Europe divides British restaurant goers almost as distinctively as it divides its politicians. Many will head off for the long established charms of France while others head further south to Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece. A small but very well-informed minority will, however, set off to eat and drink alongside the truly food and wine obsessed inhabitants of the towns, villages and countryside of Belgium.
Having spent 24 hours in the company of a Belgian couple, where his family traces its presence in the same village back to the 17th century, I can reveal that we talked about little else other than food and wine during our waking hours.
Our conversations included: where the numerous good, local, restaurants were situated by the points of the compass; how, as a result of the canals that long ago linked Flanders and Bordeaux, Belgian wine lists include some wonderful wines from Pomerol and St Emilion not often seen elsewhere; and finally, now that Belgians are switching away from beer most villages house their own independent wine merchant.
These discussions over it was time to set off for the principal event of the day which was dinner at Peter Goossens’ highly regarded restaurant Hof Van Cleve, just outside the small town of Kruishoutem, described to me as ‘the egg capital of Belgium’.
And as we neared the end of the narrow road that would lead to dinner one of the striking anomalies in the evolution of these restaurants became obvious. Goossens began cooking in what were originally simple 19th century buildings, similar in outline to where Michel Roux began at what is now The Waterside Inn at Bray or Ferran Adria at El Bulli in Spain (at the end of a road that still takes many to the beach) but today all of these have been significantly renovated. While Hof Van Cleve retains the outline of the farmhouses it once was its car park now houses expansive BMW’s, Mercedes and the odd Porsche and Goossen’s own 4x4 with the distinctive numberplate 1 KOOOK.
This car has become an indispensable part of Goossens’ working life, he explained to us, as he toured the remaining tables around midnight, as he is also running the brasserie in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels, 85 kilometres away, which he visits in the mornings or afternoons when his main restaurant is quiet.
By this stage Goossens had already revealed several very distinctive Belgian characteristics in his make-up as a chef. The first was his, and his staff’s facility with languages, as they moved from table to table effortlessly, it appeared switching from Flemish to English, to French and then German.
The second was in the recognition that restaurants can promulgate particular national characteristics that are elsewhere sadly disappearing. The finest Flemish linen and lace is today under serious threat commercially from much cheaper imports but I have never before sat down at a table where the sheer quality and texture of the tablecloth and the serviettes were so superior.
Finally, Goossens is obviously from his stature and countenance a happy and generous chef and these traits become manifest in the food he serves.
We chose the 175 euro eight course dinner me but I had forgotten that this was Belgium, and so we began with three small courses not even on the menu before setting into cubes of bluefin tuna and Zeeland oysters; little shrimps sautéed with white beans served with a surprisingly delicious Belgian chardonnay; Breton scallops with salsify; grilled turbot with aubergines and spinach and Goossens’ signature dish, Anjou pigeon with thick slices of black truffle and wild mushrooms.
We declined the vast cheese trolley but not the two luscious desserts. And when Goossens noticed that we had passed on the two plates of Belgian beignets he packed them into boxes and handed them to our friends whose two sons happily polished them off for breakfast the following morning.
Goossens is much, much keener on and more knowledgeable about wine than most chef-patrons. He too was given a blind taste of the Belgian Chardonnay I chose as my wine of the week a while back and, like us, thought it was a fine white burgundy.
Earlier in the day we dined at Hof Van Cleve I was lucky enough to lunch just outside Bruges at one of the most exciting restaurants I have come across for a long time. In what looks like an old roadhouse the team at Hertog Jan seem extremely youthful in all the best senses : long on vitality, short on stuffiness and convention. It’s all very open, surrounded by woods (you can eat outside in summer), and you can see exactly what goes on in the extremely light kitchen. The ingredients are first class. The tendency is to lots of small dishes, El Bulli style, so it would not suit everyone, but I was knocked out by the obvious intelligence behind the menu. Thoroughly modern Belgian cuisine.
Hof Van Cleve, Riemegemstraat 1, 9770 Kruishoutem, Belgium. +32.(0)9 383.58.48 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting +32.(0)9 383.58.48 end_of_the_skype_highlighting, www.hofvancleve.com
Museum Brasserie, Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium, 3 Rue des Regents, 1000 Brussels, Belgium. +32. (0)2. 508.35.80
Hertog Jan, Torhoutse Steenweg 479, 8200 Bruges, Belgium. Tel +32 (0)188.8.131.52 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting +32 (0)184.108.40.206 end_of_the_skype_highlighting, Fax +32 (0)220.127.116.11
CHEF OF THE MONTH
Kitchin, 78 Commercial Quay, Leith, Edinburgh, EH6 CLX, 0131-555 1755 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 0131-555 1755 end_of_the_skype_highlighting, www.thekitchin.com
Tom Kitchin runs this year-old restaurant with his wife, Michaela, down by the Leith waterside on the simple principle of From Nature to Plate. A culinary philosophy that leads to such delicious dishes as foie gras with haggis; Orkney scallops with purple sprouting broccoli; turbot with leeks and salsify and an iced Perthshire heather hills honey parfait. It works.