It is an oft-stated fact in gastronomic circles that Brussels has more Michelin stars per head than Paris; an assertion difficult to sustain without arguments about metropolitan boundaries, but, if true, it perhaps relates to the generosity of Eurocrats’ expense accounts.
Try to name three famous Belgian dishes, however, and you might struggle. There is waterzooi, a freshwater fish stew, and carbonnades Flamandes, beef cooked in beer, and there are frîtes, allegedly at their best when deep-fried in horse fat and served with mayonnaise.
There is no doubt, though, that Belgians love to eat. A recent trip to the Flanders coast, a conveniently short drive from Calais, confirmed this: bars and restaurants abound. Vines are thin on the ground this far north but even committed oenophiles will be impressed by the variety of beers available: easy-drinking amber and blonde ales, slightly acidic but very palatable red ones, potent tripel, sour cherry-flavoured kriek, tangy and complex gueuze… the list goes on.
At Den Toogoloog, in Middelkerke, the bierkaart extends to 150 or so craft ales, served in a pretty little bar by friendly and knowledgeable hosts. Plates of good local cheeses and charcuterie make suitable blotting paper for the astonishing collection of bottles, some many years old – a discerning Belgian ploughman could do no better for lunch.
A few miles west along the sandy coast, in De Panne, is Hostellerie Le Fox, a Michelin two-star restaurant-with-rooms that is worth a journey from London on its own. Chef-patron Stéphane Buyens oversees a dining room (and a 600-bin wine list) perfectly balanced between comfort and creativity.
A woody, brick-arched space is the setting for some memorable food. Precision and technique are there in abundance, but above all Buyens cooks the kind of food that I love to eat: a loose tapenade of black olives and anchovies to start, then oyster with sea buckthorn and a herb purée, followed by a little dish of brown shrimps (crevettes grises, a local speciality) with a sinfully rich cauliflower cream – Belgians regard the British habit of potting shrimps in spiced butter with something between amusement and horror.
Local seafood starred again in my next course: a big, fat, sweet langoustine sliced lengthways and perched on thinly sliced cod, cockles, winkles and some nutty quinoa. A pale pink sauce, perfumed with iodine-rich sea urchin, raised the dish from the excellent to the sublime.
A stolen forkful from a meaty chunk of John Dory with girolles and a piquant red-wine sauce only confirmed what I already knew: this is seafood of which chefs on the Riviera can only dream. One day, perhaps, this North Sea coast will become as cool as its deep, clean waters.