The Benelux region's cuisine is rarely celebrated, but Giovanna Dunmall finds it rich and rewarding with some surprising twists
Tell someone you are going on a trip to sample the food specialities of Benelux and you will most likely get a series of blank expressions (and not only because many people don't know Benelux means Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg). This reaction is understandable. At best, the area's cuisine is an extension of French cooking, at worst it is dull and uninspiring (I am looking at you, Netherlands, land of mashed potato and stews).
Of course, this sweeping statement doesn't take into account these countries' much-loved specialities, their so-called ethnic restaurant scenes (often a result of immigration from former colonies), and the thriving community of chefs doing brilliant contemporary variations on local dishes, ingredients and flavours.
Perhaps it is fairer to say food isn't the first thing that springs to mind when thinking of Benelux but if you visit you may be surprised by what you find.
Here are a few highlights, in no particular order, of a recent train journey I took across this small trio of nations and, more specifically, my brief stops at three cities - Antwerp, The Hague and Luxembourg.
The northern Belgian city of Antwerp has always been good at promoting itself, and with good reason. It has architecture, art, diamonds, chocolate and more recently fashion. In the past few years it has also become arguably Belgium's best city for food lovers with young chefs championing local produce and a fresh take on fine dining.
The tone is set at our cheese, meat and seafood lunch at the effortlessly cool food and beverage emporium de mArkt. It is located in the up-and-coming docklands area Het Eilandje where houses, museums and restaurants are springing up at a healthy pace. Later we have a drink at Lux a bar/restaurant housed in the headquarters of a former Polish shipping company on the harbour. I sample Roomer, a new speciality elderflower wine created by two eccentric brothers from Ghent that has taken Belgium by storm. It comes in a bottle filled with little golden elderflowers.
That night we dine at Graanmarkt 13, another concept store in an elegantly curated townhouse behind the trendy Leopoldstraat where everything - from fashion and furniture to art and objects - can be found.
The lowest floor is a restaurant run by the energetic, and appealingly rotund Seppe Nobels. One of Flanders' most promising young chefs, he loves to work with local produce, regional meats and seafood and neglected ingredients. He calls his cuisine "a combination of kitchen and garden" that is inspired by the "briny and salty" taste of the Flemish and Zeeland regions.
To this end, he has created his own rooftop and terrace gardens where he grows 80 kinds of herbs (classics and "also rare ones such as oyster leaf, sea kale, sea fennel - a type of samphire - and sea buckthorn") and keeps beehives. His team also grow most of their vegetables on a plot 15 kilometres from the restaurant (this year they are especially proud of their many varieties of beets and cucumbers).
From amuses bouches to main courses, Nobels plays with the flavours and textures of ingredients in tantalising ways. We are served herring with green apple, radish, caviar and butter beans; asparagus served with smoked eel; freshwater bass with a watercress coulis, cockles, green peas, mustard seeds and a sauce of thyme and forest onions caramelised with the honey from his hives; and Limousin beef with fermented black garlic, French violet artichoke and cream of carrot.
For dessert we have vanilla ice cream smothered in Belgian strawberries; and a crème brulée foam, flavoured with orange, grapefruit, sage and edible flowers. It's a spectacle for the eyes and taste buds and not that expensive (a three-course menu comes to €39 (HK$400).
Nobels' mantra is that by cooking a changing menu of a few seasonal dishes every week he can keep costs low and quality high.
At our next stop, The Hague, we have some squeaky-fresh fish at harbourside restaurant Catch by Simon in Scheveningen, which is appreciated all the more for having cycled there on our rented and large-seated town bikes (it's only a few kilometres from The Hague). But the real climax here is a meal at Michelin-starred HanTing, a restaurant that combines Chinese and Western flavours and ingredients prepared with a philosophy of "mindful eating". If that sounds too pretentious for words, it's not.
At HanTing you can order a la carte or from a tasting menu of between three and five courses, each of which is paired with an appropriate wine served by an informed sommelier. My most memorable dishes were the salmon marinated in beetroot and coriander oil served with radish, lotus root, wasabi jelly and cucumber eel; and the steamed halibut with langoustine dumplings, pork belly rolls, fennel cream, soya chilli, citrus apple and shallots. Dishes on the Chinese herbs menu feature ancient herbs that are thought to have health benefits. These have been approved by the Shandong University of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
In Luxembourg, a tidy city with a lush green valley running through its centre, our stay is brief and the highlight is a patisserie. Oberweis is a second-generation business that has just opened a flagship boutique and cafe on the city's main pedestrianised thoroughfare, the Grand Rue. It has a beautiful array of chocolates and pastries. Its Rubik's cube dessert made of lemon, passion fruit, blackcurrant, raspberry, strawberry and apple sorbet is a piece of culinary artistry, and chef Tom Oberweis is not averse to trying unusual creations. His raspberry, rocket and mint tart drizzled with vanilla-infused olive oil is an unexpected taste adventure.
Maybe next time I'll go back to Benelux just for the food.
Appeared in South China Morning Post, 16 August 2013