I wrote this post back in 2009, to address the changes I had made to my food and eating habits since moving to Belgium. Little has changed for me since then. In fact, I am even more obsessed with the Belgian food scene, seasonal and local eating, international cooking and eating anything and anywhere I can.
At the moment we are once again exploring new parts of Europe while my parents visit us and hopefully, at this very moment, we’re eating something spectacular in another country – be it a humble tapas in Spain or a 5 course menu in Prague. Bon Appetite!
I’ve been thinking about writing this for a long time now. It was partially inspired by my parents’ visit to Europe but, even before that, elements of this post have been rattling around in my head. After returning from our second Gastronomic New Year’s Week in France, it seemed like an appropriate time to post.
I find myself writing posts about food frequently. I write about eating it, cooking it, shopping for it, drinking, and dining out. I love to experiment with new ingredients, new cuisines and new styles of cooking. Andrew and I love discovering new restaurants and a lot of our budget goes towards dining. You might say I’m a bit obsessed with food (a quick look at my waistline will confirm this). I wasn’t always like this though.
My Mom will be the first to confirm that I was a picky kid. My basic diet consisted of chicken fingers, fries, mashed potatoes, burgers, grilled cheese sandwiches, cheddar (of which I could eat a whole block in one sitting), hot dogs, pizza, popcorn, crackers and loads of Kraft Dinner. Of course Mom made me eat my veggies, but it was under duress. Broccoli made me gag (still does to this day actually) and often found its way into my napkin. I was indifferent to most meats other than chicken. Food in general was just not something I was terribly excited about.
In food terms, we were a very traditional North American family. Meals were meat, potato and a veg; usually carrots, peas, beans or corn. We never ate lamb and didn’t eat fish terribly often. About once a week there would be spaghetti, lasagne or a casserole (all of which I liked) and on weekends we’d often go out to eat, often for fast food or pizza (at my request). Chinese food was about as foreign as it got at our house (and we’re talking chicken balls here) and even that didn’t really happen until I was in high school (Saint John still isn’t really a bastion of international cuisine but it is changing).
Most of my friends’ experiences with food were the same as mine, and diner at their houses was not much different than my own. The only exception was that I had a few friends with Indian parents as I was growing up. I loved to try the food at their houses because it was so different from anything I was used to. While my friends were much more excited to eat hot dogs and fries, their Moms’ were eagerly feeding me samosas and curry. I was hooked.
My taste in foods gradually started to change in University. To escape the horrors of the cafeteria, my friends and I ate out a few times a week. Halifax had a few more options than Saint John and we found ourselves eating Thai, Greek, Chinese (other than chicken balls…) and my beloved Indian curries. We even tried an Ethiopian restaurant at one point.
When I moved out of residence and was able to buy my own groceries for the first time, I found myself stocking up on curry sauces, noodles, rice and other oddities I had never eaten growing up. I still avoided vegetables like the plague and if it wasn’t for vast quantities of fruit juice I’m sure I would have gotten scurvy.
I’m not sure exactly when it happened – sometime after Andrew and I got married I guess – but there came a point when I discovered I liked to cook. I became obsessed with cook books and food magazines and I found myself experimenting with recipes for the first time. I particularly liked cooking all varieties of Asian foods and often had a curry or stir-fry of some sort on the go.
When Andrew and I were both working outside the house though, our eating habits were abysmal. Most of our “meals” came out of a box or bag in the freezer and went directly into the microwave. In fact I ate so many of one particular type of frozen diner when I was doing my Photography classes, just thinking of it now turns my stomach. Worse still, there was a point when I was working in Halifax, about a year before moving to Europe, I was eating fast food anywhere from 4 to 8 times a week because I was so exhausted from work.
During the period when I went back to school for Photo, I met my friend Sue. In addition to being a great artist, she is also an incredible cook and is primarily vegetarian (with some fish). Sue became my veggie mentor and I told her I would always try anything she cooked for me – and I did – and I always liked it. She had me eating and enjoying things I never would have dreamed of eating before and I started to re-think my relationship with vegetables. Maybe there was something besides beans and peas and corn. Maybe they didn’t all have to be boiled until limp. Maybe it was possible for me to eat and enjoy them after all.
My biggest thank you to Sue however, has to be for her getting me to eat sushi. Before Sue my stance was firmly No Uncooked Fish. But she eased me into what is now one of my favourite cuisines (which I in turn inflicted on Andrew).
In 2004 Andrew and I moved to Amsterdam for three months and my relationship with food really started to change. First of all, the grocery stores were so different from what I was used to. Gone were the aisles and aisles of frozen food. There was way more fresh produce, much of which I had never even seen before, let alone tried to cook. Secondly, I had all of this time on my hands. I wasn’t working; I hadn’t yet started my photography business and I had nothing to do all day but watch BBC and read. I actually remember ironing Andrew’s shirts and vacuuming everyday (and we didn’t even have the cats with us then) just to have something to do (my how things change…). So I started cooking more and more elaborate meals, much to Andrew’s delight and I experimented with a lot of the new ingredients I found. I also enjoyed going to Amsterdam’s Chinatown and perusing all of the unusual things there and coming home with various new sauces to try.
Amsterdam also opened up a world of dining possibilities. Dutch food isn’t exactly renowned for its, well… flavour, so we turned to things like Indonesian, Thai, sushi and of course Indian for our favourite meals. Our weekly spot however (and still one of my favourite restaurants anywhere) was our tiny hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant, Los Pilones. We also had our very first Fine Dining experience when we went to De Kas to celebrate my birthday. Seeing food presented in such a beautiful way, and knowing everything was organic and prepared with such attention to detail was really eye-opening. I started to see how obsessed we North Americans are with quantity rather than quality and how good ingredients could really make a difference to a dish.
I’d like to say I went home after those three months and changed my evil ways, but that was actually the period when I was eating all the fast-food. I understand why so many people turn to the micro-meals and food-in-a-bag. It’s easy – and when you’ve been on your feet all day at work, standing in the kitchen for hours is the last thing you want to do. I still had my passion for food in theory… and when I had time I still enjoyed cooking, but finding the time was the hard part.
It wasn’t until we moved back over here things really changed. Brussels may have its faults, but food is not one of them. The cuisine here is incredible (if you know where to go and where to avoid of course). Belgian food is a unique synthesis of French cuisine with many outside influences. But if you get sick of Belgian, you can literally eat your way around the world in this city. It’s a foodie dream. It’s not just restaurants either. There are import shops and market stalls with any kind of food you can imagine. The availability of organic and local products is vast too. It’s very easy to eat fresh here. Each neighbourhood still has its own bakeries, butchers, grocers, fishmongers, and cheese shops.
Since being here, I started reading a lot more about food too. I learned about organic foods and food miles and why quality and location was important for ingredients. I started to realise good food is an art and as with any art the passion of the artist is important. With so many places to eat in Brussels you don’t want to waste time on bad meals, and believe me, we’ve had some horrid ones. I’ve also realised, like quantity, price isn’t necessarily an indicator of quality. I’ve had some dreadful expensive meals and some fabulous cheap ones.
My biggest personal influence here in Europe has been Cédric at Holling Grange (speaking of artists). His passion for good food is contagious and he is so generous with his knowledge of food and cooking. Like Sue, I told Cédric I would try anything he prepared and again I have eaten and loved several dishes there that I wouldn’t have dreamed of eating anywhere else (pigs trotters anyone?) In fact these days, unlike during my childhood, I’ll try just about anything once. Oh sure, I have my limits. I’m not into extreme eating or Fear Factor foods, but given the right chef and the right circumstances… who knows?
Other things I’ve learned in the past few years:
- When you go to a new country or city, eat what and where the locals eat. This sounds obvious but you’d be surprised how many people don’t do it. Here in Brussels, the tourists flock to Grand Place and Rue de Bucher where no self-respecting Bruxellois would be found, when just a few blocks away you can find some of the best Belgian restaurants in the city. I’m shocked by how many people go to Spain and don’t try Tapas or who go to Italy and only eat spaghetti bolognaise. Believe me, I can understand needing a taste of home now and again or a comfort food but to visit a country and not even try the local cuisine is madness. Food is culture, especially in Europe, and to deny yourself that experience is to miss one of the wonders of travel. (Alison quietly steps off her soapbox now).
- The bigger the menu the worse the food. Ok, this is something Gordon Ramsey is on about all the time and I hadn’t really noticed until it was pointed out. In my experience however, it’s been very true. When you are handed a menu that has meat, fish, Italian, curry, Tex-mex etc. how can they all possibly be good? Answer, they can’t. I’d much rather go to an Italian place if I want pasta or a French place if I want foie-gras and have it done properly and with passion then going to one place that does both badly. Again, quality over quantity.
- Eat seasonally. This has been a hot topic in the British food magazines lately (thanks in part to Jamie Oliver) but once again it’s common sense that people don’t often follow. Just because we can get asparagus all year round, doesn’t necessarily mean we should. When we eat out of season it usually means our food is coming from far away. Not only is that bad for the environment, it’s bad for the food. It has often spent days traveling and is picked too early so it will stay fresher longer. Do I buy food out of season sometimes – sure I do. But I always now look at where my food has come from and think about what that’s going to mean for the quality.
So when my parents arrived here to visit in October, I think they were a bit surprised by our attitude towards food. I say “our” here because Andrew has been with me on this foodie journey every step of the way and has gamely tried anything I’ve put before him. For the first time ever the tables had turned and I was saying to my parents “At least try it before you decide you don’t like it.” And to be fair they were great sports and I think they even liked most of the things we fed them.
I know they noted my displeasure at a couple of meals (subtly is not normally one of my strong suits) but when I’m served bad food now it actually makes me a bit mad – mad that someone is charging good money for a low-quality product and mad that I’ve chosen badly especially when I know there are much better (often cheaper) alternatives.
Although they said in jest that we’ve become “food and wine snobs” I’ve since accepted this title. In fact, if it means that I want to eat quality food that is local, organic and prepared by someone with passion then I am wholeheartedly a Food Snob. Do I fall off the wagon and eat crappy processed food sometimes –wholeheartedly yes. Do I look down on people who don’t eat the way I do – not at all because I’ve been there and if circumstances change and I don’t have the time and ability to cook the way I do now I know I could easily be there again.
I do hope though I never lose my passion for good food and my willingness to try new things. For now, my name is Alison and I’m a Food Snob.