Wednesday, 11 November 2015

The First Great War Remembered.

I'm not the greatest historian. The facts and figures of the first and second world wars tend to flow into each other for me. The feel and themes of the times resonate very similarly for me too. I suppose this is a child-like, naive way of looking at these wars.

What I do know and remember is that my Peter Jerome and Pepe Andre used to tell me stories about those times. When Peter Jerome scaled the wall of a prominent military figure (of the opposing side) and stole his peaches off his trees. Then there were the stories that weren't told but I heard of later. Where you didn't purchase meat from the door-to-door meat salesman because you didn't know where it came from, or that a slaughtered cat looks and tastes very much like rabbit. How did they know that? I can take a pretty good guess and I know I'm right.
There were also the good things they didn't tell stories about. The nights the men, Peter Jerome and Pepe Andre, would hear the planes. They would leave the warmth and relative safety of their homes in rural Belgium with their bicycles and a change of clothes. Any allied pilots they found first would get a set of clothes to blend in and be helped to return to allied territory.

In South Africa, these stories were simply that: stories. Here in Belgium, where the remnants of The First and Second Great Wars still stand among the things of today, embraced by them, and the stories took on stark reality.
I never took much notice until I lived here and realized that I was cycling through the ruins of a World War I fort on my way to the office, that the lake in Keerbergen was a flooded airfield of World War II or that the concrete structure obscured and overgrown with trees wasn't a municipal service point of sorts but a Pillbox.

Armistice Day, the 11th November is remembered here with much ceremony and reverence. Every year we've been living here we've gone to Stadspark, to watch the firing of the cannons at 11:11 on the 11th of the 11th.

There's a wreath laying ceremony at the memorial in the park. The cannons are a way off but I think they can be heard for miles around. The video does them little justice. That shot ripples reality and the entire area shudders. It must have been terrifying hearing a battery of those go off during the war!

The memorial at Stadspark after the wreath-laying ceremony.

Ciao for now.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

A Dry Spring Day.

A spring day with no rain and this on a weekend! We had to make use of it and have an excursion or as they say here “een wandel maken”.
We caught the bus to Stads Park just off Antwerp Central and it’s shopping street, Meir. Stads Park is quite large and I didn’t see a small sliver of it. The buildings encircling the park are a mixture of old and new. The police station was a beautiful old building.

 We may not have been having rain but it was still a bit nippy out. Speculoos’ Nederlands is coming on beautifully. All she kept saying was “Eend, eend!” (eend is a duck). It’s amazing how well she’s adapting being so young.

The play equipment in the park is fantastic. There are quite a few interactive things to do there for the kiddies and Speculoos loved playing on the equipment and using the jugs and buckets provided to pour sand everywhere!

After a good play session, it was time to go and find some lunch. All the shops in Antwerp are closed on a Sunday, I love those old world values, but there’s a market that runs near Rubens’ House so we headed there. It still fascinates me that I live in such a beautiful place.

We had “Bradworst” rolls for lunch from a vendor at the market. Bradworst is a sausage in a roll much like a very thick hotdog sausage but the Belgians serve it with a sauce (mustard being the most complimentary although you have a choice of ketchup and some others) and some sauerkraut. I really like them with the sauerkraut but Mrs Awesome prefers them as they were serving them during the Christmas season with onion instead of sauerkraut.

On our “wandel” we saw this pretty catholic piece on the side of this building. Many of the buildings have little religious icons on them, usually above the door. This one was a little exceptional.

We went past the KBC building which was the first skyscraper in Europe. By today’s standards not really that high, but I think it’s a very pretty time period piece. The friezes on its façade are really beautiful and bear witness to a time when art, form and beauty were as important as structural integrity.
The KBC building.

Soon we were upon the Cathedral at a place called Groenplaats and the bells were chiming the time. Every quarter hour is such a special moment when the air is alive with the sweet chiming sounds.
The cathedral from a nearby market plein.
Ciao for now.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Sentimental Appliances

Breakfast in Belgium isn’t a cereal affair. Belgians believe that Kellogg’s has it all wrong because cereal isn’t a substantial enough breakfast. How on earth can cornflakes sustain you through a morning?

For Belgians, breakfast means pastries or bread. Those are the things that feed you and keep you going until lunch. I however do like my cereal but do indulge in a Belgian breakfast on the weekends.

There’s a weird, special place in my heart for the appliances in the picture here. I think it’s because of what they symbolize. When I wake up in the morning and use them, it means my family and I are in Belgium and the hazy dreams and vague thoughts we had so long ago are now real. I can have a breakfast of toast and coffee knowing that we’re safe and sound in Belgium, far from the concerns and life we used to be stuck in.
My loved appliances: the NY cab yellow toaster and the coffee machine.

In that way they’re more than appliances because they represent a complete shift in life, attitude and outlook!

The variety of breads here is something to behold. It comes in all different shapes, sizes and consistencies. We finally found a lovely “normal” brown bread which my daughter and I will be having for breakfast. Her favorite is “cheesy on toast” while mine is liver pate on toast followed with a dessert slice of toast with Speculoos spread.

The liver pate is something I picked up at our local market held on Saturday mornings a few blocks from our place. It's gorgeous and creamy, served by a man with the biggest fingers and forearms I've ever seen (he looks like a butcher should) and with the nicest disposition.
Ever heard of speculoos? It’s in everything here. Originally it’s a combination of warm spices that was put in cookies here for the wintery Christmas season. It comforts and sooths the soul through those dark, cold winter nights and makes life luxurious. In modern times (where we currently live) it’s crept into everything and is pretty much the national flavour.
The Speculoos cult.

If you’ve been to Belgium, chances are there’s traces of speculoos on everything and in everything you had with you – including you!

The days are getting longer here again and the temperatures are improving significantly. Spring, I think, is making it’s entrance. I’m going to miss winter but I will not lie, I am looking forward to summer.
Later, we plan to go to Antwerp "om een wandel te maken" - to take a walk around, if the weather permits of course.

Ciao for now.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Dressed in White and the Gabriel Burger.

Good day (or night) to you!

I woke up this morning to the sight of a lightly snow dusted Belgium.

Isn't she beautiful?

The Gabriel Burger was definitely better on Friday evening. The saying "more is less" definitely applies here. I've been making a burger akin to a Dagwood or a Blondie. Could "Dagwood" or "Blondie" be colloquialisms? Let me explain:

In my land of birth, a Dagwood is a burger containing at least one burger patty, a fried egg, a slice of cheese, a slice of ham and an undefined flavour pink-ish sauce. This coronary goodness is placed between two slices of toasted bread. Sometimes there’s an additional slice in the middle of the construction to give it some stability. The slices of bread used to be burger rolls. This would make it a burger, not a toasted sandwich but due to general laziness on the part of the makers and practicality of size, the rolls were replaced by said bread slices.

Now a Blondie is even more impressive! Again it contains at least one burger patty, a fried egg, a slice of cheese but then there’s the twist! Instead of a slice of ham, there’s a fillet of steak in there and then of course the mystical pink sauce of undefined flavour again. In a Blondie the structural support of an additional slice of bread is obligatory.

Either of these items can be purchased at most Roadhouses (a drive-in diner) and a particularly good one I recommend is The Apple Bite Roadhouse.

So now that we have that cleared up, we may continue. The Gabriel Burger was taking on Dagwood like proportions with a burger patty, cheese, bacon, mushroom sauce with a secret ingredient instead of the insipid pink stuff and an egg as well as garnishes of taste like tomato, lettuce and gherkins.

Since our arrival in Belgium and our access to the local grocery stores, like Delhaize and Carrefour with their (in our view) exotic ingredients, I’ve started refining the Gabriel Burger to at least make it edible without fear of that coronary. The beef for the patty (yes I make them from scratch) is leaner and both patties and bacon are fried in a non-stick pan with no oil or other lubricants added. The egg is now poached. How la-di-dah is that? The only thing that does not abide to the fat free rule yet is the mushroom sauce.

I was still not satisfied. The flavours weren’t apparent and it looked bad on a plate.

On Friday I tried something new. I denied the Gabriel Burger its bacon & egg and instead made a cheese & mushroom burger. This was far better in flavour and look!

The secret’s definitely the mushroom sauce. The next step is to refine the combinations a little more. Bacon and mushroom sauce perhaps? Perhaps *shudder* I should even eliminate the sauce altogether but that simply wouldn’t be a Gabriel Burger then.

When I’m brave enough and it looks slightly presentable I’ll post a photo of the burger.

Until then, well, no photo.

Ciao for now.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Just In Time For Christmas!

Suddenly we were all in Belgium, in a suburb of Antwerp called Berchem. Our appartment less than 100 meters from the station. The shadows were long on the ground, the skies cold and the apartment dressed with the bare essentials, a TV, mattresses on the ground for us to sleep on, some bedding and suitcases. A TV an essential I hear you ask? Yes, in this cold climate and approaching winter it’s very much an essential in a two bedroom apartment. I was lucky enough to pick it up at a good price during a sale at Mediamarkt. The most important new addition to the apartment though was my little family I’d missed so much, my wife and daughter and what a windfall! This all just in time for Christmas!

Us adults (mommy and daddy) didn’t exchange Christmas gifts this year. There simply wasn’t time to find each other that “something special” gift. We barely had enough courage and time to get a Christmas tree from Brico. We did get Speculoos, my daughter, some gifts because it’s written somewhere in “The Great Book of Rules of the Universe” that a child must get a Christmas gift if at all possible! Mommy and Daddy (that’s my wife and I) decided that a little indulgence in the new ingredients and foods available to us would suffice to make us feel Christmassy enough.

I hadn’t done much exploring around the neighborhood. I had the general feel of the place but hadn’t really gotten under the fingernails, you know, the side alleys and obscure places and such.  We, as a family, decided to take a few “wandels” (that’s a walk) to explore our new neighborhood and we soon found out that we were in the thick of some beautiful architecture and a tourist hot spot for some of the most beautiful homes. One block away from us was the elegant and beautiful Art Nouveau neighborhood of Zurenborg. This is where we later ate our first good Belgian burger in a place called De Burgerij.

The winter was uncommonly wet and because of this, the trees were confused thinking it was spring or so the news report said. I just found it pretty. The stark buildings of Zurenborg with a contrast of the pretty blossoms and flowers.

Belgium to me is a land of extreme contrasts in colour, weather and architecture but despite this the people are calm, the streets safe to wander and the cuisine narrow and unadventurous. Belgians know what they like to eat and stick to it. Fritten (french fries) and Stoofvlees or Vol Au Vent being the go-to for fast food and a bitter vegetable called Witloof used in most things.  Stark green shows through the autumn leaves, the weather can go through all four seasons multiple times in one day and along with the beautiful and old is the square and modern architecture.

The things that thoroughly fascinate me is the architecture, I saw a real gargoyle on a church, and the new found inspiration I’ve been afforded. With all the wonderful new ingredients and markets, my culinary funny bone has been tweaked! I look forward to the weekends purely so I can spend them looking for or trying out something new in the kitchen!

I used to make a fantastic burger in South Africa, but the quality of the burger waned somewhat simply because the key ingredient, used in the sauce was finished and I couldn’t find a replacement. For the first time in probably two years I made the Gabriel Burger as it was meant to be served. The extremely hard to obtain ingredient, truffle oil, was freely available in the supermarkets here and because of the inspiration, I’ve improved some of the techniques used in it’s preparation and the Gabriel Burger has once again become the Friday Night tradition and is better than ever before! It, of course, will always be needing that little bit more refining.

 My little girl seems to love it here too! Everything is pink and happy here for her and she seems to have fitted right in.

It’s like taking our first steps. Everything is wondrous and new! Now we get to begin anew with family traditions and ways.

Ciao for now.