When a waffle is not a waffle

 

Jpeg

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.

Jpeg

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.

Jpeg

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.”

Meert2

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.

Meert4

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

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

A blueberry pie at Hobart’s oldest bakery

hobart3It’s the oldest bakery in Hobart, located on a quiet street on top of a hill called Battery Point, a quaint neighbourhood of timber and stone cottages, decorated with wrought iron works, bay windows with stained glass, cute porches, and frontyards teeming with thick rose bushes and robust lavender shrubs. There is nothing sensational to see here, except the Arthur’s circular street of historical, single frontage cottages dating back to the first settlement, the Narryna Heritage museum, and an English-inspired neighbourhood that makes you dream of your retirement home. But yes, there is one address that you must go to, the iconic Jackman and McRoss Bakery.hobart20Jackman and McRoss, bakers of fine breads, cakes and pastries, coming out fresh everyday from the ovens onsite, is a Hobart institution. Some visitors even went as far as referring to this bakery as “the shrine to the old school bakeries” of the past.

My pretty niece Meggy and I woke up early that day, wolfed down a quick breakfast of croissants from a so-so bakery on Elizabeth Street, walked along the waterfront, crossed the Salamanca Place and climbed the Kelly’s steps hidden between two sandstone blocks. On this alley, we saw a violin maker, busy adjusting strings so early in the morning in his tiny atelier.hobart6We were breathless and cold as we reached the plateau of this elevated part of the capital, where battery guns were set up in 1818 to defend the island but is now regarded as a prestigious suburb with historical houses and a privileged sheltered, anti-modernisation lifestyle. That’s the general feel of the island of Tasmania – laid back, slow food, wild nature, gentle folk. And Hobart is lovely, lazy and lingering. In the summer of 2016 when my entire family had to come for a sibling’s wedding in Sydney, Meggy and I decided a sidetrip  in Tasmania, an island south of Australia, where mild summer temperatures and ideal chill requirements are conducive to blueberry growing.hobart12We took a stroll along the sloping, winding streets of Battery Point,  admiring the St. George anglican church, drawing the architectural prototypes of seafarers’cottages in our heads, taking the breathtaking views of Mount Wellington and the Derwent River, and finally, giving in to hunger spells that made us find back our route to Jackman and McRoss.hobart24

It was time for a mid-morning snack. I ordered a blueberry tart, with blueberries looking as if they were harvested that morning, sitting on a cushion of whipped cream, and cradled on a chocolate-lined shortbread crust. Meggy ordered an eclair, which looked like a sandwich of puff pastry and fresh cream, so different from the French version of a pastry cream filling.hobart13On display, the choice was huge: all types of bread, fruit tarts, meat pies and pasties, quiches and sandwiches, and shiny and crusty viennoisserie. And just beside the door, a shelf was filled with Tassie fine food products, jams, honey and tea.

We took a table at the back, near  a huge window and far from the busy take-away counter, sorry to be too early for lunch and sorrier still that we ate those passable croissants for breakfast. The house was full, tourists and neighbours taking a lazy brunch on a weekend. We were full of envy but resisted as we had a full itinerary ahead and a ferry to catch that will take us to MONA, the extraordinary Museum of Old and New Art, owned by David Walsh, a math wizard who made his fortune by mastering the numbers and probabilities while gambling in the casino. It took over four years to blast the innards of the rocky hills of Berriedale, once owned by Italian immigrants and was acquired by a genius of modest background.hobart7The special ferry, with a black lounge interior, departs from Brooke St. Pier for a 30-minute ride to bring you to the foot of the hills. Then, it’s a 99 step climb to reach the grounds that is home to a concert park, a tennis court, a microbrewery, the Moorilla vineyard, a five-star restaurant, a cinema, a cafe, a library of 5000 books, and a humongous underground exhibition site that is a maze of a metal, spiral staircase, a dark tunnel, hanging walkways, and rolling pathways.  Walsh has an extensive private collection, with preference for provocative art. hobart18To cap our afternoon, we went up to the bar for a wine tasting which included more than a few gulps of the “White Cloth,” a 110 AUD bottle from carefully selected white grapes and served by a charming bartender of toyboy material. As we were his last customers, he emptied the bottles and charged us half. I guessed, he fell for Meggy’s charm, which got me excited and suited me fine as I didn’t have to pay for the wine. And though my quinquagenarian beauty had been ignored, I was happy to have a reeling head from free Moorilla wines and a fatter purse for more blueberry pies.

Jackman & McRoss
57 Hampden Road
Battery Point, Tasmania

AUSTRALIA

 

 

 

 

 

Confessions over a pot of Hermes tea

Florian8

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.

Florian7

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.

Jpeg

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.

Florian6

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

 

 

 

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.

Cook and Book3 copy

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.

Cook and Book

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.

cook and book4

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.