My family has always traveled on its stomach. So it was no surprise that when in March 2015 I took my granddaughter, Branching editor Naomi, to revisit my Belgian roots, we would eat well.
Our culinary exploits started well. After an overnight flight from New York, our rooms at the Sandton Pillows Hotel in Brussels were not ready. Faute de mieux, as they say in French, we searched for breakfast at the nearby Grand Place. The medieval square had lost none of its majesty. Ornate and gilded guildhalls, the city hall and the Maison du Roi ringed the smallish Sunday flower market.
We found a likely café, whose log fire and delicious food warmed our hearts and lined our stomachs. Our omelets were flawless and reminded me of the perfection of ordinary Belgian food. Our croissant was crisp, as was the crust of the apple tart. I savored the latter’s lemon-flavored glaze.
The café itself unleashed Proustian memories. I might even have eaten here, 70 years earlier, during one of the eatery’s previous incarnations. In 1945 my cousin Jerry, a member of the victorious U.S. army, took me to the Grand Place for a luxurious black-market feast of steak and French fries. To my great embarrassment Jerry argued with the proprietor about his exorbitant bill, which they settled after a colorful argument. The owner apparently was not perturbed by the dispute since he gave me a huge wink as we left, suggesting, I suppose, that the next time I picked up an American soldier I should again bring him to his establishment.
Unbeknownst to me, Naomi had decided to explore Belgian beer and went about it in her usual thorough manner. That evening she and her iPhone found us the Nuetnigough brasserie, which served a great variety of brews. She had the first of her ten unusual beers, and a fabulous steak. I savored carbonade à la flamande, a Belgian national dish consisting of equal parts of beef and onions stewed in beer. I concluded that my homemade version is creditable.
The next evening we dined at Comme Chez Soi, peacefully glistening under its two Michelin stars. Georges Cuvelier founded it in 1926 to escape his coal mining future in the Belgian Borinage, whose bleak landscape and inhabitants van Gogh immortalized during the 1880s. Georges’ son-in-law put the restaurant on the culinary map and subsequent family members maintained the standard.
“I’ve never been in a place like this,” Naomi gasped after we entered the flawless elegance of the Art-Nouveau dining room. I loved the stained glass windows, shimmering silver, starched tablecloth, mirrors and the huge bouquet of flowers standing in front of the window. We ordered the prix fixe menu. On the menu the description of each of our four courses—veal flavored with tarragon, cobia flavored with fennel, lamb flavored with juniper berries, and caramel-milk chocolate dessert—took up three lines. There is no chance that I could duplicate in writing any of these haute cuisine creations or their intricate sauces and accompaniments.
We experienced other culinary delights. A perfect vol-au-vent (pastry-shell) filled with a veal ragout, the classic Belgian dish of moules-frites, a marzipan-wrapped pastry potato stuffed with a delectable cream, paté de campagne, countless chocolate truffles, scallops grilled to perfection, and a ton of double-fried French fries. I missed out on boudin-noir, one of my Belgian favorites. Naomi got her beer. In Bruges, near where it is brewed at a cloister, she found the one rated “the world’s best.” Even there it is rare, but she managed to find five bottles, which we took home. They arrived unbroken at Kennedy Airport.
In 1944, while hiding from the Nazis, I was helping a Madame Grosfils care for her four small children. The family lived in a spectacular Bauhaus-type home on Brussels’ upscale Avenue de Tervuren. At the Grosfils, I was as happy as I could be at the time. I loved the children; compared to previous ones, my job was easy; the Grosfils were nice, and most of all it was clear that the Allies were winning World War II and that I had survived.
A few years ago Yves Mattagne, a leading Brussels restaurateur, turned the landmarked mansion into Yume, an Asian fusion restaurant. I invited Jean-Pierre—the now-75-year-old “little boy” I had cared for in that very same house—and his wife to dine with us. From the outside the Grosfils abode is unchanged, and so is the entrance hall with its sweeping staircase and the door to the living room, now the main dining room, where each evening my boss would invite me to listen to the clandestine BBC.
The rest of the house is much different. We dined in the former playroom. The sweetbreads with Hollandaise that I ordered and the sushi were excellent. However, the excitement about good food was dwarfed by my emotions of being there with my granddaughter and my friends. Was it really me who lived here wearing a white governess’s uniform, worrying about small, everyday pleasures and slights?
Am I grateful enough to have escaped the flames of the Holocaust? Do I appreciate that life has fulfilled many of its promises?
Life never lets you get too comfortable. The afternoon before the dinner at Yume, my wallet had been stolen as I boarded one of my hometown’s trusty buses. I had not been careful enough and had trusted the safety of the city that had preserved my life. My pickpocket did well. He got $300 as well as my credit and bankcards! Somehow the incident did not mar my pleasure at the trip, but the words of an old English folk song, popularized by Pete Seeger and Joan Baez, floated in my mind:
How can there be a cherry that has no stone,
How can there be a chicken that has no bone,
How can there be a baby with no crying,
How can you tell a story that has no end?