Saturday, September 29, 2012

Self-serve apple harvest

One of my first posts (and one that generated the most feedback!) was about the broodautomaat, or bread vending machine. Well, brace yourselves, people... I now give you--the appelautomaat!

Guess what it sells? Yep--apples. The city where I live lies within a region of Belgium called Haspengouw, known for its apples and pears. I love riding my bike through the orchards in the fall. It's harvest time and the trees are absolutely dripping with fruit.

Yesterday I spotted this sign along the road and had to check it out:

Sure enough, the appelautomaat was sitting in front of a farmhouse, just behind an apple grove. You simply pull into the driveway, hop out, and select from two varieties of apple and one type of pear. The apples are available in a 1-kilo or 2.5-kilo bag, for 1.25€ or 3.00€ respectively.

Unfortunately, I had recently bought a big bag of "nieuwe oogst" (new harvest) apples so I didn't actually use the appelautomaat. Anyway, part of the fun of cycling during the harvest is picking up fallen fruit along the way. If it's still good, it goes in the bike bag!

Thursday, September 27, 2012

A Masterpiece Called Belgium

I like to browse used book stores whenever possible (who doesn't, right?) and these days I always look for old English-language travel guides on Belgium and Flanders. The other day I came across an absolute gem: a yellowed paperback with the gushing title A Masterpiece Called Belgium.

It was written by that scion of the American travel industry, Arthur Frommer (of Frommer's guidebooks and Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel magazine) in 1984, under the auspices of Sabena Belgian World Airlines. I'd never heard of Sabena Belgian World Airlines, but that's not surprising since the list of airlines that no longer exist is long and storied. (According to Wikipedia, Sabena was the Belgian national airline founded in 1923. It went bankrupt in 2001 and eventually became Brussels Airlines.)

I have to show you the back of the book, with a quote from the author. It just tickles me that Frommer was saying the same thing 28 years ago that I've been telling people ever since I moved here. Here's what he says:

"In the course of two decades spent traveling in Europe, it slowly dawned on me that the sights and pleasures of Belgium were second to none. Yet far too many tourists, unfamiliar with the great ages of Belgium's glory, were streaming instead to less attractive destinations simply because they were more easily understood. I resolved then to do a book-length guide to Belgium, combining the practical and the general, all in support of a message I often feel like shouting: In culture and cuisine, in art, in history and in people, Belgium is a Masterpiece!"

I do think Belgium is becoming better known as a travel destination, in part because of technologies like the Internet, and because the tourist industry is finally catching on to Belgium's charms. But still, the fact remains that most Americans bypass Belgium in favor of more accessible countries in Europe like France, England, Germany and Italy. Belgium continues to be Europe's best-kept travel secret.

I'm looking forward to reading this book and finding out what ol' Arthur has to say about Belgium. It's too bad the book is out of print. I have a feeling it wasn't widely read when it was published--was it even available in bookstores, or only through the airline?--but I think the English-speaking world could benefit from hearing his message now. "Belgium is a Masterpiece!"

Indeed, Mr. Frommer. Indeed.

[Update: Pauline Frommer, Arthur Frommer's daughter, assures me that the book was sold in bookstores and went through several printings at the time. You can follow her on Twitter at @PaulineFrommer.]

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

What's not to like? Smoking, that's what

A friend asked me the other day if there was anything I didn't like about Belgium. It's true: for the most part I have nothing but good things to say about Belgium. I love it here and I love telling people all the things I love about it. But I had no problem admitting to my Belgian friend that yes, indeed, there are a few things I don't like about Belgium.

Tops on my list has to be smoking.

Of course we have smokers in America--I believe the U.S. is the biggest manufacturer of cigarettes in the world, and we pretty much invented the whole idea that smoking is cool. (Thanks, Madison Avenue!) But in the past few decades, the government has done a good job of convincing Americans that smoking is dangerous to your health and the health of those around you, not to mention a vile and noxious habit.

Also, I lived in California, that epicenter of health-consciousness, for over ten years before coming to Belgium. Not only has smoking been banned in restaurants and bars in California since 1995, but most municipalities in Southern California also ban smoking in parks, on beaches, near the entrances to public buildings, and in outdoor dining areas. Basically, it's almost impossible to smoke a cigarette in public in Los Angeles.

None of my friends in L.A. smoked. So I was able to live a virtually smoke-free existence before coming to Belgium.

One of the things I admire about Belgium is that people here have a very tolerant attitude towards others. Belgians, for the most part, believe in "live-and-let-live." That means that Belgium was one of the first countries to allow gay marriage. Possession of a small amount of marijuana (for personal use) is legal here. Unfortunately, smoking is still seen largely as a individual right, so anti-smoking legislation has lagged behind the U.S.

Smoking in bars and nightclubs was only banned as of July 1, 2011. Smoking in workplaces (including restaurants) has been illegal since 2006. In general, smoking rates for Belgium are slightly higher than for the U.S. (closer to 1 in 4 adults in Belgium, as opposed to 1 in 5 Americans, smoke). But smoking rates in the U.S. have been declining over the past decade, whereas for Belgium they've stayed the same.

It probably seems like more people smoke here because they're much more visible, especially compared to California. (It makes more sense to compare countries in Europe to states in America, especially when talking about things that are legislated at a state level.) Even if you could find a public place in California to smoke, the shame would probably prevent you from lighting up.

I just can't get used to the fact that it's still okay to smoke on the outdoor patios of restaurants and bars here. Sometimes it's a narrow distinction between "inside" and "outside" when the patio area is enclosed on all sides. There's nothing (in my mind) worse than sitting down to enjoy a drink or a meal on a beautiful summer day, only to have someone at the next table light up and start blowing smoke in my direction.

I really hate cigarette smoke.

So that's one thing that isn't so great about Belgium. I say that as a non-smoker; if you're a nicotine addict--sorry, I mean, smoker--then by all means, come to Belgium! But do it soon. I'm guessing it's only a matter of time before Belgium (and the rest of Europe) starts to ban smoking in other public areas, just like California.

Meanwhile, I console myself over the end of summer with the thought that in winter, when all drinking and dining takes place indoors, I'll be spared having to smell and taste cigarettes with my food.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Stoemp: It's what's for dinner!

Fall arrived this year on September 1st, with a crispness in the morning air that was completely absent the day before. My thoughts--always preoccupied with food--turned immediately to hearty soups, stews and things baked in the oven. Summer in Belgium is all about barbecuing, but fall is when traditional Flemish foods shine.

I was wondering what to make for dinner last night, and thinking that I really should use up the half a head of cabbage lurking in the fridge. Suddenly it came to me: Stoemp! The perfect mid-week dish for a gray, fall day. It's so easy to make, and has the added benefit of making boring ol' white cabbage much more interesting.

What's stoemp, you say? It's mashed potatoes with another vegetable smashed in. Popular choices are carrots, spinach and leeks, but you could use almost anything as long as it combines with potatoes. It's such a simple yet brilliant concept, I wonder why I had never heard of it until I moved to Belgium. I mean, who doesn't like mashed potatoes? Adding another vegetable makes the humble potato kinda sexy--and even more nutritious.

I found a recipe for Stoemp Met Prei (stoemp with leeks) in English. The basic cooking method is to prepare mashed potatoes as you normally would, then add in a second cooked and mashed (or chopped) vegetable. Use a little cream, milk or stock and season with salt, pepper and nutmeg. The classic accompaniment to stoemp is grilled sausage, but it's also good with pork chops. (We had pork sausages, grilled in a pan, last night.) Enjoy!