Gastronomic discoveries through the ages in Brussels
The thematic years create a buzz around Brussels as a destination with an unrivalled quality of life. After its stint as the capital of Fashion & Design in 2006 and folllowing hot on the heels of the Comic Strip in 2009, this year is the year of culinary delight. What better way of reinforcing its reputation as a friendly and creative region, both among the locals and the foreign visitors. Brusselicious, a name that is both funny and appetizing, immediately gives a taste of what lies ahead: the gastronomy of Belgium is delicious and irresistible. So good that you just want to take big bite out of it. It showcases produce and producers, talents and creativity, places and people. Highlights are the traditional recipes, food stalls, chocolate delights, forgotten and rediscovered vegetables, seafood, countless types of beer and other culinary specialities. But also the great chefs that take on the challenge of recreating traditional favorites with their own special slant and capable of conjuring up surprising flavours. On the markets and in star-studded restaurants or at street corners and in exceptional venues, in bistros and museums: I have found glorious food everywhere!
In the Museum Cinquantenaire
The enjoy your meal! Bon appetit!- exhibition is part of the Year of Gastronomy. Calling on the magnificient collection of the Cinquantenaire Museum, its aim was to show the major and minor discoveries that have over time greatly changed the way we look at food and meals today. It’s divided into seven thematic displays: sereals, dairy products, salt and spices, alcoholic beverages (wine, beer, spirit), sugar, hot drinks (tea, coffee and chocolate) and imported foods from the New World such as potato, tomato and bean. The goal is to have fun and be educational, rather than paint a complete picture. The exhibition takes advantage of the museum’s vast collections, from prehistorical time to modern. I picked up some favorite items from the collection:
In ancient Greece, wine was drunk in company and on festive occasions. At first lovely discussions, songs and poetry recitals formed the entertainment. As the guests and hosts became drunk, they began to dance and play games. Drinking cups and wine containers were used in contests of dexterity and balance. They even mount goatskins filled with wine or amphorae, holding a full cup in one hand. They would also indulge in various erotic games or activities. Satyrs, the mythical companions of Dionysos, the God of Wine, parody the banquets activities. Their erect penises signal their unbridled sexuality, as does the fantastic phallusbird that one of them holds on a lead, crouched on his back.
The Merovingian glass drinking horn is an exceptional piece of the collection. For over half century, it belonged to a private person, a small boy discovered it in the attic of his grandfather, a Brussels solicitor. The drinking horn had probably been acquired on the occasion of a land purchase. The origin could be from the Merovingian necropolis in Anderlecht (Glass drinking horns from ancient times and the early middle ages are extremely rare).
Teacup and saucer from the 18th century
When making traditional tea, Tibetans use tea bricks made of powdered or compressed tea leaves. Bits are broken of and thrown into boiling water. The Tibetians drink up to 50 cups a day, generally from a simple bowl. The tipically shaped teacup was made for buddhist lamas, and it was made of transculent precious jade. The saucer is a small silvered dish on a high foot that has a shape of an lotus flower. The lotus symbolises purity.
Louis XV-style tripod chocolatiere
Discovered in Mexico by the Spanish conquistadors, chocolate was presented at the court of Charles V in 1528. It was then introduced to the Spanish Netherlands in the last decades of the 16th century, reaching France in 1615 and then the rest of Europe. Until the mid 19th century, chocolate remained an extremely expensive drink, which only the rich could afford. The containers used for its preparation were generally very similar in shape to those used for coffee. The only difference was the hole pierced in the lid, this was for the neck of the frother, a sort of wooden brush for whisking the boiling liquid until it had a smooth consistency.
Ice cream was rediscovered in Italy in the late 16th century, but only became popular during the second half of the 19th century. Around 1895, Van Gend the coachbuilders were renowed for the manufacture of coaches and vans of every kind. This displayed van is decorated with mirrors, paintings and sculptures-was made in their workshops. In the centre are two ice-cream churns minus their copper lids. The back of the van contains a Mazzoletti mechanical piano. The van is equipped with acetylene lighting which enable it to provide an evening service in the region of Leuven, Bruxelles, Wawre, Tirlemont and Liege.
I also visited the exhibition of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts (located on Rue de la Régence). The participation of the museum in Brusselicious is designed to be different from that of the Cinquantenaire Museum. At the museum almost no chance has been made to the usual display of the permanent collection. But with a guide book, visitors can set off in search of works which are given a prominent display there. These works are signposted in the museum’s various rooms, with a small numbered sticker on which the Brusselicious logo is clearly recognisable.
Some items about food and drink: wine drinking is repeated theme in many “genre paintings” of the 16th and 17th centuries. In the small painting here, by Gabriel Metsu, 1667 Amsterdam depicts a young woman who is sitting in a chair close to a table on which are placed a plate, waffle and a bowl of poridge. A woman servant, to the left in the background, is entering with more delicacies. The young woman makes a gesture of refusal towards the man next to her who is holding a wine jug and trying to fill her glasses. She will not be swayed by his courtship.