Eating Ypres and A Night At Old Tom’s

A cheeky Leffe Ruby with a view on the Menin Gate.

A cheeky Leffe Ruby with a view on the Menin Gate.

Anyone remember that old TV advert for trying new things that you previously thought were rubbish that you might actually like and one of the things they suggested was Belgium, depicted by a lone cow in a flat field giving a long and forlorn moo? No?
Well anyway I’ve been to Belgium a couple of times, visiting Brugge some years ago and Ypres just a week ago. There’s more than you think going on in Belgium, especially if you like good food and beer (and if you don’t you may well be in the wrong place). It is still pretty flat though, with quite a few cows.

The main cause of my second visit to Belgium was a late addition to my father’s 60th birthday celebrations to visit The Menin Gate and take a WWI Battlefield Tour. I wont go into this too much, but I would thoroughly recommend such trips to anyone with an interest in history, the military or frankly anyone who thinks that modern life is rubbish because you may need some of the perspective on this that the various memorials and museums in the Western Front areas of Belgium provide. And what better time to visit than on the brink of the 100 year memorial of the start of WWI, coming your way in just a few months in 2014? No, it’s not a knees up kind of celebration thing but when you are finished paying respects and improving your modern history knowledge there’s plenty of beer and good times to be had also.

So, Ypres or Ieper depending on your mother tongue; a little over an hour’s drive from either Brussels or Lille; a compact, well kept and gothic looking town that is in its entirety less than 95 years old due to being completely annihilated in the first world war. It was reconstructed faithfully when hostilities ceased and has an ordered and serious feel to it. The main market square is lined with many a chocolatier and eatery and drinkery and bakery. Brasseries, bakers and pubs, oh my! If I was considerably richer in time and money I could happily spend a lot of time eating in Ypres.

Caaaaaake in one of many impressive bakeries.

Caaaaaake in one of many impressive bakeries.

You will find the usual continental suspects if you want to eat at home- cheese shops and high end delis with some heart stopping patés on offer and the kind of airy, theatrical bakery that we would call artisan at home is standard issue. Try the Paris Bakery on the corner of the main square opposite the cloth hall for fruit bread loaves bigger than your head. As expected several chocolatiers are to be found in town and one rather majestic waffle shop which I very sadly only managed to inhale calories from on the way past. Stupid two day trip.

I’m not going to list all the shops, that would get dull quickly, I will just say that there is a plenty and said plenty is high quality too- though you may expect that quality as it’s not a comparatively cheap place to do anything. Not so fun Belgium fact- it has one of the highest tax rates going in the EU. Travelling Brits should expect to cough up a pretty penny for all consumables, but you can get your beer by the litre and Belgium is home to 800+ domestic brews so save some euros for the barman. It is also worth noting that a double mokka is nothing like the mocha you are used to from Pret or Costa or your preferred high st coffee agent.

20131010_192710From our flying visit, I can recommend two brasseries in Ypres if you find yourself there: De Founderie and Old Tom’s. I can’t really do justice to De Founderie without pictures of their fantastic and beautifully presented food, you need to go there to believe it but the best summary I can give is taken directly from Richard Holmes’ summary of all eating in Ypres as “a good dinner- French quality and German portions.”* I was thrilled by the presentation, comforted by the non invasive but friendly service and yummed out by some fabulous fish, so much so that I couldn’t manage a dessert. I know. Me turning down afters. So at 50-60 euros a head if you’re full on with wine (and why wouldn’t you be?) give De Founderie a go. I particularly recommend the ray special which was an enormous skate wing, perfectly cooked and simply served with some spuds and plenty of butter. Dad said good things about the steak too, and he tends to know about these things.

 

Old Tom’s is in the main market square adjacent to the Cloth Hall (which you really can’t miss) in a bank of restaurants and came recommended to us by Benoit who’s lodgings we were renting for our stay. You should find it fairly easily and it’s a short walk from the Menin Gate or the city walls. It’s very traditional and a little bit 70’s inside, but in a charming way. The staff are spectacularly friendly and tirelessly cheerful even when one bunch of bloody English tourists are rather obviously keeping them at work later than they would usually have to hang around. They have an impressive fish menu and boast eel as their house speciality though none of us ventured to try this as it would likely have meant sitting at a table separate from father who is not a fan to say the least. Starters sampled were some very fresh oysters for the boys and shrimp croquettes for the girls. The oysters were served plain but very fresh with only a lemon wedge for dressing. All were consumed without complaint. The croquettes were fantastic- crunchy on the outside with a hot, smooth filling rich with fresh prawns and plenty of pepper. Don’t be fooled by memories of grim oven cooked school dinner croquettes, these are really worth a go.

Mussels n Frites, a must-do Belgian dinner, with an old favourite french white. Perfect.

Mussels n Frites, a must-do Belgian dinner, with an old favourite french white. Perfect.

It  would have been rude to be in Belgium and not have a traditional mussels n frites supper, so we all went for variations on this theme. There were several sorts on offer- all huge pots of freshly cooked shell on mussels poached in cream or white wine or a curious sounding mix of white Belgian beer and curry. My brother had the curry mussels (on top of raw oysters, the man has guts of steel) and reported that they were quite wonderful. I went for the ‘Mussels Old Tom’ in which I could identify butter, cream, white wine, garlic and lots of celery tops along with some bonus cockles. Absolutely delicious, perfectly cooked and served with a big dish of hot frites with accompanying mayonnaise and ‘mussels sauce’ which seemed to be some kind of dijionaisse sauce with some cooked chopped mussels lurking within. Who cares what was in it, it was great on chips. Wash it all down with a good sancerre or a range of reds or beers on offer and you are in for a rather massive treat. Well satisfied and well stuffed and yes, there was no dessert for me this night either. Ooof. I did try a small corner of the old man’s waffles though which were beautifully light and tasty and served with gloriously twee lashings of whipped cream and fresh fruit.
Old Tom’s was a warm and satisfying experience I can’t find even the merest complaint about. A slightly more budget friendly option than De Founderie at 30-40 euros a head including excessive amounts of wine and a couple of desserts, with a homely atmosphere and such friendly staff please please please do give them a try if you are in town, maybe after your visit to hear the Last Post, still sounded at the Menin Gate every night at 8pm which is as much of a must do as a mussels dinner.

Should I go back to Ypres, which I feel I probably will, I will save space for waffles and look forwards to more chocolates and a fuller induction in beer at one of the comfy looking bars scattered around the place. It’s not a party town by any means, Ypres is understated, polite and casually well turned out though and a real treasure trove for the discerning consumer of all things delectable.

 

*From the foreword to The Western Front, available from BBC books.

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VIFC Meeting- Veg!

I think it is fair to say at the end of last month’s meeting there weren’t many whoops of joy as the theme of Vegetable was drawn. For clarity this meant that dishes for the October meeting had to not just involve but star vegetables. Major food groups such as meat, fish and chocolate were of course allowed too but only as bit part players. Not so hard for the savouries but there was a collective low groan from almost everyone that drew a dessert, other than Matt of course who groans if he draws anything other than a dessert!

I like vegetables, as a rule. Five a day isn’t much of a stretch for me, infact it’s usually out of the way by the end of lunch. I love a good salad in the summer, I go giddy for watercress at any time and revel in the mass application of onions at most meal times. Veg is great. It has fibre and vitamins and generally quite low calories for the associated bulk- don’t quote avocados at me diet freaks, it’s not a vegetable. Veg is generally cheap and generally good for you, hooray for vegetables.
I had in mind for cookery club a nice seasonal bake of aubergines with a tomato sauce and a cheeky bit of parmesan, a plan scuppered by a stunning lack of aubergines in Sainsbury’s two days in a row which left me wandering the fresh veg scratching my head. Not because there was no inspiration, rather too much! As I searched the racks for some ideas my eyes caught some leeks and my brain instantly told me it had to have creamed leeks for tea that night- a simple often guilty pleasure I indulge in when the weather turns and I can’t be bothered to cook very much. So I got three leeks for my dinner. Then realised I should just do some leeks for my club entry and that, dear reader was that. Let’s have a look what everyone else came up with.

A mixed mushroom goulash from Tom with peppers and plenty of paprika, a great winter dinner for certain

A mixed mushroom goulash from Tom with peppers and plenty of paprika, a great winter dinner for certain

Colcannon, and just remembering it raised a hearty foodie chuckle from my sofa as I type. Creamy mash with cabbage and bacon. Does life get better than mashed spuds with bacon? Exactly. Good job Amanda.

Colcannon, and just remembering it raised a hearty foodie chuckle from my sofa as I type. Creamy mash with cabbage and bacon. Does life get better than mashed spuds with bacon? Exactly. Good job Amanda.

A rather marvellous take on a tart tartin- small, sweet onions caramelised in sugar and balsamic vinegar with the traditional puff pastry lid/base served with a truly devilish Roquefort sauce. This is the kind of food that could have me dead of congestive heart failure before I'm 40. Fan. Bloody. Tastic, and points for originality.  Fearless leader Sheena provided this one.

A rather marvellous take on a tart tartin- small, sweet onions caramelised in sugar and balsamic vinegar with the traditional puff pastry lid/base served with a truly devilish Roquefort sauce. This is the kind of food that could have me dead of congestive heart failure before I’m 40. Fan. Bloody. Tastic. And points for originality. Fearless leader Sheena provided this one.

My offering- butter fried leaks and chestnut mushrooms in a pretty heavy cheese sauce with plenty of nutmeg, topped with more cheese and bread chunks then baked. I love this, and make it often and yes, it is absolutely worth the calories. Well received by my fellow foodies.

My offering- butter fried leaks and chestnut mushrooms in a pretty heavy cheese sauce with plenty of nutmeg, topped with more cheese and bread chunks then baked. I love this, and make it often and yes, it is absolutely worth the calories. Well received by my fellow foodies.

Iced chocolate cakes made with frozen mashed potato as per instruction from Saint Delia. Matt provided these, and was not desperately impressed with them. You certainly couldn't tell there were potatos in them and they were most palatable though with a stickier consistency than your average cupcake. I finished mine, obviously. It was a cake.

Iced chocolate cakes made with frozen mashed potato as per instruction from Saint Delia. Matt provided these, and was not desperately impressed with them himself but everyone tucked in heartily. You certainly couldn’t tell there were potatoes in them and they were most palatable with a stickier consistency than your average cupcake. I finished mine, obviously. It was a cake.

Immaculate little chocolate and beetroot muffins from Dave with distraction tactic icing carrots. Mixed reaction on these- the beetroot haters among us found the beet taste too overwhelming and did not enjoy. Beetophiles such as myself could taste only a light and moist cakey goodness. And what a result for his first ever bake, God bless you Dave!

Immaculate little chocolate and beetroot muffins from Dave with distraction tactic icing carrots. Mixed reaction on these- the beetroot haters among us found the beet taste too overwhelming and did not enjoy. Beetophiles such as myself could taste only a light and moist cakey goodness. And what a result for his first ever bake, God bless you Dave!

Another beautiful offering from Stuart who frankly shames my presentation skills further into the ground with every meeting. This beautiful beast is a sweet potato cheesecake, digestive base topped off with pecan halves. Again some mixed reviews and debate as to the cinammon levels being too high. I thought it was great and the spice helped to cut through the richness of the cheesy sweet potato filling but I'm a big fan of cinnamon. And slightly too rich stuff. This was amazing.

Another picture perfect offering from Stuart who frankly shames my presentation skills further into the ground with every meeting. This beautiful beast is a sweet potato cheesecake, digestive base topped off with pecans. Again some mixed reviews and debate as to the cinnamon levels being too high. I thought it was great and the spice helped to cut through the richness of the cheesy sweet potato filling but I’m a big fan of cinnamon. And slightly too rich stuff. This was amazing.

A striking icecream from Ian of spinach, pistachio nut, honey and avocado. Whilst the spinach gave the colour the avocado was the main flavour here. Very refreshing and crisp, I really enjoyed my first scoop then moved on to cake. Oddly on going back to finish it seemed to have lost all sweetness, no doubt in comparison to all the much sweeter offerings. No doubt one of the slightly healthier options on offer and really different. I really like it, an no-one hated it. Good job.

A striking icecream from Ian of spinach, pistachio nut, honey and avocado. Whilst the spinach gave the colour the avocado was the main flavour here. Very refreshing and crisp, I really enjoyed my first scoop then moved on to cake. Oddly on going back to finish it seemed to have lost all sweetness, no doubt in comparison to all the much sweeter offerings. No doubt one of the slightly healthier options on offer and really different. I liked it very much, and no-one hated it. Good job.

Let me tell you, it takes a very special group of people to turn a vegetable cookery night into a comfort calorific dinner with cake AND ice-cream. Very special indeed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dear One Stop,

Dear One-Stop,

This week I found myself compelled to write an angry, nay, befuddled letter to yourselves. Obviously you know who you are, little chain of UK convenience shops with conveniently inflated prices found in over six hundred locations across these fair isles.

By your own admission your key focus is on “being the best in the neighbourhood for you”. Best. Worst. Let us not get stuck in such subjective terms. Local, however, seems to be a big tag line in your marketing gumph. Local, convenient, friendly- the corner shop equivalent of an approachable neighbour available for groceries and newspapers as well as a cuppa and a gossip over the garden fence. You pride yourselves on being able to help with those little essentials for the great festivities of our times too offering “plenty of choice for special occasions such as Christmas, Halloween and Bonfire night”. You’re like, one of the family! Yay for you.

So given all of these marvellously cuddly qualities you must have (otherwise it would be highly hypocritical of you to use them as marketing tools) it puzzles me that in the height of the apple harvest in your chosen country of operation you choose to stock this staple fruit item from Solvenia.
In a world becoming increasingly affected for the worse by carbon emissions you have chosen to favour produce that has travelled over a thousand miles to get to your little shelf in the Colchester North Station Rd store. Ever heard of a little place called Suffolk? They grow some very nice apples there. And at a push they could stock your most northerly outlet with only a 650 mile journey.
In a country fighting to avoid recession, where the economy is so ravaged it has had to cut support to many on benefits, reverse payrises for our NHS staff and leave thousands of twenty somethings living with their long suffering parents because the property market is now a black tie invite only affair- you, a ‘locally’ focused company would rather send your money to central Europe.

You may see my confusion here, One-Stop. Such a practice is in direct contradiction to your advertised ethos so yes, when I nipped out on my lunchbreak to procure a healthy snack to get me through work day and was presented with these sad, slightly dull looking globes of sugary fibre I was somewhat taken aback. Puzzled and a little angry, I felt a need to communicate with yourselves, to seek an explanation as to this bloody travesty that you are perpetrating against the farmers of this country and your customers who would rather support their own economy rather than one on the other side of the Alps.

In seeking contact information, I went to your website and was lucky enough to discover the answer to all of my above questions in one simple sequence of words: Subsidiary of Tesco.

Say no more. And expect to receive my money no more until you and your oppressive dark overlords stop slapping British farmers in the face by stocking old, over travelled and inferior produce.

Shame on you.

Love and kisses from Another Blogging Foodie xxxxxxx

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*please note the author has never been to Slovenia and has nothing against them in principle, I’m sure it’s lovely there and I hope they enjoy their apples and any other local produce*