Ah, food. A facet of human existence, the fuel that keeps us going, the substance of pure creation. Yeah, I might be a little more enthusiastic about it than most people. I believe that the easiest way to connect with a place’s culture is to sample its food. And that’s exactly what I did on a trip to Northern Europe last summer.
My mom and I found ourselves having a half day in Bruges, Belgium, a small town that rivals Amsterdam for its canals and quirky buildings. But Bruges, perhaps, is less famous and therefore, less crowded. The narrow cobblestone streets wind past orange-roofed brick buildings, open squares, secluded parks and fountains, and over picturesque canals swimming with swans. No, I did not just describe a fictional town out of Grimms’ Fairy Tales– this place is as real as it gets.
But Bruges’ heart is not history or romance or architecture- it’s something edible. Many things, actually. And while there I sampled three local staples.
We came to Bruges for the chocolate. So we began to hop around to various chocolate shops along the pathways and eventually settled at The Chocolate Lady, on a quiet lane down the street from the town’s main square. Mostly because the folks there gave us free samples. And so we were taken on a tour of Belgian chocolate brands, our taste buds tantalized by every bar, truffle, and box. After tasting a bar infused with the fragrance of rose, I exclaimed, “This is so much better than Hershey’s!” to which the shopkeeper jokingly replied, “Don’t even mention that name in this store.”
But we couldn’t just fill up on chocolate- we needed to stock up on other junk food. So by recommendation of The Chocolate Lady’s manager we walked down the street to get some Belgian fries. But the manager did warn us, “They have good fries, but the man who makes them is not very nice.” And she was right- upon entering the fry shop the man working the counter barked that he’d be with us in a minute. When it was our turn to order, he asked, “Take out or sit down.” We replied with the latter, but he said, “No sit- sitting area closed.” And so our nutella waffle and order of fries were ordered as take out items. But the unpleasant service and atmosphere of the fry shop was worth it the second I took a bite of the waffle. The sweet, rich, nutty nutella was beginning to melt onto the warm, soft Belgian waffle. But the euphoria did not stop there- a bite of a hot Belgian fry dripping with mayonnaise (yes- they do it all over Europe) added to the perfect midday snack. A french fry is a french fry is a french fry? Not so. Ditto for the waffles and the chocolate. For some reason, it all tasted different here.
To burn off at least some of the fat and sugar we turned around and continued up the same street, passing more chocolatiers, boutiques, and souvenir shops. More side paths joined the pedestrian street until eventually we ended up in a grand square. And we found the tourists- stopping into bigger, more high-end stores to buy their chocolate mementos. My mom and I agreed not to eat any more sweets- we’d had our fill for the day and were bringing a big haul of chocolates back across the pond. Of course, in a city full of temptation, virtue doesn’t last long.
It began to rain as we were walking back toward the train station and we searched for a place to take shelter. A sign caught my eye, something to the effect of, “The Greatest Hot Chocolate You Will Ever Have In The World Ever,” and I directed us into the tiny shop. Well of course, my mom and I agreed, we have to try this! The 8 ounce cup of steaming liquid chocolate cost upwards of six dollars, but when the ambrosia trickled onto my taste buds I thought it would’ve been worth double. An incredibly thick, smooth, sweet concoction, the hot chocolate really was the greatest I will ever have in the world ever. Points for accurate advertising.
A half day was not nearly enough to get a taste of Bruges, but I am fairly confident that if given a whole day I would have ended up in the hospital. Nevertheless, I am eager to return and sample more of Bruges’ distinct flavor. Who cares if they don’t have anything healthy.