Brussels’ town hall.
Brussels in 48 hours
Chit U. Juan (The Philippine Star) - August 4, 2019 - 12:00am

Coffee, women in coffee, development work. These were going through my mind as I touched down at Brussels airport. I arrived at night and looked forward to the two-day conference at Tours and Taxi; yes the name of the venue is quite odd.

MANILA, Philippines — On the first day of my visit to Belgium I went to Antwerp to sell Philippine coffee – hopefully – to one of the world’s biggest importers of coffee. I touched base with the Philippine Investment Trade Center and drove to the port city with commercial officer Benedict Uy.

Ben did not know it would be an instant “cupping” experience – to taste Brazil, Honduras and Colombia coffee, all on one table. Very good prospects to let them try our very own Benguet, Bukidnon and Matutum – if only we had volume. These guys are serious: 350,000 metric tons of coffee stored in Belgium’s biggest coffee facility. That’s our production for ten years, I tell myself.

The famous mural viewed from Rue de la Loi in the EU Quarter (far left).

After Antwerp, we headed back to Brussels to see familiar haunts. Ben took me around to see the headquarters of the European Union, the building where all the meetings are held, and the other missions and country offices – much like the United Nations, except this is the EU. What I see on CNN suddenly came to life.

I told Ben I spent only one day in Brussels many years ago and what I can remember is the Mannikin Pis (the little boy peeing), the grand square or platz and Confiserie Dandoy. Ben obliged; it helped that his car had diplomatic plates and could park at the P sign with a CD mark (Corps Diplomatique). We could walk around the Grand Platz and admire the centuries-old structures like the City Hall, among others. I also remember Leon de Bruxelles – though my first encounter was in Paris – and guess what? This is the headquarters of Leon de Bruxelles. Though every café and bistro serves moules frites (mussels and French fries) I had to try Leon’s original spot, like a tourist.

A bit of Asia in a quiet café in the center of town serving authentic pho and buncha.

I did not miss checking out Maison Dandoy (I don’t know when they changed the name from Confiserie to Maison) and got myself some madeleines, financiers and their famous cookies with speculoos (at one time a very faddish luxury in Manila). This is, after all, speculoos country. The next shop was the familiar Belgian lace store, another famous destination.

Chocolates? This is Belgium and Belgians perfected the craft of making fine chocolates. “There is a hierarchy,” my friend insists. The highest is Pierre Marcolini, followed by Neuhaus, Leonidas and finally Godiva. Don’t get me wrong – they are all good, except the more discerning palates have their preferences. The hierarchy is based on price as well as packaging and, maybe, quality. I am not an expert to discern the minute differences between brands – yet. I just know I like 70 percent dark chocolate.

Leonidas, one of the famous brands of Belgian chocolates.

In the evening, my host Donna and I walked towards the grand platz again, this time to look for the least touristy place. It’s because the touristy places offer the same menu: moules frites, steaks and seafood. Being Asians (she is Brit-Pinay), we found a Vietnamese joint around the corner from the tourist pedestrian zone. It is called what else but Little Vietnam, owner-operated and authentic. As she is from London and I from Manila, we combed the area on foot and gave in to our Asian desire for rice and noodles.

The next day the CABI group and I checked out a nice place for dinner – La Quincaillerie (meaning hardware store), a 30-year old restaurant serving fresh oysters, sole and mostly seafood dishes. The interiors are interestingly preserved with drawers and boxes just like when it served its original purpose, that of a hardware store.

Visiting Chez Leon, the original home of the moules frites, is like a pilgrimage for the tourist visiting Brussels.

And finally on my last day, I checked out the food trucks at Tours and Taxis. They served mostly crepes and sandwiches, with a few Asian trucks serving pad Thai and rice dishes. As I was about to choose my lunch, a lady approached me to give me a lunch ticket. She is probably an angel. I went up to a hall to get my complimentary sandwich and drink, plus an apple for dessert.

Another idea on Wednesdays is to go to a farmers’ market in Ixelles, according to Ben, whose office is just in front of the market. Alas, I could not manage that because Brussels had a firemen’s protest that day and Ben suggested I head to the airport sooner than later. Next time, Ben, I will not miss farmers’ market, except during protests, explosions and 911 trucks wangwang-ing all over the place.

Taste treats (from left): Apple tart tatin, tomato salad with Belgian grey shrimps, Vietnamese seafood salad.

Brussels – it’s a bit of France, Germany and Netherlands as it is bordered by these three countries, plus Luxembourg. It’s such a melting pot, I did not know what language to try and greet people in. French? Flemish? German? Public transport is also easy, and there are Grab and ride-sharing services. And most people actually take bicycles to work.

It’s a nice stop even to just eat moules frites, have the best Belgian chocolates and the freshest seafood. And taste coffee, like I did.

Confectionery from Maison Dandoy, including speculoos.

ANTWERP BELGIUM BRUSSELS
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