Brussels is about 100 km from the sea. And Belgium does not produce any mussels – they all come from the Netherlands or France. So how did moules-frites (mussels and chips) come to be considered a classic Brussels dish? The answer lies in the historic canals that brought seafood daily to the heart of the city. The Willebroek Canal, which connected Brussels to the River Scheldt and thence to Antwerp and the North Sea, was completed in 1561, terminating at the Place Sainte-Catherine, a stone’s throw from the Grand Place. So the Brusselaars have enjoyed over four centuries of fresh fish, making seafood very much a part of the city’s cuisine. And not just in restaurants: home cooks may surprise you with fried sole done to blissful perfection.
Given that moules-frites is such a popular combination in Brussels, it is perhaps surprising that the country’s residents have only recently discovered fish and chips. Bia Mara, near the Place Sainte-Catherine, is now the city’s favourite fish and chips outlet, and is run by a company that started up in Dublin in 2011. This Irish import may seem an odd thing, given the local talent for preparing the two elements that are served in Bia Mara’s trademark reusable eco-friendly wooden boxes. But owners Simon Whiteside and Barry Wallace ascribe part of their success to the “incredibly positive support” they have received from the people of Brussels. This culinary openness can be seen as typical of the population: ever in pursuit of excellence, they are open to suggestions from any quarter (provided it matches their key criteria of quality and value-for-money).
Walk just a couple of minutes northeast of the Grand Place and you’ll notice a whiff of fish in the air. This is because the Place Sainte-Catherine is the epicentre of Brussels’s fish cuisine, with the little square itself and the neighbouring streets peppered with fish restaurants of all kinds and for all budgets. Why this should be so is soon explained when you look at a map and see the 200-metre-long open space bordered by the Quai au Bois à Brûler and the Quai au Briques – two quays named after the products that used to be delivered here: firewood and bricks. That open space, now filled with ponds and fountains, tracks the old path of the canal that linked Brussels to the sea.
Further, similarly named quays/streets follow the canal’s path as it turns north, Quai aux Barques (boats), Quai à la Houille (coal) and so on. In 1853 the canal head was filled in and turned into a fish market. It was demolished a century later – but the restaurants, and some fish shops, remained to uphold the tradition. Latterly this reputation has attracted a cluster of other artisan food enterprises, such as the outstanding Boulangerie Charli, where you can have a coffee and sample the wares as you watch the bakers perform their magic.
This is a bilingual city, so this wonderful fish shop and street-food bar has a name that refers to its prime source, the North Sea, in both Dutch and French. Part of the shop contains cold display cabinets banked up with fresh sea bass, plaice, salmon and squid, like any fish shop. But on the pavement beside it are metal standing tables where you can eat fresh dishes of fish and shellfish, hot or cold, including Belgian classics such as tomates crevettes grises (tomatoes stuffed with little North Sea brown shrimps) and croquettes aux crevettes (deep-fried shrimp parcels), plus fish soup, mussels, scallops and crab dishes, oysters, razor clams, pickled herring and smoked mackerel and salmon – all ready to be washed down with a glass or two of wine or beer.
You can also take away many of these dishes, as well as fishy sandwiches and potted creations dreamed up by the traiteur. (Note that De Noordzee/La Mer du Nord closes at 6pm, and is closed Sundays and Mondays.) Such is the success of the establishment’s formula that there is now another branch close to the Gare de Bruxelles-Luxembourg and the European Parliament. It is open only on weekdays (Mondays to Fridays) and closes at 4pm, except on Thursdays when it stays open to 10pm, offering up a party atmosphere with music.
The English word is “whelks”, and the French is “bulots” or “escargots de mer” (sea snails), but the people of Brussels call these little sea creatures “caricoles”. Some say this name dates back to the time of the Spanish Netherlands (1581-1714), and that their shape resembles the curly piled-up hairstyles of aristocratic ladies of the time. More mundanely, caracoles mean “snails” in Spanish. You can still find caricole sellers in the centre of Brussels, notably Jef & Fils, who have a baraque (stall) in the Place de la Bourse. Jef has been cooking caricoles for nearly 50 years – he started aged 13.
His are served already shelled in a cup of hot cooking broth, flavoured according to tradition with sticks of celery, and these days bien poivré (hotly spiced). Another caricole seller appears on Sundays at the famous Marolles flea market in the Place du Jeu de Balle (on the corner of Rue des Renards). Caricoles are also the traditional food of the great and raucous Foire du Midi, the massive street funfair that takes place every summer outside the Brussels Midi railway station. When eating caricoles unshelled, you have to ease the spiral of flesh out with a pin or needle, and very gently so that the lower, softer part of the spiral does not break off and retract into the depths of the shell – and remember also to remove the opercul
There are countless ways to cook Brussels’s classic dish, mussels with chips – with cream, blue cheese, mustard, curry, you name it – but the best are the simplest, such as moules marinière: steamed over a bed of celery, shallots, parsley and herbs – and perhaps a glass of white wine added into the mix. This is very much a hands-on meal, served in a casserole dish the size of a bucket, eaten with the fingers, using empty shells as pincers to extract the flesh from the next mollusc. The broth – salty with seawater – can also be drunk with a shell.
These days most of Brussels’s mussels come from the Netherlands, where they are grown on an industrial scale in the carefully regulated waters of the Eastern Scheldt, although the smaller moules de bouchot – raised in France on wooden stakes (bouchots) – have also become fashionable. Belgian frites (chips/fries) set the gold standard for the world.
The best are made from a sweetish, starchy potato (Bintje is the chip potato par excellence in Belgium), cut by hand to the size of a lady’s finger, and deep fried in beef fat until cooked through but still pale. Then they are put to one side to cool before being refried in hotter oil until bien croustillantes – crisp and golden on the outside. Served with a little bowl of mayonnaise on the side to dip into, frites make the perfect accompaniment to mussels: the crisp, comforting flavour of beef fat-fried potato contrasts with – and happily complements – the soft, sweet flesh of the mussels.