Confessions over a pot of Hermes tea

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The backroom was dark and intimate. There were two small tables, each surrounded by three deep brown leather seats that have stories of their own. There was only one lamp that made reading the writing on the wall a bit difficult. It was just about four in the afternoon and there was a lady wearing a pair of beige vintage ankle boots with buttons secured by cream elastics, sitting quietly on the sofa facing the open door.

I took a round wooden table opposite her, but in the other room, just beside the counter and the tea display. She seemed to be enjoying her solitude, listening to jazz music while enjoying a cup of tea. It would have been impolite to impose my presence in the backroom, where it’s cosy if you’re alone but too crowded if you are two.

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This is the magical nook in the tea shop, Comptoir de Florian in Ixelles, Brussels, the place one would choose for a confession, a forbidden rendezvous, or an afternoon retreat from a day that had gone awry. At past the hour of four, the regular clientele start to pour in, hoping to find the best seat, but a minute too late, have to grumbly accept the second best tables of the house.

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I was just curious. Comptoir de Florian, it seems, is one of the best tea shops in Brussels. It has history, an impressive collection of tea, and wonderful cakes. On my first visit, I chose Hermes, an infusion of lavender, thyme, lemongrass, sage,  verbena, and chamomile; and since I decided this was spice day, I paired it with a slice of a tart made of orange, almonds, ginger and cinammon.

I returned a week later with a friend, with whom a chat with, turns into a session of ventilation of our feminist struggles and maternal worries. My head kept spinning that day, a light attack of vertigo, that I couldn’t remember the name of my tea, something that sounded like “a girl from ipanema.” It was so good and girly, a fusion of white and green tea, punctuated with roses, peonies and tea flowers. And since they didn’t have a rose-flavoured cake, I chose chantilly cream and apple pie, in that order. If the cakes were moist and sweet, the service, unfortunately, was dry and sour; and though a warm welcome is the strictest criterion for a tea shop, I just chose to ignore the lack of it and instead enjoy my tea and limit my interaction with my hosts to the strictest minimum.

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I can understand why the backroom is so sought after. Where we were seating, our conversations mingled with neighbouring tables, the acoustics of preparing the orders in the adjoining counter, and the visits of customers wanting their favourite teas. Not that it was bothersome…just less comfy than the backroom, where the promise of an hour’s rupture from the daily grind is guaranteed.

On the day I came for the first time, when a couple arrived to “inhabit” the tiny chamber, the lady with the vintage ankle boots, stood up and headed towards the counter to settle the bill. In the light, her outfit was flawless, a brown, felt hat worn slightly sideways and a flowing, deep blue rayon dress that fondled the round wooden tables in the front room as she passed by. For a moment, I thought I was having tea with Agatha Christie in some English living room in the twenties. A fleeting vision that Miss Christie would have comforted me with “The impossible could not have happened, therefore the impossible must be possible in spite of appearances.” (Murder on the Orient Express)

Comptoir Florian
Rue Saint Boniface,17
1050 Bruxelles

 

 

 

A jar of carrot cake in a jam bar

 

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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.

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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.

P1020437The 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Tea and Twain at an English Library

“Shhhh, Shhhh
It’s, oh, so quiet
It’s, oh, so still
You’re all alone
And so peaceful until

You fall in love”

Bjork, 2001.

I was surrounded by the spirits of those I wanted to be with, authors whose names are now scrolled in paperbacks and hardbound editions. Some of them famous, others are about to become famous. And yet, there would still be a few whose names and writings will probably end up in next year’s book sale. I was here to read, quietly, while sipping fresh mint tea. Alone but not lonely.

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The English Library of the Cook and Book complex behind the Wolubilis Theater in Woluwe Saint Lambert, Brussels is my favourite place to have a quiet tête-a-tête, especially if it means having one with one’s self. Considered as one of the world’s 12 beautiful bookshops, Cook and Book is a series of buildings, which houses libraries and restaurants. The English Library is found at the farthest corner of this block, where there are zero passersby and which is accessible by passing through a fancy diner with chrome chairs and shelves featuring cookbooks.

Cook and Book2 copyThis is probably the most quiet public place in Brussels, simply because they don’t play any mood music. Footsteps are muffled by the thick paisley-designed red carpet, no cash registers, no phones, no noise. Even the lady librarian speaks in whispers.

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The red love seats are inviting, which allowed one to intimately share space with a stranger who is most likely here for the same reasons: solitude in silence. I crouched deep in the buttoned sofa, intent on finishing a pocket-size Penguin edition of Mark Twain‘s “The Stolen Elephant” while stifling giggles at almost every page that confirms Twain’s insatiable penchant for humour. I picked up this lightweight pocketbook, lighter than my smartphone, by chance. I didn’t have a lot of money to spend and I was bored. At the English Library, there are books for all budgets, ages, interests. The walls were lined with the classics, non-fiction, self-help and odd-titles such as “The trouble with women” by J. Fleming. But Twain at one euro and fifty, humoured me the whole afternoon with a caricature of police inspectors. I will not tell you if the stolen elephant was finally found. For a euro and fifty, you can well review your classics.

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I stood up, shook my numb legs and moved to a round table, sitting on number 2 by the window. There was extraordinary sunlight and the room was brighter than it is in wintertime, which I prefer, when the dark skies and peltering rain made me feel I was in a cozy sitting room of some isolated castle in the Scottish highlands (except there would have been no fresh mint tea, brewed the Morrocan way). With tea, I ordered a roasted fig shortbread. By the time my pot was empty, I was ready to head home but not before picking up William Sitwell‘s “A history of food in 100 recipes” and ordering Emile Zola‘s “The Belly of Paris,” two foodie masterpieces I exchanged my shoe budget with and hoping, these would be enough to keep boredom at bay.

Soul kitchens

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On a Thursday night, a balmy one heralding the start of spring, we walked into a former fishmonger’s shop near Brussels’ north train station. White tiles lined the high walls and deep, stainless steel tubs lay empty infront of the windows. A group of men in mismatched outfits, long hair, smoking self-rolled cigarettes, has settled in old couches and wooden chairs. There was a bearded guitar player hunched infront of a series of old clothes, arranged quite neatly on a mobile hanger. And at a corner, where bicycles have been left against the walls, parked a rusty cart filled with blue vegetable crates. If you don’t know this address, you might not want to walk in. It’s dim, crowded and confused and that’s not exactly the criteria we are looking for when we go out to eat in a restaurant on the first balmy night of spring. As soon as we stepped in, we were greeted by a sign, “give what you want.”

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This is the Poissonnerie, a table d’hôtes that serves free meals every Thursday evening. Marie, the white-haired lady chef, gives orders and instructions in a very motherly way to a group of happy, smiling male kitchen assistants, tenants of this address that houses people who cannot afford rent. They are our hosts for tonight’s table. The two floors of this abandoned building have been converted into social lodgings where the space is free and each “community member” shares the costs of the utilities and helps maintain the place clean and in good order. Let’s call it “official squatting.”

The doors opened just before eight but soup was served an hour later. That gave us time to hang around infront of an improvised bar to get organic and artisanal beers, then took a few steps down to a room decorated in recycle art and finally found a table near a burning wood stove.

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The leeks soup was thick and delicious, accompanied by a wide choice of breads. The first ones on the line had them in bowls, the rest had them in cups of different sizes. This was followed by a puree of potatoes and celeriac; a red sauce of black olives, tomatoes, lentilles and onions; and a very garlicky green and tomato salad. Those who marched into the kitchen first, had their meals served on plates. The last ones received them in bowls. There is no service to speak of but rather, we should speak about how Marie and her cooks spent the whole afternoon peeling the best potatoes, removing the dying leaves of a salad, removing the brownish skin of a celeriac, and finally scooping the purees from casseroles onto some 50 plates that evening.  Every now and then, we hear the  tinkling sound of coins being dropped in the donation box.

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We ate in silence until my seatmate said “we know that this was all made with love.” Love and the unsold vegetables of the morning market are the ingredients of this weekly meal. The “Poissonnerie” prepares the meal with vegetables from wholesalers who are ready to throw them away  because of bruises, dried outer leaves, imperfect shapes, dark spots – everything that makes a normal consumer ignore what is still consumable. Poissonnerie’s battlecry is  “sharing, partaking, saying no to food waste, promoting healthy food.” It relies on a community of participation. Two of the young volunteers who were sitting beside us woke up at four in the morning to collect the vegetables and dragged the cart that must have weighed more than 30 kilos. Many came for a “free” meal but most of them wanted to be part of this strange project in a strange venue where hipsters and the homeless mix, where you wash your own plate in a plastic pail brimming with soapy water, and where one can enjoy the jam session that spontaneously rise after the meal. It’s unimaginable that you walk out of there without dropping some coins or bills, knowing that this community would need some funds to buy oil, vinegar, salt, spices, washing liquid and all the rest that any kitchen needs. But then, you can also walk in with donations of plates and casseroles, used clothes and books that anyone can pick up for free, or logs to feed the stove so guests are kept warm while dining in a room with doors leading to the now empty cold chambers. (Poissonnerie, 214 rue du progres, 1030 Schaerbeek)

Sésam’ opened its doors a few years ago to help people in difficulty. Whether it’s to provide an income for those in precarious situations or train people for a professional reconversion or welcome juvenile delinquents who have been required by law to render service to society, Sésam’ has succeeded in meeting its social objectives by running a restaurant that serves very good food at small prices.

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Isabelle, who manages Sésam’ and trains a personnel of all ages, was all smiles when we complimented her with the quality of the food and the service. She looked completely at ease, relaxed as she hopped from one table to the next, getting into small conversations with regular clients while concealing a firmness that have given this social restaurant a reputation of good standing. She also took time to show us an ongoing exhibit of a local artist, one of the many who chose this venue for exhibitions.  Sésam plays host to seniors craft workshops, art afternoons for children and sewing courses for adults. Open for lunch from Mondays to Fridays, students of a nearby university, the elderly of the neighbourhood and those who work in the area come for traditional Belgian dishes like the Flemish beef stew and to discover some exotic recipes from Morroco, Turkey or Armenia. This is in Schaerbeek, one of the cities  in Brussels where a big population of migrants have settled and stayed. Most of the food shops on the street sell flat breads, halal lamb sausages, couscous and lemon confits. But Sésam’ is the place where all cultures meet, that is why it’s also called the “Bouillon de Culture” (the breeding ground of cultures).

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The day I went with a friend, the day’s menu for 7.50 euros was leeks soup and gratin of sea bass and spinach, topped with grated cheese. I skipped the leeks soup and exchanged it for a coffee with a homemade, moist chocolate cake served by a young, shy man who is on some sort of internship. For two euros, I could have asked for a second slice but reason and guilt took over, so instead I took a copy of the week’s menu to schedule another day of a healthy lunch with a conscience. (121 rue josaphat, 1030 Schaerbeek)

 

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The last time I ate there was in summer. It was a Sunday and since this has become a destination of families on weekends, the Estaminet of La Ferme Nos Pilifs was full. All seats were taken in the terrace. In a country where the sun rarely come and stay, any day with a ray of sunshine would have people rushing out for a sunbath in the guise of a happy hour in the terrace. Finally settled near the bar, we placed our order of coffee and crepes on a small paper, legibly marked our table number and waited. The wait was a bit too long but we didn’t mind. We are being served by the best waiters in town, people who have shown us that intellectual disabilities must never be a barrier to social integration.

 

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La Ferme Nos Pilifs, spread over 12 acres, is  a sheltered workplace which “provides meaningful, fulfilling, and rewarding work to anyone with a disability.” What they did was to identify chores that are adapted to the employee’s abilities rather than on his disability. Over a hundred workers with disabilities work at the farm;  from baking, handling the bar, acting as the cashier, maintaining the kitchen gardens and poultry, to providing mail services for businesses.

We come here to buy trees, houseplants, gardening tools, seeds…or organic cabbages, fairtrade chocolates, vegan sauces. But there’s a spot that invites us to share our old clothes or books, bring bottle caps and wine corks for recycling, learn the art of cooking with low temperatures.

The farm boasts of a profitable garden center, an organic bakery and grocery, and a restaurant that serves a daily special, a veggie-Thursday, and Saturday brunches. While my husband went to look for an old variety of pear tree to plant in the garden and check out some egg-laying chickens, I rushed to the bakery. I bought two loaves of bread, croissants, and a cream and almond filled buns.

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Back home, I spread a thick layer of boursin cheese on a slice of bread with grains and poppy seeds, took another slice and smeared it with butter and raspberry jam, took a third one….just couldn’t get enough of this cake-like bread, that most likely, have been baked with love. (La Ferme Nos Pilifs, Trassersweg 347 – 1120 Bruxelles)

 

 

 

The day after the Brussels bombings, kneading dough was the only way to ease my sorrow.

Brussels
Wednesday,
23 March, 2 pm

attentats-bruxellesMy immediate reflex was to buy food. I was not sure how long this “war” was going to be. Fifty meters to the supermarket on the other side of the roundabout. Should I dare? Just before turning the handle of the front door, I got a message from my sister in Australia “store food, batteries, water.” What? Am I really in a war zone? Yesterday, two bombs exploded at the national airport at around 8 a.m., followed one hour later by another in the middle coach of a metro line that I take regularly. In the next minutes, we could only hear the screaming sirens of police cars and ambulances, a tv flash with an agitated anchorwoman in jeans and no make-up, and a radio warning that everybody should stay where they are – at school, in offices, at home.

And then, silence.

The streets were deserted. I finally took hurried steps to the supermarket and promised for the first time, to stick to my list: chicken, fruits, vegetables, smoked fish, butter, coconut milk, eggs…and managed to grab a bag of paprika chips before heading to the cashier. There was no sign of panic-buying. Maybe, it was only me.

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(rtl.be)

Throughout the day, the gravity of these explosions unfolded on tv. “What we always feared would happen, finally happened,” proclaimed the Prime Minister. This is déjà vu. In my dreams the other day, I asked whether airport cleaners can actually plant a bomb in the toilets. Or why was I walking the distance of the metro stops instead of taking a ride these last few days? Premonitions or simply not yet my hour.

And while I was in the safety of my home, innocent people lay dead on Zaventem’s glass-strewn departure hall and on Maalbeek’s blasted metro platform. I liked that metro station. It was renovated with simple, big white tiles with large, black stick drawings of human faces. It was pristine until the terrorists coloured it ash gray and bloody red. Those who “survived” came out of these target locations with burnt hair, open wounds, a missing finger, a missing companion….and deep emotional scars that might never disappear.

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(metronews.fr)

I am numb. I have not gone out of my house. I took shelter working in our office at the basement. I have not joined the mourners at the foot of the Stock Exchange building at the city center. I have not shed a tear…until today, when I saw my daughter crying. She just found out that a former schoolmate died in these explosions. I never saw her so affected like this. I can feel her sadness, her anger, her aversion to violence to the point of refusing to watch a youtube video of a puppy left in a canal by a stone-hearted owner.

It could have been her. It could have been me.

How can I comfort her with the untimely death of someone her age, explain to her in non-hatred terms this senseless warfare in the name of religion, guarantee her safety in public places, relieve her this feeling of constantly being exposed to danger, or reassure her that there is still something good in this world? I have no answers. My neighbours have no answers. The Belgian government has no answer. World leaders don’t have the answer. At this moment, nobody has the answer on how to stop this violence. Terrorists are multiplying like gremlins after a rain and have shown to an audience the world over a never-ending horror movie. Despite of our anger, our sadness, our false bravado, we tremble as we witness bloodshed on our streets, in our subways, in our concert halls, in our airports.

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(liberation.fr)

Indeed, we are at war. And the enemy is beside us. They are like moss in my garden, stifling the very little grass that would have made it green and pretty. They are watching us, judging us, feeding us, through their acts, the values they try to perpetuate: hate, fear, violence, intolerance, fanaticism, anger. They take advantage of our inattention, of moments when we let go of our defenses.

And just when we thought there is respite, we take a deep breath only for their human bombs to make it our last.

What can I do? I don’t know about tomorrow but today, I spent hours and hours in the kitchen. I grated lemon for almond madeleines, rolled oatmeal and soaked raisins for cookies, pressed oranges for a polenta cake, chopped carrots and zucchinis for a large quiche, diced tomatoes and cucumbers for a lentilles salad, and prepared a full Indian dinner of cardamom rice, curried chickpeas and potatoes, and chicken tikka massala.

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At dinnertime, I counted my blessings: roof over my head, my loved ones around the table, food on our plates. With such bounty, my thoughts strayed to those who were stranded and didn’t have a room to stay, whose loved ones have yet to be identified in some hospital morgue, and those whose nourishment in their now shattered lives will be our compassion, sympathy and solidarity. I vow to make that my duty. Perhaps…that is the answer.

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I started kneading the bread dough, drowning my sorrow in each movement. They say that your mood and feelings go into whatever you’re cooking. I’m not worried. The room is warm. My dough will rise….long before Easter.