Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Friends and Food in Belgium

My first stop on a recent weekend getaway to Belgium was a grocery store called Delhaize. It was one of the local chain’s showcase stores, in Antwerp, the main city of Flemish-speaking northern Belgium. Filled to the brim with seasonal European produce, fresh bounty from the nearby North Sea, and a variety of dairy products from neighboring Holland, a tour around the store was more fun than a trip to Antwerp’s famous art museum, the Koninklijk. Instead of viewing still-life paintings by Flemish Masters, I was rubbing elbows with the affluent professionals who make their home in the surrounding historical downtown area.

I went to Belgium to visit an old friend, Johan, who is one of those affluent Belgian professionals. He’s also my “brother” in the sense that he was a foreign exchange student who lived with my family in Maryland, when we were both in high school (many years ago!). In the ensuing years, we exchanged the occasional holiday card, but had gotten together only once, eighteen years ago, when I previously lived in Europe. On learning I was now living in Italy, Johan elatedly invited me to fly up for a visit. I accepted without hesitation, completely forgetting about my celiac disease and any complications I might encounter as a houseguest in a foreign gluten home.
But reality soon set in. Not only was I traveling to a place that produces at least one hundred different kinds of specialty beer, none of them gluten free, I’d also be in a dual-language country, neither of which I could speak. And other than French (Belgian) Fries and chocolate, I didn’t know the first thing about Belgian cuisine. Moreover, I was a bit nervous about meeting someone again after so many years had passed, and contemplated canceling my trip. Surely it’d be an inconvenience for Johan to host me in his home. His reply to all of this, however, shared none of my concern. “I’ve heard of this gluten free food,” he said. “We’ll go shopping when you get here!”

So, I went. With gluten free food packed in my bag. I flew on Ryan Air, a no frills Irish airline known for cheap flights utilizing small out-of-the- way airports. I flew out of Venice/Treviso Airport, a dilapidated two-gate building that looked more like a bus station than an airport. Little over an hour later, I arrived at Charleroi, a place I’d never heard of before, located somewhere south of Brussels. Surrounded by fellow passengers speaking Italian, French, Flemish, and the Queen’s English, I was fairly certain I was the only American on the plane. It was a little disconcerting at first, but not nearly as startling as my next thought: after eighteen years, would Johan and I even recognize each other?

Well, I didn’t need to worry too much because he wasn’t even there to greet me when I arrived. I’d forgotten that Johan was notorious for being late, whether it was with his annual holiday greeting card, or as now, picking me up at the airport. After the crowd had thinned a bit, with still no sign of anyone who could pass for Johan, I dug out my cell phone and called him. He told me he was on his way, asked me what I was wearing (so he could easily identify me), and then instructed me to turn around. And there he was, with cell phone pressed to his ear and a wide dimpled grin upon his face; the same smile I remembered from my teenage years, when he delighted in playing sibling tricks on me.

Belgium is a small country, about the size of Maryland, nestled securely between the Netherlands to the north, Germany to the east, France to the south, and the cold North Sea to the west. It is a melting pot of histories, culture, and languages. French is spoken in the south, including the capital city of Brussels. Flemish, which is similar to Dutch, is spoken in the north. Most Belgians, I quickly learned, also speak English, picking it up as children watching American television shows, and then formally learning it in high school. Johan’s primary language is Flemish, but his near flawless English (and a glass or two of French wine, not Belgian beer) made it easy for us to catch up on family news, talking into the wee hours of the morning. It was also effortless for me to talk with him about celiac disease, yet I knew the real lessons would take place in the kitchen.

Prior to my visit, Johan had scouted out the grocery store, Delhaize, but told me he hadn’t found any gluten free food. I told him he just didn’t know what to look for, because the next morning, as I wandered around the store, I spotted these words: Herken onze producten zonder gluten via dit logo op de verpakking (Recognize our products without gluten by means of this logo on the packaging). Only the word “gluten” meant anything to me at the time, but it was all I needed to know. There before me was an ample collection of gluten free hi-fiber bread, grilled bread, and pain de mie (soft bread). There were cakes and cookies of all sorts, including English cake, marble cake, and sandwich cookies. Flour, pasta, crackers, bouillon, and even a rice couscous were also available. Most products were made by a French company called Allegro. I stocked up.
Back at Johan’s 1930’s-era three-story brick townhome, we set about making lunch. For breakfast, I’d eaten a gluten free roll I’d brought from home, but shied away from dipping into the open containers of butter, jelly, and honey I’d found in the refrigerator and pantry. There was no peanut butter in the house, as Belgians generally do not eat it; instead they prefer a chocolate hazelnut spread called Nutella, which is gluten free.

Lunch was a veggie omelet, with me taking on the task of chopping the mushrooms and tomatoes. Everything seemed to be going smoothly. But when my back was turned, out came the crusty bread, smack dab onto the cutting board with the vegetables. I closed my eyes and cringed, ready to explain I now would have to have my eggs plain, when fortuitously, the bread, vegetables, and cutting board all plunged to the floor. After cleaning up, and starting over with the food preparation, I gently clarified a few more issues of celiac disease, especially the part about cross-contamination.

It was the only incident we had the entire weekend. Thereafter, every ingredient label was translated for me, items researched on the computer, and I enjoyed a variety of home-cooked meals. Spending as much time as we did in Johan’s kitchen, though, it became the joke of our weekend together – had I traveled all the way to Belgium for that experience alone?! Of course, I hadn’t, but it did illustrate that our friendship transcended the years that had passed and the food I could eat. Completely at ease, we shopped, cooked, and ate together. We also toured some sights.

One afternoon we walked around Antwerp. It is a port city with a medieval core that got its start as the hub of the European cloth trade. The Flemish artist, Peter Paul Rubens, was from Antwerp. His works are on display at the Koninklijk Museum, and his home, Rubenhuis, can be visited. Perhaps most recognized as the center of the international diamond trade, Antwerp is also a shopping destination for fashionistas and antiquers.

Another afternoon, we drove two hours north to Amsterdam, in the Netherlands. Known as a liberal city where marijuana is sold legally, and tour companies guide travelers through the Red Light District, we mostly spent our time walking around, soaking up the ambiance. With a history that goes back 800 years, the city’s center is Dam Square, which encompasses the Royal Palace and the 600 year-old New Church (Nieuwe Kerk). Like Antwerp, Amsterdam is also a diamond center and a shopping mecca, but it’s most renowned as a flower exporter, especially tulips. Blooms, bulbs, and seeds can be bought at the Flower Market (Bloemenmarkt) that runs alongside one of the city’s 100 famed canals. Moreover, Amsterdam is home to the Rijksmuseum, with its Dutch Masters collection, the Van Gogh Museum, and the Anne Frank House.

Johan had to work on the final day of my weekend trip, so I was on my own to tour Belgium’s capital city of Brussels. Dropping me off at an outlying metro station near Atomium, a landmark structure representing an atom of iron magnified 165 billion times, Johan only gave me instructions about the time to rendezvous for my return flight home. Initially feeling lost, struggling to interpret the French and Flemish information signs, I circuitously found my way to the city’s main square, Grand Place. Being a Monday, most of the museums in the city were closed, but I passed the day studying the city map (numerous times) in manicured gardens, wandering through Europe’s oldest shopping mall, and finding respite over a leisurely lunch in Grand Place. With the assistance of a French-accented waiter, I dined on Chicken Waterzooi, a Flemish specialty consisting of poached chicken, boiled carrots, potatoes, and endive, and a white sauce made solely with cream and broth.

Many traditional Flemish dishes are not suitable for those of us with celiac disease. Made with beef, poultry, or pork, and combined with various vegetables, they often are cooked in, or served with, some sort of sauce that has flour. Stews also can be made with beer, so it’s essential to ask about food preparation. Seafood lovers have it a bit easier, as mussels are found throughout Belgium, and the various sauces served with them, such as a white wine or a tomato sauce, generally do not contain flour. In both Belgium and Holland, ethnic cuisine, such as Indonesian, is abundant, offering alternative gluten free options. Belgian Fries are probably one of the fool-proof gluten free foods to eat. Fresh peeled and fried twice in dedicated fryers, Belgians eat them with mayonnaise. Yogurt, cheese, soup, and salads are additional mainstays of the Low Countries’ diet.

No trip to Belgium would be complete without a stop in at least one of the country’s famous chocolate shops. While Godiva is a household name to Americans, their products sold in the U.S. are not gluten free. So I gave them a miss in Brussels, and instead bought my chocolate from the place Belgians get theirs: Neuhaus. When I asked if they used flour in the fillings or during assembly, I got one of those strange “Why in the world would we do that?” looks in reply. (UPDATE: Many Neuhaus chocolates do contain gluten, specifically ones made with rice puffs that include wheat starch as one of the ingredients. Boxed chocolates also state gluten as an ingredient, though in what form is not clear. For those chocolates that do not contain gluten, such as the truffles, the ingredients label still warns that it could contain gluten. Eat Neuhaus chocolates at your own risk.)

Chocolate was the last purchase I made before meeting up with Johan for a ride to the airport. And much like the bittersweet treasures in my bag, so was our parting. With promises not to let another eighteen years pass before our next meeting, we said our good-byes. Though who knows? Maybe in another eighteen years there will be a cure for celiac disease, and I’d be able to indulge in those sweet-smelling Belgian Waffles I saw on nearly every street corner. In the meantime, I know that time with old friends should never be passed up because of a gluten free diet. (September 2006)

Helpful Information
Awareness of gluten-intolerance and celiac disease in Belgium seems to be lower than in some other European countries.

Delhaize is a country-wide food store chain that has a section with gluten-free items.

Many food preparations in the French-speaking area are gluten-free by nature. Be careful in the Flemish-speaking area because many dishes have flour-thickened, beer-based, or other gluten-containing sauces.

Belgian fries (frites) are widely available and are usually cooked in separate fryers, so travelers have found them safe.

Alber (or Albert?) Heijn is a main grocery store in the Netherlands. They put gluten free symbols on their store brand products.

BioMarkt is a health food store, Weteringschans 133-137, 1017 SC Amsterdam, http://www.biomarkt.nl/

Restaurants in the Netherlands Recommended by other Celiac Travelers

Frite stands are all over the Netherlands. They usually sell just fries.

Amsterdam Marriott® Hotel, Stadhouderskade 12 Amsterdam, 1054 ES Netherlands, Tel: 31 20 6075555

Restaurant The Pantry (traditional Dutch dinner), Leidsekruisstraat 21, 1017 RE Amsterdam, Tel: 31 20 6200922

Wagamama – Stir-fry chain restaurant with limited gf options - located near Rijksmuseum

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