Brussels is an unusual city in that its centre has long been – and largely still is – the preserve of artisans, traders and the working class. Beyond the Grand Place the streets quickly peter out into nondescript residential quarters comprised of mini-markets, laundrettes and corner shops. In the past, when you had made it, you moved out into the suburbs, such as Saint-Gilles, Ixelles, Schaerbeek and Jette. The traditional food of Brussels reflects this heritage: it is proudly unfussy and down-to-earth. Stoemp is a classic dish made of potatoes mashed up with other vegetables, while local offal dishes including choesels (sweetbread balls) and bloedpens (black pudding) help ensure that every last bit of a slaughtered animal is used. Street foods such as waffles and frites (chips/fries) are magnificent in their simplicity, but can be – should be – beautifully made.
There is still a strong sense of artisan enterprise in Brussels, harking back to Medieval days when individual trades joined forces in guilds and – concentrated in their specialisms – forged new technologies and markets. The elaborate guild houses of the Grand Place have born witness to their prosperity and power: the bakers and brewers are represented here, along with the haberdashers, cabinet makers, weavers, tailors and tallow merchants. This same spirit of inventiveness, mixed with technical knowledge and an eye for the market, led to the creation of Brussels sprouts and Belgian endives, ‘engineered’ in the market gardens of Brussels, as well as the extraordinary and unique lambic and gueuze beers. Today the city is home to further developments to excite culinary travellers, including the newly revitalised food market at the old abattoir of Anderlecht.
The great Belgian surrealist René Magritte painted this self-portrait in 1951, when he was in his early fifties. In typical fashion he has taken a scene of banal familiarity and made it into something unusual and unsettling – here, by giving himself four arms, as though adding the dimension of time to the scene. Magritte was famously modest. His food in the self-portrait is simplicity itself, but not without the indulgence of a generous glass of wine – all very Belgian. Between 1930 and 1954 he lived in a modest apartment in the Brussels suburb of Jette, and the house is now the René Magritte Museum, where you can see the dining room where he used to paint.
He was fascinated by the hidden mysteries of ordinary things, which he expressed in his paintings by placing them in incongruous contexts. Food appears in quite a few of his works to make this point: ranks of baguettes floating though the air, a giant apple occupying most of a room. Brussels also has a large Magritte Museum attached to the Royal Museums of Fine Art. You can also eat and drink in two of his old haunts in the city centre, the splendid Belle Époque café Le Greenwich and La Fleur en Papier Doré, an atmospheric bar dripping with antiques, curios and mementos of the surrealists who once gathered there.
Brussels sprouts really are from Brussels. Their precise origins are uncertain, but in around 1600 the market gardeners of Saint-Gilles – just outside the city walls – were growing sprotches, as they are called locally, as a way of increasing their yields to feed a growing city population. From here Brussels sprouts spread throughout the Netherlands and then into the world beyond. They continued to be grown in Saint- Gilles until the early twentieth century, and the local residents are still sometimes referred to by their old nickname “Kuulkappers” (cabbage cutters). That said, Brusselaars do not make a great song and dance about their sprouts.
They know that boiling them longer than six minutes releases a sulphurous flavour that taints them – and that they taste even better with the addition of small pieces of fried bacon. The Belgian endive or chicory – known as chicon in French, witloof (white leaf) in Dutch – comes from the rootstock of the chicory lettuce, forced into the darkness of mounded earth or, latterly, sheds. This edible phenomenon was apparently discovered by accident in around 1830 and was developed by the head gardener at the Botanical Gardens of Brussels. It has since gone on to become the centrepiece of a number of classic Belgian dishes including the hearty chicons au gratin (Belgian endives wrapped in ham and baked in a creamy cheese sauce).
The suburb of Anderlecht, just to the west of central Brussels, has long been famous for its large livestock market and slaughterhouse. Opened in 1890, a huge ironwork canopy 100-metres square covers the livestock market, while the entrance is guarded by two magnificent bronze bulls standing atop red brick and stone pedestals. Until relatively recently, subsidiary businesses operated all around the site such as tanneries and food-processing plants, and restaurants specialising in offal dishes best eaten super fresh. The abattoir, now fully modernised, has remained in operation, dispatching 230,000 animals a year. The surrounding area became somewhat run down in the latter half of the twentieth century, but the site is now undergoing a programme of rejuvenation.
The covered market – a listed building – is being restored, and a huge and popular market now takes place here on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, from 7am to 2pm, with bargain-priced fruit and vegetables on offer alongside meat, fish, cheese, bread, live animals (rabbits, ducks and chickens), as well as plants and flowers, electrical goods, clothes, toys and brocante (antiques and second-hand goods). Over 100,000 people now visit the market each weekend, a pulsating gathering of Brussels’s multicultural population, making this one of the biggest and most exhilarating markets in Belgium. A new food hall called Foodmet, with room for 50 stallholders, opened in May 2015, with plans to create an urban farm on the roof, raising hydroponically grown vegetables and fish.
There is a river that runs through central Brussels, called the Senne (or Zenne), but you wouldn’t know it because it was covered over in the 1860s and 1870s (though parts of the river still surface on the outskirts of the city). The valley of the River Senne harbours wild, airborne yeast called Brettanomyces. Elsewhere this is often viewed in wine- and beer-making as a contaminant, but here it is harnessed to make a distinctive winey beer called lambic. In winter months, the traditional Cantillon brewery in Anderlecht allows its warm brew (the wort) to cool in an open copper tank to let the yeast settle.
This is then placed in wooden casks to ferment. Lambic can be drunk as it is, or it is mixed with cherries (originally grown in the orchards of the suburb of Schaerbeek) to make kriek lambic, with raspberries to make framboise, or with sugar to make faro lambic. Aged lambic is also blended and matured further to make another, richer beer called gueuze, and all of these are very much the authentic flavours of Brussels – but if the sourness of such beers is off-putting, start with the sugary faro. The Cantillon Brewery, of which the company says, “nothing has changed since 1900 when it was founded”, is a splendid champion of the tradition. It offers brewery tours and on cold winter days you can join for a tasting and public demonstrations of this unique brewing process.