Do you know what the most expensive vegetable in the world is? Go on, take a guess.
It should come as no surprise, given today's post, when I tell you that this super luxury veggie comes from none other than Belgium. The fact of the matter is that most Belgians have never tasted this vegetable that some call "the caviar of Belgium".
A few years ago, I accompanied Josée, as Richard Thatcher was wont to with Margaret, on some Chaîne des Rôtisseurs business in Belgium. Our very keen host in Brussels treated us to lunch at L'Écailler du Palais Royal, a top Michelin restaurant owned by a friend of his. As we were making our food selections, the proprieter approached our table and announced with great pride that we were in for a rare and unique treat. Turns out we just happened to be in Belgium during the extremely short season (end of March - begining of April) for jets de houblon or hop sprouts, the aformentioned delicacy. You heard correctly. Young shoots of the common hop, Humulus lupulus, the very ingredient that imparts the bitter, tangy flavor to beer, are frustratingly seasonal, backbreaking to cultivate and havest, exceedingly rare and absolutely delicious. For these reasons, these little shoots that look like mini asparagus can fetch prices as high as high as 1,000 euro/kg!
We had them poached in cream, butter and white wine and topped with a runny egg - the classic preparation. Absolutely sublime! Do ask for them if you are ever in Brussels during the season.
Oh, and just one more thing. That evening, we were guests at another Michelin restaurant (...we train for this stuff) when, wouldn't you know it, the chef comes out and announces with great pride that we were in for a rare and unique treat... You know what? Turns out that most of the Belgians at the table, gastronomes all, had never tasted jets de houblon. We kept it to ourselves that it would be our second tasting of them in less than 12 hours.
Although Belgian cuisine reflects the various political and cultural forces that have shaped it over the years, there are a number of dishes that are typical and here is a short list: Witloof met kaassaus/Chicons au gratin, a traditional gratin of chicory with ham and a cheesy bechamel sauce; Stoemp, mashed potatoes and carrots with bacon and sausages; Kip met frieten en appelmoes, chicken, French fries and apple sauce; Konijn met pruimen, rabbit cooked in beer and dried plums; Waterzooi, a rich stew/soup of chicken (or sometimes fish), vegetables, cream and eggs. And let's not forget chocolate and beer.
For her Belgian meal, though, Josée opted for these favorites:
Mussels in White Wine
Moules frites is arguably the best known Belgian dish. Josée and I have been eating them at L'Actuel, our favorite Belgian restaurant in Montreal for nearly 30 years. Mussels are not sold to retail customers in Bermuda...unless you have the right connections. Tonight, Josée has prepared mussels à la sauce poulette: fresh mussels cooked in white wine, shallots, parsley, butter, flour and cream. The French fries on the side are a must; I like them lightly salted but if you are Belgian, go ahead and help yourself to the mayonaise.
Beer is the perfect beverage for moules frites so we treated ourselves a large bottle of Chimay Pères Trappistes Belgian ale.
The last sin of the evening...well, maybe no the very last, was Belgian waffles with strawberry syrup and home made ice cream.