When a waffle is not a waffle

 

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Dainty. Tempting. That’s how I would best describe it.

My daughter Simone and I stood infront of the window of the Méert Pastry and Confectionary Shop in Brussels, fascinated like five-year olds, eyes unwavering at the attractive display of sweets: vanilla waffles, pink and violet marshmallows, dark chocolates, bright coloured macarons, jewel-toned fruit chews (pâte de fruits), biscuits in a tin, nougats and caramels, candied roses and French pastries in individual domes. Our mouths watered, our resistance crumbled. We were hooked.

We walked in and found ourselves in another era, for once you step into Méert’s, it brings you back in time when old world elegance and sophistication reign, the Belle Epoque, when ladies in long gowns and feathered hats, spent their precious time in détente and good company. The place is fancy, not in a pompous way but you stay rooted where you are, fleetingly forgeting what you initially came for, and instead taking in the handpainted walls and ceiling, the mirrored alcoves, brass and gold in the counters, period lamps and the trompe d’oeil, decorative motifs that are meant to “fool the eye.” And yet, we were just getting a sampling of Meert’s signature ostentatious interior architecture, a sober version of the opulent main house at rue Esquermoise in the old part of Lille in northern France.

Flemish artist and art historian Angèle Boddaert was commissioned for the Brussels shop, drawing inspirations from the masters; architect Charles Benvignat, scultpor Théodore Huidiez and painter Charles Stalars, who altogether in 1839 made the Lillois shop a neo-byzantine palace.

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Méert’s pastry shop in Brussels is a sort of a homecoming “to embrace its Belgian origins.” After all, the man who took over the shop 157 years ago and brought the house to fame is a  Belgian from Antwerp, Michael Paulus Gislinus Méert. His sojourn in the colonies, where cocoa, sugar cane, coffee and vanilla were grown, would enriched his sweet concoctions and would spawn the famous thin waffles, filled with buttercream and vanilla. The fabulous waffles, the star product, will make Méert’s shop the most popular paradise for the sweet tooth, bringing into the shelves, onto trays and carts a large assortment of cakes, candies, chocolate and ice cream, attesting to the shop’s culinary 17th century inheritance from previous owners, chocolatier and confiseur Sir Delcourt and the ice cream chef, Modo de Rollez.

As for the Belgian store, what better place to open it than in the Galerie de Roi (the King’s  Gallery) at the Royale Galerie St. Hubert in downtown Brussels, a glass-covered passage and shopping mall built in the 1800s that now houses Belgian luxury brands and chocolate legends like Mary’s, Marcolini, Godiva, and Neuhaus, neighbours that do not seem to rattle an “outsider” whose chocolates are equally good but is set apart with its strange flat waffles, brazenly selling its own version in a country synonymous with waffles.

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But I digress. We came here to satisfy cravings. Once in, you are bound to stay. Behind the store is a tea salon with walls painted in shades of plum, cream and sage; oval windows overlooking the shop, velvet chairs and marble tables the size of a handkerchief. Again, this is a mini-version of Lille’s “Family Tea Lounge.”

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Méert’s waffle is not a waffle by Belgian definition. Compared to the Brussels waffle, rectangle, light and powdered with sugar or to the waffle of Liege (a city east of Belgium), heavy with sugar pearls, both big in size, Méert’s oval, thin, flat and filled waffle is considered a gaufrette. My favourite is Epheméert’s pistachio and cherry, sweet and sour at each bite with the pistachio paste coming in full flavour. You can also get them filled with violets, strawberry, or speculoos. The classic one with buttercream and vanilla from Madagascar is too sweet to my liking and might call for a cup of Lapsang Souchong Crocodile tea, a smoky  brew from the Formosa Islands, to even out the sweetness.

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We were in good company, my daughter and I, so we languidly took our tea, Simone having chosen “Paul and Virginie,” a blend of Ceylan and Chinese tea with caramel, cherries, strawberry, raspberry and vanilla. Then, we ordered an egg tart and two house creations:  a pastry with a frangipane base,  fresh raspberries, a macaron, and pistachio cream; and a creamy chocolate and raspberry mousse on an almond biscuit base and decorated with a chocolate rose sprayed in red.

Gaufrettes and cakes, two silver tea pots, a porcelain jug of hot water, chocolates courtesy of the house, notebooks, phones, pens, cups and saucers, camera, silverware…these didn’t quite fit in our miniature table, so we ended up occupying the two other nearby tables, which unfortunately were tiny, too, and didn’t leave us any extra space to order the classic French pastries, delivered everyday from the atelier in Lille; the  Religieuse, puff pastry with caramel cream pastry, the Mont Blanc, mascarpone cream with chestnuts and meringue; or the Baba au Rhum, golden raisins soaked in rhum 54%, vanilla cream and whipped mascarpone.

We have made quite a mess in this dainty tea shop and totally ignored the silent dress code, coming in dusty workclothes I wore to work in the ongoing renovations of a future ice cream parlour. Fortunately, it was quiet that day. We definitely did not look like we were part of bourgeoisie but nevertheless, were accorded a warm and efficient welcome, most likely, in the same but less rigid manner they opened the doors the day General Charles de Gaulle walked in to buy French waffles invented by Belgian.

 

Méert
7 Galeries du Roi
1000 Bruxelles

 

 

 

 

 

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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.