When I first started planning a trip to Bruges, a gorgeous medieval city in north-western Belgium, food immediately came to mind. I imagined walking the ancient, winding streets along the canals and stopping for a hot chocolate in a cozy café to warm up along the way, while my boyfriend dreamed of the sausage-and-frites stalls.
When we arrived in Bruges, it was windy, freezing and raining, but we decided to brave the weather and venture into the center in search of an afternoon snack. After browsing the numerous stands, we settled on one and ordered our first frites and a waffle with caramel sauce. Both of us were underwhelmed. I must admit I prefer the thin, crispy, matchstick frites served in France to the thick, dense fries in Belgium, even if the latter claims to have invented the iconic dish, despite its misleading name in English. Throughout our stay, we continued our search for the frites we had imagined, but never found them.
Both nights our dinner out was disappointing as well. The highlight was the complimentary beer tasting, even though neither of us are beer drinkers. Over our plates of stewed rabbit with prunes and fish stew, Emilio and I began to reflect on our experience of food in Bruges. After reading in our guidebook about the Belgian world-renowned cuisine, perhaps my expectations were too high. Or perhaps we didn’t find the good restaurants. Or maybe it was because we couldn’t afford to go to the Michelin-starred spots. But good food doesn’t necessarily need to be expensive. In Italy, there are lots of affordable and delicious options — pizza, pasta, panini — unless, of course, you live in Venice. In New York, there are the most expensive and world-renowned restaurants, but you can also eat well at the numerous food trucks and small dives scattered about the city.
The culinary highlight by far was the chocolate. I couldn’t believe how many aristanal chocolate shops lined the streets, one after another. I kept asking myself, who buys all that chocolate? Just the tourists or the Belgians, too? Our best discovery was The Chocolate Line, where Dominique Persoone (considered the Ferran Adrià of chocolate) serves up strange and surprising treats. Since the labels weren’t in English we asked for a mix of the most interesting and surprising flavors and were given chocolates filled with wasabi, fried onion, sundried tomato, saffron, lemongrass and passion fruit. Some of the combinations were delightful while others were… surprising.
We also spent a morning at Choco Story, a small museum tracing the history of chocolate from its Aztec and Mayan origins, to across the Atlantic on Spanish ships, from a bitter and spicy drink to the famous Belgian pralines, culminating in a demonstration and tasting of local chocolates.
All in all we loved the city, and the chocolate, but I’ve continued to reflect on the idea that good food should be accessible and affordable, not reserved for white-linen clothed tables and rich patrons. On our way to the train station on our last morning in Bruges, we had just enough time to stop at the local Saturday market. It felt that for the first time I was seeing the real food that locals ate. We wandered through row after row of stalls selling all kinds of cheeses, meats, jams and pastries.
After seeing these local delicacies I’m convinced we just didn’t find the right spots this first time — I guess that just means we’ll have to go back!