Monday, 24 February 2014

Museum Night Fever!

Oh, this was excellent fun! They do get this sort of cultural thing right every so often - with a few dud notes, admittedly. Museum Night Fever was a whole evening (plus an after party) of shenanigans in various museums here in Brussels, with a wide range of activities and venues. It reminded me of the Ashmolean's Live Fridays, but GONE CITY-WIDE!

First up, on our evening's agenda, was the Jewish Museum. Well, actually, first up was getting the surprisingly well organised shuttle bus service, which we picked up at the MAF stop near us (more of which later), guided onto the bus by a friendly gorilla in a fluorescent vest. There was a great atmosphere, people all out to have fun, excited about the evening ahead.

The Jewish Museum is a fascinating place. I think we were there a little early in the proceedings - the promised music didn't start until much later - but it's one of the museums which I have been meaning to visit here, and even without any MNF 'extras' I'm glad we went. As is usual in many museums here, the texts are all in French and Dutch, with only occasional handouts with English translations. (I've just realised that makes me sound like one of those 'if I shout loud enough they'll understand, bally foreigners' but what I mean is, tourist-wise, they're not cashing in on the potential for having handouts for everything, and I do find it frustrating when they have some text but not all translated.) But, with or without English text, it was a very visual experience - lots of well-curated walls of photographs and nicely displayed exhibits.

The next stop on our visit was another place we'd wanted to go anyway. We'd both loved the previous exhibition at the Museum of Letters and Manuscripts, of artists' letters, so this - of love letters - was on our list of must-sees. And despite being crowded with people, it was excellent. There was a good range on display, with lots of pulled quotations on the walls, in French, Dutch, and English. The extras for MNF were performances, theatrical pieces, and dramatic readings based on the letters in the exhibit, but on a first come first served basis which excluded the vast majority of visitors. Tante pis. Top left in the collage above is the handwritten text of Je t'aime, moi non plus by Gainsbourg. Bottom left is a letter from Brigitte Bardot to some lucky man. They had letters from Napoleon, Satre, Apollinaire, Czar Alexander II, all kinds of people.

From here, in the Gallerie Royale Saint-Hubert, we wandered through to the Grand Place (beautiful atmospheric lighting at the top of the post), and from there to La Monnaie, the operahouse. And oh, this was the highlight of the evening!

The booklet exclaimed this is not a museum - touch the art, touch the artists! All the activities were themed to 'revolution', playing off the operahouse's 'revolutionary' history as the scene of the riots which put the wheels of Belgian independence in motion. The foyer was taken over by a sound installation, made up of recordings taken at demonstrations round the globe. It was a real aural assault, and it made the arrival by jarring you into noticing something big was going on.

Our first activity was to be 'birdified' by Thijs Van Vuure (photo collage bottom left)! He asked for a volunteer, and I deeply regret not speaking up. The booklet had implied that he would 'birdify' lots of people, but it was actually only one per session. Van Vuure is an artist who has studied biology, and found that birds live their lives ten times faster than we do (their hearts beat ten times faster, their life cycle is ten times faster). He recorded Belgian birds, slowed them down to 'our speed', and then copied the sound that was made. It makes birdsong into a vocal range which is possible for us to imitate, and that's where the volunteer comes in. Van Vuure had built a 'birdhouse', which was actually a recording studio. The volunteer had to listen to birdsong and copy it, and when the recording was finished, he sped it back up to bird speed and it really, really, worked! The girl's singing sounded exactly the same as the bird recording!

We then made our way to another sound installation, this time in the main theatre space itself. ATK! had taken over the seats, with the audience drifting in and out of the space, sitting on the stage, rather than in the stalls. There was an amazing light show, using installed lights and the theatre's own, and noise. I say noise because it was this aspect which really made it. In Hong Kong, the 'symphony of sound and light' uses twinkly, soft, happy music. ATK! used industrial noises and atonal chords, which made for a really creepy experience. It was a little bit as if there was an alien spaceship landing on top of us. In a good way.

After that, it was time for a bit of a rest. There were two refreshment venues, the 'soft room' with tea and cake, and the 'hard room' with revolutionary opera cocktails. We obviously went for the cocktails. They had two, one gin and one rum based, which were perfectly pleasant, but nothing special. The bar was another performance space, and the violin-piano-and-computer ensemble kept us there for a little while. There was also an area for making your own revolutionary posters, with a long line of people eager to 'smash capitalism' and 'free Belgium', but we'd stupidly left this til last, and didn't want to wait for the ink to dry before moving on, so didn't get a chance to create our poster (which would have, we decided, featured a bike and a lightning cloud, from the images available).

Our evening ended on a bit of a downer, which was a real shame. We walked to the Charles Lorraine Palace, stood in an enormous queue, with the Vedett truck blasting out some proper tunes (see top photos), and slowly moved forward, only to be told, upon reaching the doors, that the venue was at full capacity and they weren't going to let anyone else in, and that we had to go away - actually go away. Fine, health and safety and all that, but the fashion show wasn't due to start for another half an hour, and I don't think they could have known that nobody else would leave in that time. Hey ho. Back to the shuttle buses, full again of happy people, and to MAF, our last stop, near to us (so a good final stop logistically), and described in the booklet as an exciting opportunity to visit this usually closed museum. But, alas, we were disappointed. I am not sure what we were expecting but it certainly wasn't this. MAF is the Museum of Fantastic Art. And it was, in a sense. It was fantastic as in fantasy, as in sci-fi, as in steampunk. And it was art as in weird objects and science experiments and bits of skeleton. But - and this was the real issue, I think - not very good ones. I kept thinking, as we walked around, that it was such a shame that such a beautiful maison a maitre had been covered with jelly and mutilated monster babies and stuff. Nevertheless, I would highly recommend Museum Night Fever as an evening's entertainment, and would definitely go again if they have another one. Not all the museums participated, and I think some had a better idea of what to do with an evening's opening than others, but it was such good fun, running all over the city at night, doing cool things and seeing cool things and hearing cool things. And pretending we were cool, too, being part of it.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Greek lamb and aubergine stew

Following on from the 'Indian' meal the other week, here is another in the delicious-but-not-really-authentic category: Greek lamb and aubergine stew.

Greek lamb and aubergine stew

Recipe adapted from Debbie Major. Serves 4.

- 600g lamb. (Spend at least ten minutes dithering in the supermarket, having no idea what to choose from all these foreign bits. Debbie said leg, but that does not appear to be a cut the Belgians go in for. End up choosing whatever doesn't have enormous bones in (so that the weight is right) but not the hideously expensive lamb fillet.)
- 1 large onion or 4ish shallots
- 4 garlic cloves (well, the equivalent in squishy-crushed-garlic-in-a-tube, which I love)
- 1 medium aubergine (Debbie says 200g but I think mine was about 300g)
- quite a bit of olive oil
- SPICE: Debbie used between 1/2 and 1 tsp each of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and paprika. I actually used a mixture of the 'Athenian' and 'Hungarian' mixes you can see at the top of the post (Christmas presents from my awesome friend H) which include all these and more, and it was most effective, but that is not very helpful to anyone except me and her.
- 2 tbsp red wine vinegar
- 1 tbsp tomato puree
- 400g tinned tomatoes
- 200ml red wine
- HERBS: 3 bay leaves and a generous sprinkle of thyme

Plus orzo pasta, green beans or somesuch, and salad. And the rest of that bottle of red you opened.

1. Cut the lamb into chunks, cut the aubergine into chunks, roughly chop the onion/shallots.
2a. Brown the lamb, either in a casserole dish (which you can make the whole dish in) or in a frying pan (with a large pot with a lid on hand for the final stew cooking stage). Depending on the fat content, you may or may not need to add oil. When it is all cooked, remove it to a plate and cook the onions/shallots on a low heat.
2b. At the same time, fry off the aubergine in another pan. This is not in Debbie's recipe, but I was worried that the aubergine would be too mushy cooked straight into the tomato sauce, and I liked the fact that the fried pieces were soft but with some integrity.
3. When the onions are soft and golden, return the lamb to the pan and add all the spices, stirring to coat the meat and cook them off a bit.
4. Add the red wine vinegar to the pan, and try not to cough as it reduces. When this has mostly evaporated, add the tomato paste, tomatoes, wine (swill out the tomato can with the wine to get all the juice out), and herbs. NB if you are not using a casserole, this is the time to transfer from the frying pan to the saucepan/pot. Cover, and simmer on a low heat for 1 hour, stirring occasionally.
5. Add in the aubergines, and cook, uncovered, for another half an hour.

This is also one of those stews which is good reheated the next day. I have made this twice in the last fortnight, once for the Dutchman and I, and once for friends, who came bearing two bottles of wine and a delicious raspberry tart, so they can definitely come over again! It is very good with orzo, the Greek rice-shaped-pasta, as the little pieces get all mixed up in the thick sauce. Plus green veg, such as green beans tossed in olive oil and lemon juice, griddled courgettes, and bog standard frozen peas.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

I thought every week in Brussels was Chocolate Week

This week was Brussels Chocolate Week! There is no discernible difference between this week and any other week in Brussels. This city is full of chocolatiers, both chain and artisan, with shops seemingly on every corner and no end to the inventiveness of the products.

It happened to coincide, last year, with one of my weekend visits, so this is the second year we've participated. The main event, as far as I can tell, is the 'chocolate pass'. You buy a little book (very well put together, with a map and info about the shops) for 6 Euros, which contains 10 tokens. You then visit the participating shops and are given tasters - what's not to like about that?!

They have tried to market the pass as a 'chocolate walk' this year, which worked on some levels but not on others. So, yes, you can absolutely walk round Sablon, enjoying the picturesque views and the chocolates, and from there wander down to the Grand Place, and get a fair few tasters along the way. But there are also participating shops outside of the centre, which we didn't get to. Although perhaps the idea is that if you walked to Scharbeek you'd have earned the chocolate at the end of it. I felt that this year there were fewer shops participating, and that perhaps they were a little less generous. At least, there was definitely a sense in some of the shops that you were annoying them, coming in with little strips of paper and expecting to get something for free. The assistant at Galler, next to the Grand Place, was particularly sour, and even refused to give us a little bag or napkin to put the chocolates in (chocolates which we did not choose, but were unceremoniously thrust at us as the standard tasting offer), as we wanted to take them home to enjoy later (and to gloat over the enormous pile accrued, natch.). Having said that, there were also shops which were very generous - Passion Du Chocolat, next to the NH hotel on Sablon, gave us two choices each, as did Belvas, and in another shop the assistant waved away the token, saying that they gave out free tasters anyway. In Pierre Marcolini - he is a god amongst men, a genius with salted caramel - they had little bags already made up with two chocolates each, which they also did last year.

It was a pleasant enough way to spend a Saturday morning, and we returned home with a nice haul of chocolates:

Look at that whopper from Cafe Tasse! Shame it's a coffee and speculoos flavoured bar. They probably have a surfeit of them they needed to shift. (Oooh, bitchy!) The little ones to the left of that bar are the three from Marcolini - 'quatre epices' truffles and mystery triangular-ish ones... Wittamer win the best decorated award, with their colourful squares. That one with the green lines on is jasmine tea flavoured! All of the white chocolate ones have been chosen by the Dutchman, which I was surprised by. I've never seen him interested in white chocolate before. Perhaps it is self-preservation, that I can't pretend I didn't know whose they were when I eat them! (Argh, the tense of that sentence...) 

UPDATE: The best most favouritest deliciousest ones thus far have been the circular one with white chocolate decoration, top middle-ish, which was a very dark chocolate shell encasing a soft smooth blackcurrant ganache (from Passion Du Chocolat), and the weirdly shaped dark one, bottom middle-ish, which was filled with a very dark liquid caramel with a slight coffee note (from Planete Chocolat). 

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Stolen Chocolate Cookies

These cookies should come with a health warning. Not so much because of the chocolate they contain - although there is an excellent chocolate-to-crumb ratio - but because they can be ready in less than half an hour. That is less than half an hour between deciding you want a chocolate cookie and having a dozen eleven cooling on a rack and one in your mouth.

The recipe is courtesy of Luisa from The Wednesday Chef: Sherry Yard's Quintessentially Chocolate Cookies. They caught my eye when first posted but I, ahem, came across some chocolate recently which made my baking of them a fait accompli.

You see, the thing is, we went to this jazz concert, right? And in the bar they had buckets of samples of the new New Tree chocolate flavour. Ginger. A lovely dark chocolate which dominates up front, followed by the subtle heat of ginger, which lingers a little bit longer than one might expect, which may be intentional as it makes you want to take another bite of the chocolate to balance it out, which leads to the ginger taste again, which leads to... There were lots of samples and nobody seemed to be interested in them, so I liberated some. And when I got back, I thought that I might have enough to make something, rather than just eat them all. Lo and behold, I had exactly four ounces. Enough to make a dozen!

The brown sugar really adds something here, giving a gorgeous carmelly flavour to the crumb. I think Sherry Yard has created my new favourite chocolate cake, and with a recipe this simple and this quick, I know I will be making them time and again. It isn't necessary for you to use ginger chocolate or stolen chocolate at all, but a good dark chocolate will reward you - the chunks are meant to be large, you will get a bite full of chocolate more often than a bite full of cookie, so use something you'd like to eat au naturale. I've made the recipe several times now, after the initial STOLEN version, and I find that I like the larger cookie (i.e. making a dozen from the below quantities) as you get a lovely crispy edge, plenty of chocolate, and soft cookie in the middle. The smaller cookies are probably better for the waistline, but they are biscuits not cookies, if you see what I mean, crisp and crumbly all the way through.

Chocolate Cookies

Recipe adapted from Sherry Yard, via Luisa Weiss. Makes one dozen large cookies or two dozen little ones.

- 6.5 oz self-raising flour
- 2 oz butter
- 2 oz light brown muscavado sugar
- 1 medium egg
- 4 oz good dark chocolate, cut into large chunks (i.e. not chocolate chips)

1. Preheat oven to 180°C. Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

2. Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add the egg, and then the flour.

3. Turn off the electric mixer, and stir the chocolate pieces into the batter.

4. Spoon heaped teaspoons of the mixture onto the baking parchment, not too close together.

5. Bake for 12-15 minutes, or until golden brown.

6. Slide the parchment off the baking tray and onto a cooling rack. Leave to cool for 5 minutes or so before removing them from the parchment, so that they can firm up. If you try to peel them off the paper as soon as they come out of the oven they are liable to break.

Stored in an airtight container, they will apparently last for a few days, but thus far we haven't managed to keep any past the second day. They go down very well with a nice cup of tea (if you're English) or coffee (if you're Dutch).

Monday, 10 February 2014


On Saturday we decided to visit another part of Belgiumland: the beautiful and apparently rather trendy Antwerp. Or Antwerpen, if you're Flemish. We had a cold but mostly clear day, with a strong wind but thankfully no rain. I liked Antwerp. It is an undeniably pretty city, with a large old centre, but there's also a lot of new building around the port (not as good as Rotterdam, obv.) and that's where we started our day.

The Museum Aan Der Stroom is an amazing building. But, although we loved it, we both thought that it had been built rather for itself without much thought to the internal exhibition space. There are a lot of escalators and a viewing platform on the top which gives spectacular views of the city, but as a museum there's a mish-mash of stuff inside. Of the permanent collections, the sections about Antwerp as a world city and as a port were the best. I was particularly enamoured of the floor filled with model ships. I do like a good boat, it has to be said. And the 'interactive' elements were good too - write a message in a bottle, chalk yourself into the skyline...

After marvelling at the wavy-sided walls and 'sporting life' escalator-installations, it was time for lunch. Man oh man, it was goooooood.

The excellently-named Balls & Glory specialise in stuffed meatballs. For 12 Euros you get a massive serving of stoemp (Belgian mashed potato with vegetables in - ours was carrot, pea, and mushroom), two sauces (a rich meaty gravy I would have happily swum in, and a sort of Thai-spiced creamy fennely affair which, whilst good, didn't really go with the rest), and a STUFFED MEATBALL. They sell lots of flavour combinations to take away, but have two choices hot and ready for lunching. The Dutchman went for a blue cheese filled ball, I had a cherry filled one. And god was it good. Breaking into the meatball I released a rush of purply sauce and steam. The cherry sauce was just the right blend of tart-sweetness to complement the meat, and the gravy and stoemp were side elements which shone. And they had lemon water and fruit for free on the tables! The restaurant itself was part of a larger enterprise, with another restaurant and a food market, and was full of satisfied people. We could quite easily have had a nap, but it was time to move on and see some more of Antwerp.

There are two churches which regularly feature in 'top ten things to do in Antwerp' lists - the mighty Cathedral and St. Charles Borromeo, whose interior was designed by Rubens. The Cathedral - which dominates the skyline and the old town - was closed for services (bloody Catholics) but we kept catching glimpses of it above the houses and it loomed at us round corners. St. Charles Borromeo, on the other hand, was a glorious Baroque masterpiece, gilded and cherubed all over, with a huge Rubens altarpiece depicting many fat cherubs and women of ample bosom. (The Rubenshuis, which I want to go into, was closed by the time we got there, unfortunately, but that just means that we'll have to go back!)

As the evening drew in, we wandered around the old town (that's the Cathedral, top and middle left). We spied a square with these lovely trees strung with lights, and then the Dutchman remembered that there was a cocktail bar through an archway which of course demanded a visit. Cocktails at 9 (which also has rooms) was a lovely little place to stop. I loved my Rose Garden cocktail - made from gin infused with cardamom, elderflower, rose, and some other things I've forgotten - and I also loved the laid back feel, with cosy armchairs and hipster barmen who didn't impinge. We had dinner in a restaurant close by, a typically Belgian feast with excellent chips and, for me, the perfect Flemish stew: beef cooked until fork-tender in dark beer with nothing else but a bay leaf or two. We drank the Antwerp beer, De Koninck, which was strong and caramel-malty and very very good.

We headed back to the station - an awesome cathedral of the rails to rival St. Pancras (photo top right) - with a quick detour to peer into, first, the eerily-silent locked gates of SintJacobs Kerk, where Rubens is buried, and second, the rather impressive zoo next door to the station. It was a lovely day out, much fun was had by all, and I would love to go back. Clearly my reasons for returning would be cultural and not purely based on my desire for more stuffed meatballs or delicious cocktails. Ahem. No, I am a big fan of Rubens, and want to see where he lived, is all...

Sunday, 9 February 2014

A Lemon Polenta Birthday Cake

In previous years, the Dutchman has requested carrot cake and chocolate-coconut cake for his birthday cakes. This year he broke the run of 'c' related choices with a request for lemon polenta cake, inspired by a cake we shared recently at Borough Market. It was also, I think, another attempt at edible sunshine - a moist burst of citrus and sweetness.

I turned, of course, to Nigel Slater. Lo and behold, there's a recipe in the Guardian! Good job, Nigel! I made mine purely lemon-scented, rather than orange and lemon, as the original recipe calls for. He also includes chopped almonds as well as ground, but as I was trying to recreate something else, I left these out. (And I put in a fair bit more limoncello in the syrup as well...) The result was a rich yellow cake spiked with a nice amount of syrup without being too moist. It went excellently with crème fraiche, on a lazy afternoon. It was more of a pudding type of bake than what I would call a birthday cake, but it went down well with the birthday boy and that's what matters. Next time, I might try using other citrus, following the Slater recipe properly, or I might go for the delicious-sounding Spiced Sumac Polenta Cake, posted, in a wonderful coincidence, on the Dutchman's birthday itself!

Lemon Polenta Cake

Adapted from Nigel Slater. Serves 8.

- 210g butter
- 210g caster sugar
- 3 eggs
- 150g ground almonds
- 150g fine polenta
- 1tsp baking powder
- zest and juice of a large lemon
- syrup: zest and juice of a large lemon; 100g sugar, 4tbsp limoncello

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C. Grease and line a 20cm cake tin. (Nigel says springform, but I didn't have one and the cake released perfectly.)
2. Beat the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy, and then add the eggs, ground almonds, baking powder, and lemon (zest and juice) mixing until smooth.
3.  Now add the polenta, and mix briefly until combined.
4. Spoon the mix into the tin, and bake for 20 minutes at 180°C, then for a further 30 minutes at 160°C. The cake is done when a skewer comes out clean. Nigel Slater gives the very helpful hint that one can cover the cake with tin foil if the top is browning too much.
5. Leave the cake in the tin to cool whilst making the syrup. Squeeze the lemon into a measuring jug, add the limoncello, and then top up this liquid to 250ml. Heat the liquid in a saucepan and add the sugar. Boil this mixture until the sugar is dissolved and reduced to about half. Spike the cake all over and pour the hot syrup over it. Leave in the tin until cool, and then EAT!

Friday, 7 February 2014

An Indian-inspired Feast

I've not been a very nice person to live with recently. Anxious. Weepy. Poor Dutchman! So last night I decided to make a bit of an effort, to cheer us both up, to bring a bit of sunshine to the table.

The source of this sunshine was India, via Nigel Slater, via Luisa. The main event was Nigel Slater's wonderful 'chicken with cream and spices', made with a blend of spices-I-had-to-hand including commercial curry powder (gasp!), slowly caramelised onion, bright tomato, and a final stir of cream. Like the lovely, lovely, Luisa in Berlin, we don't get good Indian food here in Brussels. My dinner last night was in no way authentic, in no way a proper curry (cf Slater's own title), but it was just enough, with the trimmings, to feed a need.

To accompany the chicken, I made saffron rice (curiously, saffron is one of the few things which is cheaper here than in the UK), little naans, mango chutney (both bought from the DIRTY FOREIGNERS section of the supermarket), and saag aloo.

Oh saag aloo, I do so love you. Luisa has a recipe for this, and whilst I am sure that method is both authentic and delicious, I ended up doing it a little differently. Kind of befitting the general colonial bastardisation/appropriation of the beauty of true Indian cuisine.

Saag aloo the Belgian way*

For 2, as a side.

- 2 potatoes
- A pinch of saffron
- 1/2 tsp each tumeric and cumin
- 1 shallot
- As much garlic as you desire (I put in a massive squirt from my garlic paste tube, probably about 3 cloves, which was delicious but quite garlicky)
- SPINASH. About 150g.

1. Peel and chop the potatoes into small cubes. Add the potatoes and tumeric, cumin, and saffron to the cold water and boil until tender.
2. Finely chop the onion and gently fry in oil, along with the garlic.
3. Add the drained potatoes to the onion mix and leave aside. Be careful as soft boiled potatoes will fall apart if handled too roughly.
4. Heat a very tiny very small amount of water in a saucepan and start adding spinach, a handful at a time, bashing it about with a fork until it wilts. WILT AT MY POWER.
5. Prepare for serving. I sort of gently layered and folded alternate spoons of spinach and potato mix into a bowl.
6. Eat, and feel well smug cos of all the iron and vitamins and health innit.

* I dread to think of what an actual Belgian interpretation of saag aloo would be. Endive instead of spinach? Speculos to spice? Cooked in beer?