Rain, wind, rain, snow, wind, rain.
Two years living in Brussels, two years hating it, two years loving it.
I moved to Brussels right after school; ready to start fresh in this mysterious new city. I had never been to Brussels before and I had no idea of what to expect. I just knew the city for its international universities and very good chocolate; both excellent reasons for me already. I enrolled for my university on the day that I discovered it. It was the 29th of September, the last day possible, before classes would start on the 30th. I did everything with such a hurry, sending my documents last minute, nearly giving my parents a heart attack, but somehow I did it.
I managed to have an interview with the director of the school: Mr Maquet, who seemed very formal and creative at the same time. We arranged a Skype video call because I was in Canada at the time, he scheduled it at 10 am in Brussels: 4 am in Montreal. I was wearing a shirt and the bottom of my pyjamas that l made sure he couldn’t see. I had to speak French, which at the time wasn’t my speciality. During our interview, the light in my room suddenly went out, leaving me in complete darkness for about five minutes. I couldn’t stand up because of my pyjamas and I was forced to wake my sister up and ask her to help me fix the light. He looked perplexed while I smiled long enough for the light to come back. I don’t remember what I said, I don’t remember what he said, but finally, I got in.
On the 31st of September I was there, one day later than the other students, hardly able to speak any French in a bilingual school that turned out to be totally francophone for the first two years. It was a struggle at the beginning, but definitely worth it at the end. Settling in to Brussels was again, very last minute, but I managed; living in what later became my favourite district in Brussels: Châtelain.
I was lucky enough to share my apartment with my sister Andrea; she was working for our dad’s advertising agency in Brussels, dealing with European Union clients. We also had a third character living with us: her cat, Miu Miu; a discrete and clean housemate, secretly communicating with the “wild cats” living opposite us. She lived her Belgian “the aristocats” moment, but unfortunately never found her Romeo. During my time in Brussels I managed to meet wonderful people, who are now some of my very best friends. Vera, my Portuguese friend, was almost the fourth character added to our loft.
She was always with us and testified to all my cooking experiments. Our other friends Leonor and Lilly would then join us and taste our creations. I started to cook regularly in Brussels and realised how much I enjoyed it. I was studying graphic design, but furtively keeping track of all kinds of food blogs and cooking websites. Every year we would organise Christmas parties at my house with secret Santas, hot chocolate and speculoos, a really good way to celebrate Belgian style. I love Belgium during the holidays. I get so nostalgic and want to visit all my favourite places, especially winter markets.
The freezing cold of the city becomes so enjoyable with a cup of mulled wine in your hands.
My first night is always dedicated to my sister and I’s favourite restaurant: La Quincaillerie.
Most of the time we would order the same things: the Quincaillerie’s seafood platter with fresh oysters, shrimps and snails, accompanied by a glass of crisp Gewürztraminer. I love the vintage look of the restaurant, the walls are made up of dozens of small drawers, a real “quincaillerie” (hardware store), art nouveau style. The oyster bar at the entrance displays all kinds of fresh shells and different oyster varieties, shucked right in front of your eyes.
An immense clock right in the middle of the room and a beautiful staircase takes you to smaller, cozy tables upstairs. The atmosphere is romantic and always festive, especially at this time of the year. The food is excellent; Every meal is prepared with the best locally sourced ingredients, which also include delicious meat from “Le Devant” farm, where Bresse chickens, Bayeux pigs, Guinea fowl and Hampshire Down lambs are raised consciously. Belgian specialities like grey shrimp croquettes, seafood platters or mussels with fries alternate with more French style dishes and incredible wines. It is definitely my favourite.
The day after my first meal at la Quincaillerie, I walked down Rue du page and stopped in some of my favourite places. First on the list were my two treasured antique shops; they don’t just sell vintage or second hand items, they have unusual selections of objects mixed with cooking utensils, prints and much much more…Everything is combined together in the best and most tasteful way. Both of the shops are on the same street, with a little distance from each other, but completely different in styles. A’ la page is more sober and minimalist, its tones are darker, with a slightly larger selection of furniture items such as closets, chairs and wonderful unique pieces like christmas decorations and big baskets.
Nina on the other hand, has a wide selection of crockery, plus some interesting old fashioned jewellery items and bags, mostly in pastel colours.
After spending as much time as possible inside the two stores, I had to step out and decided to have a look at my favourite book store to find hidden gems: manuscripts, cookbooks and eclectic magazines. This time I found an old edition of a seasonal cookbook by Joël Robuchon, that I adore, together with a regional Italian cookbook from the 90’s.
I asked Vera to join me for lunch; I took her to one of my favourite spots in Rue du Page: La cuisine du marchè. We had spicy marguez meatballs accompanied by a raw celeriac salad and some hibiscus ice tea; we took some photos of the place and spoke to the owner who’s always very kind and friendly. Before leaving we had to have some delicious vanilla custard, still warm after the “bain marie”…so good. When I was living in Brussels and didn’t have time to cook, the owner fed me with the simplest yet most delicious meals. Her restaurant is so small, with only a few rustic tables available, but sometimes I would see people queuing in front of her door. The atmosphere is so welcoming and the food comforts you every time. I really recommend it. On Wednesdays, A few meters down the road, it’s possible to visit Châtelain’s food market. It is lovely to walk around and pass by the beautiful stalls, filled up with all kinds of local products and great Belgian specialities.
There are also a few places where you can enjoy a glass of delicious wine (those are usually the busiest spots). I would never miss the market day; going there was the priority of the week. The bread stall is also great, they sell baguettes, small buns and brioches, but my usual pick is bread with figs and anise; great to accompany some fresh goat’s cheese. The market evolves continuously; during the autumn and winter seasons incredible amounts of pumpkins in all colours and shapes appear, together with chestnuts, cabbages and beautiful tulips from Holland. Everything becomes so wonderful and inspiring. My favourite Wednesday morning ritual.
I love to walk around avenue Louise slowly reaching the Sablon’s area, which is one of the most elegant and sophisticated districts not too far from the Grand Place. The beautiful church of Sablon is probably one of the my favourite spots. I love the outside architecture and the walls inside covered with Belgian family emblems. In the area you can discover beautiful furniture shops, épiceries and even more importantly, it is “the place” for chocolate lovers. Pierre Marcolini, Godiva, Patrick Roger, all different chocolate producers, that make very unique and delicious creations.
Pierre Marcolini makes the best pralines, combining different flavours and interesting consistencies; Patrick Roger I believe makes the purest, best quality dark chocolate bars, I also love going to his shop where he has incredibly meticulous chocolate sculptures. Godiva on the other hand, is definitely more well known, but I still love their classic dark chocolate truffles.
Hidden in a small street I recently discovered a very special shop that only sells glasses.
The old lady who owns the shop has an incredible assortment and I just love to have a look at the new items she has. There are so many different types, coming from all over the world, in all shapes and sizes: champagne flutes, coupes and even tiny cherry kirsch chalices.
Every time I go back to Brussels time flies. On my last morning I had breakfast with Vera in one of the best Portuguese patisseries in Brussels: Garcìa, which is the main adversary of Forcado’s bakery. The two places have competed with each other for ages, but I still think that Garcia’s pasteis de nata are better. Plus I also trust Vera and her family’s opinion, so there were no doubts. We ordered the classic Pasteis de Nata with a cup of hot chocolate and whipped cream.
I just couldn’t have asked for a better last breakfast.
I really hope to be back again, very soon.