bay, but I think they could be played around with: lemon and thyme; garlic and sage; white pepper and basil? And that's not even considering the flavourings of the Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and Levantine traditions of chickpea wizardry. The second element was the vinaigrette. Very simple, just oil and vinegar, but I think it brightened and lifted the spinach.

And now to the good stuff. Those process and food porn shots at the top of the page? That's a salted caramel and apple compote. OH YIS. Very easy to make and very easy to eat. It was part of an article in the Delhaize magazine which included a blackberry and cuberdon compote. Cuberdons are a Belgian sweet sort of like a jelly baby with a liquid centre. They are incredibly sweet and are one of those things which taste amazing at the first bite and then rapidly fill you with sugar and regret. Probably won't be trying that one... But! Salted caramel and apple! That totally counts as one of your five a day, right? It is made from fruit! We ate it warm, poured over a slice of plain vanilla sponge, accompanied by crème fraîche. (I may also have eaten it straight from the pot. Ahem.) Although I think there is something in the apple's cooking juices which lengthens the sauce, and stops the caramel from hardening, the photo above makes the caramel look a lot thinner than it was. I think this tastes like it was a lot more effort - three ingredients, plus water, and ready in under half an hour.

Ragout De Pois Chiches Aux Epinards

Recipe adapted from the August/September Delhaize magazine. For two.

- 125g tinned chickpeas
- 1 spring onion
- 250g spinach leaves
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 tbsp vinegar (original recipe called for sherry; we had red wine)
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 clove garlic
- olive oil, salt and pepper to taste
(the original recipe also called for 100g soft goat's cheese to crumble over the top, which we didn't do but I would definitely try another time)

1. Simmer the chickpeas in water flavoured with the garlic and bay leaf (for cooking times use tin instructions). When cooked, drain and place in a bowl.
2. Heat 1 tbsp of olive oil in a frying pan and add the spinach leaves - you will probably need to do this in batches, waiting for the first to wilt a little before adding the next. Mince the spring onion and add it to the pan. Cook together on a low heat for a few minutes.
3. Prepare the vinaigrette by whisking together the oil and vinegar.
4. Combine everything and serve!

Compote De Pomme Au Caramel Au Berre Salé

Recipe adapted from the August/September Delhaize magazine. Makes one pot, or enough as part of dessert for four people.

- 500g Cox apples
- 100g caster sugar
- 20g and 30g salted butter
- vanilla pod

1. Peel the apples and cut into small dice. Melt 20g of salted butter in a saucepan, add the split vanilla pod, and lightly stew the apples for about fifteen minutes, or until they reach a consistency you like - I've made it with apple pieces that still had a bit of crunch and with pears which went from rock hard to deliciously slumped in the blink of an eye.
2. Whilst the apples are cooking, make the caramel. In a (heavy-based) saucepan (with quite tall sides) melt the sugar into 2 tbsp water (about 20 ml). Once the sugar has melted completely, watch the liquid until it turns a 'caramel' colour. The darker it is, the more intense the flavour, but be careful as it can go from golden brown to burnt very easily... Take the pan off the heat and add the 30g butter, whisking it in. This is where the 'pan with tall sides' caveat comes in: the caramel will bubble up when you add the butter. It will be HOT so please be careful. Salted caramel is a glorious thing, I don't want anyone to have to go to casualty before getting to taste it. (Incidentally, if you are as much of a fan of salted caramel as I am, check out David Lebovitz - both this recipe and the other links beneath it.)
3. Add the caramel sauce to the apples and mix together. Serve either warm or cold. Or keep it all for yourself.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Mosel Valley: Riesling, kuchen, more Riesling, and sights.

The Dutchman and I decided to celebrate out first weekend of living together in Belgium by leaving the country. We had such a good time in the Ahr Valley in the spring that we thought we'd try another German destination - the Mosel Valley. The fact that we both love Riesling might also have something to do with it...

We started in Trier (where Karl Marx was born!), visiting the Porta Nigra and generally wandering around the pretty streets, and ate a fantastic Schwartzewald Kirschtorte (Black Forest Gateaux) at a konditorei (traditional cake and coffee house) overlooking the Dom (cathedral). (That's enough brackets.)

That night, we stayed at a hotel on the edge of a forest, in the company of a group of very loud Dutch bikers. The wild game goulash - made by the owner's grandmother, who was about 85 and still going strong - was phenomenal, but sadly not very photogenic. We went for a walk into the forest after dinner, just to see exactly how dark dark can get. Result: pretty damn dark. Also eerily silent.

Our second day started with a mosey along the Mosel (LOLZ) from Cochem, in beautiful weather. I do enjoy a nice boat. I also enjoy cake. Success on both counts in Cochem. The banks of the Mosel rise quite steeply in places, but every available space has been utilised for vineyards. We took a walk up into the hills which afforded wonderful views of the river (and a chance to walk off some of that cake).

Choosing to stay at Weinhaus Halfenstube was an excellent decision. The staff were lovely, the food was delicious, and the 'idyllic terrace' aptly named. Staring out over the river certainly made working on holiday feel less taxing! We opted for the 'small wine tasting' on our first night and received four different white wines from the region - we could have gone for a mixture of red and white, or specified the sweet rather than the dry end of the scale - which were the perfect accompaniment to the four course house menu. The first trocken Riesling was so good we ended up taking some home with us! Ditto the rotweinpfirsichmarmelade - a jam made from the so-called 'red wine peach', a fruit the size of an apricot but with bright red flesh. Other delights included the two-course breakfast the next day, sat out on the terrace again, and our lunch of 'Mosel tapas' including potatoes with blood pudding and apple, a wurtz salad that was way more wurtz than salad, and an obscene amount of rye bread and butter. In fact, it's a good job we had such good weather for hiking and cycling, with all that. Om nom nom!

The morning of our last day was spent cycling along the river path from Seinhem to Zell and back, and wishing we could stay longer. For much of the length of the valley the roads hug the river, making it a very pleasant drive - at least for me, as the passenger! I would definitely go back, perhaps to the northern end, where the Mosel meets the Rhine. And now we are back in Brussels, where we are having an été indien and I am looking forward to shopping at the Chatelain Market, feeling small in the massive National Library, and generally getting up to Belgian shenanigans.

Friday, 30 August 2013

Hoi, Salut, Hello Brussels!

I have arrived. I have hung my dresses next to his suits, lined my books up on the shelves, and appropriated space both in and on the chest of drawers. So. Brussels. In the immortal words of Vivian in Pretty Woman: now that you have me here, what are you planning to do with me? Thus far, Brussels has offered me the most meltingly-tender lamb shank I have ever tasted; has thwarted my attempts to open a bank account; and has entertained my parents with beautiful weather for our sightseeing. I think I will like living here. It feels decadent: our apartment has two balconies and ceilings on a grand scale; they put whipped cream on their coffee, eat chips with mayonnaise, and think nothing of having half a dozen chocolatiers on one place. Yes, this is going to be an exciting year.

(P.S. I considered titling this post The Entry of Helen into Brussels in 2013 which would have entertained me but probably not made sense to anyone else. It would have so counted as viva prep, though...)