Autumn here in Belgium begins overnight. After the short interlude of an Indian summer, you wake up to an overcast, gray day and feel that the clouds are only a few inches above your head. The roses might still be in full bloom, the daytime temperature is still comfortable, but you already know that the rainy season is here. It’s telling that in the old Bruxellois dialect, there are numerous words for rain. It can be a delicate mist that looks innocuous but soaks you to the bone within minutes. It can be a lashing, cold rain that makes umbrellas obsolete, or it might just be a nagging drizzle that makes me feel sad for no particular reason and ponder the wisdom of bears that go into hibernation for the winter.
Since the winter here is nine months long, hibernation isn’t really an option. I’ve learned to do all of my chores on foot and shop at the open air markets which are run year round in each neighborhood, rain or shine. Brussels is made up of 19 communes, and if you love markets, you can explore different areas of the city based on your specific shopping needs. On Saturday, you can pour over the antique books at the market held at the Place du Sablon. On Sunday, you can buy spices and vegetables at the sprawling le Marché du Midi or walk along Rue de Brabant and feel as if you’re in Morocco. While les grandes surfaces (supermarkets) offer stiff competition, the vibrancy of the open air markets even on the dreariest of days is appealing.
My favorite market is held on Fridays in the Schaerbeek commune of Brussels. At one point, Schaerbeek used to be an elegant area, and while today it’s on the shabby side, the beautiful Art Nouveau buildings with their time worn patina give it a special air. The Place des Chasseurs Ardennais market sells all types of foods, and I love the fact that in contrast to most other food markets, it is open in the afternoon–perfect for us, working folks. It’s also a great place for people watching, and after a while you notice the same faces and begin to know their shopping preferences. My biggest social breakthrough in Belgium came when a lady named Mathilde who walks her cat on a leash came up to me as I was buying fish and asked me how I was going to cook it.
This past week everyone was buying the late season peaches, and I couldn’t resist them either. A perfect peach needs no embellishment, but it can add an interesting note to other dishes. One of my favorite combinations is peaches with pork: peach slices wrapped with bacon and grilled, peaches layered with prosciutto, and even peaches with cured Italian ham or braised with a pork loin. The musky sweetness of peach against the tender braised meat perfumed with garlic and thyme is addictive. Now I’m going to turn a bit geeky–the reason this pairing is so successful has to do with lactones, the compounds present in both pork and peaches that have a milky, creamy flavor. Such natural complementarities ensure a smooth and harmonious flavor in the finished dish. Those same lactones are the reason why Guerlain Mitsouko feels like a velvet wrap on your skin and why Rochas Femme has a sultry, languid aura.
Sultry is a good way to describe the pork and peach dish that I make while peaches are in season. I add thyme for a bright, herbal accent and star anise to accentuate the sweetness of peaches. It is a dish that looks glamorous, but it doesn’t take much effort to prepare. Just coat the pork with the herbal rub–this can be done the night before, let it marinate and then brown it lightly. Combine the sauce ingredients and braise in the oven. While it cooks, you make the peach garnish, toss a salad and set the table. Make enough to last for a couple of days and enjoy the fragrant pork cold inside a baguette slathered with mustard. The flavors are vibrant enough to make this braised pork appropriate for the summer, and with a side dish of mashed potatoes or braised cabbage, it becomes hearty enough for colder days.
Wine and Thyme Braised Pork Loin with Peaches
This late summer-early fall dish can be made with other fruit. Plums, pears, apples and quince work especially well. If you’re using harder fruit like pears or quinces, be sure to increase the cooking time in the final stage. Apples and pears would need about 10-20 minutes of cooking, while if you’re using quince, I recommend adding it with the pork to braise in oven.
My mom sometimes makes this dish with turkey breast, treating it the same way. If you’re following her suit, leave the breast whole and simply reduce the braising time accordingly.
2-3 lbs boneless pork loin
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme (or 1/4 teaspoon dry)
2 Tablespoons olive oil
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, smashed
1 bay leaf
1 star anise
2 branches of fresh thyme (or 1/2 teaspoon dry)
salt, black pepper, as needed
1.5 cups wine (white or rosé)
3 large peaches, peeled, thickly sliced and drizzled with lemon juice to prevent browning
1 Tablespoon unsalted butter
1 Tablespoon of honey
Combine the ingredients for the dry rub in a bowl. Wash the pork loin, trim off the excess fat and rub it with a salt mixture. Cover and refrigerate for 2 to 24 hours.
Preheat oven to 350°F. Pat pork dry with a piece of paper towel. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a heavy, oven-proof casserole over high heat. Add pork; lightly brown it on all sides, about 10 minutes. Transfer to plate.
Reduce heat to medium and add onions (if the pan is dry, add one more spoonful of oil). Sauté until translucent and barely golden, about 10 minutes. Add garlic, bay leaf, star anise and thyme. Add pork with all of its juices, wine and bring to simmer. Transfer into the oven and bake until tender, 45 minutes-1 hour. Check from time to time to baste pork with the braising sauce. If the sauce evaporates too quickly, add 1/4-1/2 cup of water. Once the juices run clear, the meat is ready.
When pork is almost ready, melt butter in a medium frying pan and add peach slices. Cook for 5 minutes, or till they start to color and turn them gently with a fork. Cook the other side 5 more minutes, drizzle peaches with honey and sprinkle with a pinch of salt. Remove from the heat.
Transfer pork to platter, cover with foil and let stand 15 minutes. If the sauce in the casserole looks thin, bring it to boil over medium heat and let it simmer till it starts to coat a wooden spoon. Season with salt and pepper and add braised fruit to the sauce.
Slice pork thickly and serve with sauce and peaches.
Store the leftovers covered with the sauce. The pork can be enjoyed cold or reheated for 10 minutes over low flame.
Photography by Bois de Jasmin