Last week I visited my best friend, Zelia in Bruxelles. As usual she wanted to surprise me with some typical Belgian speciality. At this time her choice fell into the famous black mussel pot as a late summer lunch. But before jumping into the culinary adventure we went for a walk. Since she lives in a leafy commune of Brussels, called Woluwe, first she wanted to show around the area and then having the lunch at the Rouge-Cloître Abbey (in French is Abbaye du Rouge-Cloître, in Dutsch is: Rood-Klooster). -Okay at the Red Abbey!-, I exclaimed with a great joy, because it sounded excellent-whereupon she explained to me that it was an Augustinian abbey, founded in 1367, and was located in the Sonian Forest, in south-eastern Brussels Belgium.
This area was on the edge of the forest, surrounded by lakes through which the Red Closter stream (Rouge-Cloître stream) passes, and had been called the Rouge-Cloître estate from the 16th century until the present day. In the past it was used for hunting in the 16th and 17th centuries and today is popular with nature-lovers and ramblers.
(The name Roodklooster or Rouge-Cloître comes from Roode Cluse which means the Red Hermitage. Apparently, the walls of the original hermitage were coated in crushed tiles, which produced the characteristic colour. It was natural for the name to continue in use after the foundation became a priory (Rouge-Cloitre). Its official name is Saint-Paul en Soignes).
Because I am fond of historical places we decided to check the history of that very neat hermitage. Here it is: The abbey was built in 1366 by a priest called Gilles Olivier and a layman called Walter van der Molen. William Daniel, a priest of the parish of Boendael, also celebrated Mass there from time to time. The founding charter was witnessed by Jeanne, Duchess of Brabant, on 1 of March in 1367. Shortly after, some time between 1367 and 1369 and following the example of the nearby priory of Groenendael he community adopted the Rule of St. Augustine. The foundation was confirmed in 1373 by Gérard de Daiinville, Bishop of Cambrai and the following year was affiliated to the order of Chanoines réguliers de saint Augustin (Canons Regular of St Augustine). The community grew quickly. In 1381, construction of the church was initiated, after receiving gifts of land and lakes from the Duchess of Brabant, as well as privilegies and tax exemptions.
In 1402, along with other Brabant priories, Rouge-Cloître formed a congregation which was led by Groenendael. In 1412, as part of the Groenendael congregation, the abbey joined the Windesheim congregation. These first centuries of the priory were ones of great devotion. It possessed a fine library and developed a notable illumination workshop. The location of the monastery provided easy access to the sandstone necessary for construction and wood from the forest was used for furniture and heating. Springs are plentiful in the area, the ponds supplied fish, and a water mill on the stream was used to grind grain and press oil. Part of the forest was cleared to provide cattle pasture. In 1400, an enclosure was created which partly survives today. The white sandstone church is decorated with paintings from Rubens’ studio and in the 16th century, the monastery was one of the most prestigious in the Spanish Nederlands in large part due to its proximity to Brussels. Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor Albert VII, Archduke of Austria and Isabella of Spain all stayed there, as well as many other notable personages. At the end of the 16th century, during the Dutch Revolt, the priory was pillaged and the canons were forced to rake refuge in Brussels until the uprising was over.
Mussels á la provencal
During our stroll I made a few pictures then we entered the restaurant. When we took our seats at the table I saw that the daily specials were four kinds of shellfish-mussles dishes. I chose the provencal version with fries. As it turned out it was a good choice but I was gob-smacked when the waitress sat in front of me a big bowl of shiny black mussels (by the way they grow clustered in groups on rocks and in sandy areas at the Belgian seaside). My mussel dish wasn’t very spicy but still had a jolly, pleasant flavor and texture. The fried potatoes and the broth were also great as is common with mussel dishes like that.
The recipe: In Belgium mussels are sold loose or in mesh bags and can be found in most markets. Commercially raised mussels are already cleaned and debearded and just need to be washed in cold water before using. Allow about 1-2 pounds per person if serving as the main course, or ¼ pound as an appetizer.
Ingredients: 3 handfuls of mussels per portion, 175 ml white wine, 1 tsp ground black pepper, 1 teaspoon thym, ½ shallot, handful of parsley, pinch of sea salt, and a little to finish the dish, olive oil to steam
- Finely dice the shallot.
- Heat a pan with a little olive oil in the base.
- Sautée the diced shallot for around a minute
- Add 3 handfuls of mussels to the pan.
- Season with the ground black pepper at this stage.
- Pour in the wine and cover.
- Leave to cook for around 3 minutes.
- Check to see if the mussels are cooked by checking their shells have opened.
- Don’t eat any mussels that haven’t opened their shells during cooking.
- Pour the mussels and liquid into the serving bowl.
- Finish the dish by sprinkling Sea salt and finely chopped parsley over the top of the mussels. Serve with fried potatoes and mayonnaise.