He served me a slice of carrot cake in a jar. The young, eager waiter explained that it was too soft and gooey that it didn’t present well on a dessert plate. I didn’t really need to eat a carrot cake. I was quite happy with my own recipe, passed on by a friend many years ago, that I could easily whip one if I so desire. However, curiosity got the better of me and at the excuse of expanding my knowledge of veggie pastry, I ordered one at the Pipaillon Coffee and Jam Bar.
A Jam Bar is probably one of the most original food concepts launched in Brussels these last few years. We’ve seen the arrivals (and the demise) of modish food outlets like cupcake salons and burger grills, but no one thought of a Jam Bar except Pipaillon.
But what is a Jam Bar? Well, it’s a place where we can sample and buy jams. At Pipaillon, though the selection is a bit pricey, the jams are far from ordinary and they pride themselves with the quality of fruit (and vegetables) conserved in a jar.
Pipaillon, above all, is a cannery in the heart of Brussels. It lies on a street that was once part of an extended canal, allowing merchandise boats to lay anchor right in the city. The docks were all part of this flourishing distribution center in the 19th century. The canals have long been filled, giving way to a fountain and terraces, and the only reminder of its past are the names of the streets, such as the one where Pipaillon is, the Quai au Bois à Brûler (the dock of firewood). This street leads to the animated Place St Catherine where fish restaurants, a daily fresh produce market, and the Christmas fair have called it their home.
The cannery brings back the art of conservation – with sugar for jams, salt for capers, vinegar for chutneys, and oils for tapenades. I love their witty labels, jams with names such as Rhubarbra Streisand (rhubarb), Dancing Quince, The Dark Side of the Spoon (Prune-Chai-Yuzu), Miss Figgy, Onion Jack or savoury delicacies such as Little Miss Sunshine tomatoe sauce, Yellow Submarine for lemon confits, or Highway to Plum chutney or rare pots of Brussels honey, Bee Sweet.
We can’t visit the cannery but we can sit at the Coffee and Jam Bar. The place also serves healthy lunches, abiding with the principles of the house: organic, local, artisanal. Catherine Bodson, who created Pipaillon, brings with her food traditions inspired by women in her family, who had at one point in their lives, were involved in food. There is also a strong commitment on buying from local farms – fruits grown in Brussels, Cerfontaine or Vielsalm, vegetables from Fouleng and Sambreville. And anything they need that does not grow on Belgian soil, like capers, lemons and olives, they buy from Sicilian cooperatives.
I always had a preference for citrus-based concoctions and Pipaillon has quite a range to please my palate, though, I still have to graduate from my infatuation of Tangerine Love, a mixture of mandarines, rose petals and cardamon; and Pink Panther, pink grapefruit with pink peppers.
There is free tasting of at least three jams when you come in and sit at the bar, decorated with a sunny yellow wallpaper, touches of Tiffany blue and pink vintage chairs. Sometimes, they put a dollop of jam with your cake or unexpectedly, the young, eager waiter walks around and drops little pots of new, experimented flavours.
I decided to concentrate on my carrot cake in a jar. It was indeed gooey and oozing with deep flavours of spices, mellowed out by the generous icing of yoghurt and salted butter. I scooped until the very last bite, downing it with a raspberry-orange smoothie and then, unhurriedly asked the bill from the young, eager waiter, who despite of the countless comings and goings, has not lost his uppity strut.