belgium journal: 18 posts

Belgian Lavender

The Belgian province of Limburg is an expanse of green fields punctuated by neat red brick towns. Although Brussels is a much more laid-back and calm city in comparison to London, Paris or Berlin, as I stroll through the woods near Hasselt, Limburg’s capital, I feel as if I just left a bustling metropolis. It’s all serenity, stone church spires and the soft rustle of leaves in the trees lining the river. And the rich perfume of lavender.

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Although lavender is usually associated with Provence, there is a 4 hectare farm near Herkenrode in Limburg, and it’s open for the summer. “Yes, we have lavender in bloom, and it’s a genuine variety, not lavandin,” I was told by a lady at the nursery. “Please visit before we harvest it.” The following weekend my husband and I drove one hour to Limburg to see the lavender fields of Belgium.

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Bluebell Forest of The Hallerbos

In Japan, there is a practice of shinrin-yoku or forest-bathing, which is a leisurely walk in the forest to reduce stress and improve one’s well-being. It’s like aromatherapy, but instead of inhaling a blended oil, you inhale the natural scents of the forest. But what if you forest-bathed surrounded by millions of bluebells? It’s something that you can experience every spring as the wild hyacinth bluebells turn the Hallerbos, a forest in the municipality of Halle, 30 minutes south of Brussels, into a blue colored, intensely perfumed fantasy.

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Bluebells have a delicate scent of green leaves, cloves and lemony roses, but when all of the flowers burst into bloom, the fragrance in the air is rich and heady. Imagine the fragrance of hyacinths at your local florist, dilute it with green tea and rainwater, add a dash of autumnal leaves, and you have the perfume of the Bluebell Forest.

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What Souvenirs to Bring Back from Belgium

I will be the first person to admit to my embarrassingly meager knowledge of Belgium before I moved here. On the other hand, maybe I shouldn’t feel so bad. The Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme didn’t even know the Belgian national anthem and once memorably burst into La Marseillaise instead of La Brabançonne. But the more time I spend here, the more layers I discover to this tiny but complex country. It features three official languages (Dutch, French and German), has more cheese varieties than France, the world’s best beer (according to the international beer pundits) and the world’s best chocolate (according to me). The two latter points make up for the fiendishly convoluted bureaucratic system, lots of rain and plethora of EU officials.

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There are many more reasons to visit Belgium than beer and chocolate. You have the Gothic treasures of Gent, edgy fashion of Antwerp, fairy tale ambiance of Bruges, quirky charm of Dinant, and surrealism of Brussels. The Flemish and Wallonian lands are so distinct culturally that a trip from Knokke to Namur will feel like a visit to two different countries. But while the politics often overemphasizes the rift, the truth is that north or south, Flemish or French speaking, Belgians know how to kick back and enjoy their glass of wine or beer. The best souvenir you will bring back is the memories of tucking into moules-frites after walking through the same rain streaked streets that inspired painter Rene Magritte.

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Belgian Gingerbread Treasure : Speculoos (Speculaas)

It’s called spéculoos in French, speculaas in Dutch, and Spekulatius in German, but by whatever name you call this fragrant gingerbread cookie, it will always evoke the scent of holidays in this part of the world. Speculoos may look humble, but take one bite, and you will know why it’s a favorite among Belgians. Perfumed with cinnamon, clove and cardamom, the cookie tastes of butter and caramel, and it’s impossible to have just one.

For me, speculoos is one of the quintessential Belgian tastes. Of course, there are also fries and waffles, but speculoos have their place of honor in this small country of 10 million, bridging the cultural divide between Dutch-speaking Flanders in the North and Francophone Wallonia in the South. Speculoos are eaten all over the Benelux region, with some areas such as Hasselt specializing in their own unique versions. Traditionally, the cookies were baked to celebrate Saint Nicholas Day on December 5th in the Netherlands and December 6th in Belgium, but today you can find them at bakeries all year round. In Paris you will be served your expresso with a square of dark chocolate, but your lait russe (café au lait) in Brussels will arrive with speculoos on the side.

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Autumn in Brussels : Pork Loin with Peaches and Thyme

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.

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