At this time of year, Europe divides British restaurant goers almost as distinctively as it divides its politicians. Many still head off for the long established charms of the byways 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 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 Saint-Emilion not often seen elsewhere; and finally, now that Belgium is 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’.
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 farm buildings, as did Michel Roux at The Waterside Inn at Bray, just as Ferran Adria did 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. Hof Van Cleve still retains the outline of the set of farmhouses it once was but its car park now houses BMWs, Mercedes and the odd Porsche and Goossens’ 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, because he is also running the brasserie and cafés in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels well to the west, 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. They moved from table to table effortlessly, 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 may today be 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 napkins 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.
As so often in these restaurants we chose the set menu, which at 120 euros per person, looked extremely good value for the eight courses it offered. But this, I had forgotten, was Belgium, and so we began with three small dishes that were 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, in good Belgian fashion, happily polished them off for breakfast the following morning.
Hof Van Cleve, Riemegemstraat 1, 9770 Kruishoutem, Belgium.
32.09 383.58.48, www.hofvancleve.com
Museum Brasserie, Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium,
3 Rue des Regents, 1000 Brussels, 32. 02. 508.35.80