A meal from every country – Belgium

This was easy. We went out for dinner the night we got here and had moules. Or at least some of us did. Some (one) of us got so stressed about the prospect of even trying one that he nearly couldn’t manage the chicken and chips he had ordered…

But no. The children were delighted to hear that that wasn’t the end of the Belgian version of the new-and-unfamiliar-food torture method I have devised for them.

Again I turned to google and discovered a list of the top Belgian meals. Tempted though I was to turn the metaphorical thumb screws a little tighter, I decided against endive (even though I love them), stoemp (stamppot by another (well, almost the same) name), filet American (raw minced beef) and paling in’t groen (eels in green sauce – not least as I thought sourcing eels in the supermarket might be tricky). Meatballs, on the other hand, looked do-able.

Frikadellen met krieken

Meatballs (frikadellen or boulettes, depending on your cultural and linguistic loyalties) in Belgium seem principally to come three ways: with tomatoes, with cherries, or à la Liègois, with a rich stock. While I was tempted entirely to wimp out and just cook meatballs in tomato sauce, that really did feel a bit un-adventurous, so cherries it was.

Recipes in English for meatballs with cherries abound on the net, but they seem mostly to be written by Americans who have been to Belgium once, which lacked the authentic feel I was going for. My Flemish is definitely not up to the task, but I fortunately found this recipe, which is not only in French (so possibly inauthentic for a Flemish meal but surely more authentic than the American ones, and it has a .be address), and is also pleasingly vague. I like a recipe that allows me to freestyle a little…

Can cook, Can’t (don’t have the equipment to) cook

Because, yes, we are in another AirBnB that is not designed for cooking. A little improvisation was therefore required.

The kitchen (indeed the entire flat) is beautiful and very stylish (or was until we dumped our stuff all over it), but it is surrounded by restaurants and we are clearly expected to use them.

In a step up (down?) from our Amsterdam home, this one doesn’t even have a colander. A pan lid will suffice at times, but rinsing beans was more of a challenge.

Still, we have knives and pans. How hard can it be?

Ingredients

One of the things I am enjoying about this mini-project is the chance to see what is available in local shops that I probably wouldn’t ordinarily notice, and definitely wouldn’t ordinarily buy. This meal, all the recipes were agreed, wanted minced pork and veal. As a thing. Together. How unimaginable is that in Britain? Imagine my delight to find it, pre-packaged (which is obviously both good and bad) in the supermarket.

Chapelure was also on the list. I think it would probably translate as breadcrumbs and I was a bit nervous about finding that too, but there it was, even in the mini city-centre supermarket.

And it turns out that not all cherries are created equal. These are highly superior €6 (six euros?!) Cerises du Nord. Proud product of Belgium. Hungarian cherries were also available, at a sixth of the cost, but we felt our Belgian meal deserved the good stuff.

Stop wittering, how do you cook it?

The key parts to this meal, on which all the recipes I chose to slightly diverge from agreed, are a) the meat, b) the cherries, and c) that everything should be cooked in butter.

When cooking I generally choose to obey the instructions I like, so I finely (ish, the knives aren’t brilliant and I quite like my fingers) chopped an onion and sweated it in butter. I then mixed that with the mince (a kilo, since you ask), some herbes de provence (clearly entirely inauthentic but we had bought some last week) and fresh parsley, an egg, three spoonfuls of the chapelure (still not entirely sure what it is) and some pepper.

Mix in a large bowl. In the absence of a large bowl, use a wok.

I then shaped that into meatballs and fried them gently (in the same wok) in more butter. Meanwhile I chopped up more unpeeled potatoes to make more mash (honestly, I may never bother peeling a potato again). The recipes differ on whether you serve this dish with bread or potatoes but we had had sandwiches for lunch and had potatoes left over so it wasn’t a hard choice.

Next, make your cherry sauce. This was a bit of a challenge:

Man versus jar.

Google to the rescue again, after tea towels and hot water had failed (sounds like an episode of Call the Midwife), a blunt knife (plenty of those) broke the seal and we were in business.

I drained the cherries (using the lid this time) and kept the juice. You then have to make a sauce with the juice but again the recipes all seemed to do this in different ways. I couldn’t be bothered with more onions or herbs and I definitely wasn’t buying a whole box of cornflour just to use a spoonful, as my main source required. I could, though, I reckoned, justify buying ordinary flour (as then I can justify making pancakes – win, win). So I made a very thin sauce by melting a bit more (you guessed it) butter, adding a spoonful of flour and gradually whisking (because there isn’t a word for “stirring aggressively with the same teaspoon”) in the cherry juice.

The cherries and sauce then go back in with the meatballs, the potatoes are mashed. Some cabbage (because I am a parent and do not want my children to get scurvy) is steamed in a very small pan (steaming requires less water and therefore fits better) et voilà.

Gaufres

Well, ish. For what is a meal without pudding? And what is a visit to Belgium without a waffle?

Astonishingly there is no waffle iron here. However there is a waffle shop within 15 steps of our front door. It seemed inevitable…

Belgian meal. Done. With apologies to any Belgians.

Harriet

A week in – Routines and Flashpoints

So we are now over a week into our adventure, due to our early start, and perhaps this is a good time to look back, as well as forward. We’re now at our second main stop. Brussels, and in our fourth country, Belgium.

What have we achieved?

  • Everyone is still alive, present, and no-one is ill.
  • We have all eaten new things, and enjoyed them.
  • We have travelled over 1000 miles, by car, foot, train, metro, tram, and bus.
  • We have experienced new things, old things, sweet things, beautiful things.
  • I don’t think anyone has lost anything, although I may have lost a pair of pants. (No big story there, but it peeves me to have lost them.)

We are in the process of settling into our routines, if such a thing is possible over a journey of 26 weeks, but I wouldn’t say we have settled into them yet. Is such a thing, a cadence if you like, possible, required, or wanted?

We have tended to start the day with a short exercise programme, based on the classic Royal Canadian Air Force 5BX and XBX programmes. These have 11 and 12 minutes routines of increasing intensity. They are not too horrid, mainly because they are so short.

This is followed by breakfast, then 15 minutes of maths for Aurora, Sophie, and Magnus, using books the school provided, or science or music for Lucy, either also provided by the school or grade 5 theory. We usually do the work one to one, and it has been sold on the basis of “this is all the school you are going to get today”, which is only partly correct. It generally is the only formal structured learning they get. Sometimes it doesn’t happen, such as the day we were leaving Amsterdam for Brussels. I think this is balanced, and supplemented by, the learning they get from just being and living where we are, the conversations we have about what is around us, and what we are seeing, as well as all the interactions in shops, bell towers, galleries, metro stations, etc.

There has been conflict too, about this and more, as we find our feet on the road. Tiredness is often a contributing factor, and sleeping in different beds is always hard. Travel is tiring (I found the first three days of driving particularly draining) and not just for the driver. Later nights, especially for Magnus, and irregular daily schedules don’t help, hence the routines above.

Phones are also a bit of a flashpoint, and it is difficult for us to “be the change you want to see in the world”, as so much of what Harriet and I are doing – researching, blogging, and other things which would normally be analogue, like reading – is on phones or a tablet. I have removed all the games I had on my phone, so as not to be a complete hypocrite…

I do get annoyed when phones come out at the slightest lull in activity, particularly when it is for pointless games, in a beautiful town square, or the like, and sometimes I’ve snapped when they’ve been taken out to take a photo (snapping at snaps?) which is wrong of me.

So how to manage it?

Originally, each of the children had a phone time limit through FamilyLink, which we removed when we realised they were restricting their (our perception of) “good use” (photos, research, learning, blogging) so they could play more games and chat and message with friends. Most car journeys are phone-free, and that has worked well in general, at least until the final hour of a long journey. The car is not wifi-enabled anyway… We tried restricting apps by temporarily blocking them in FamilyLink but that took them out of their folders upon unblocking them, which didn’t go down well.

We’ve come to realise that some activities need to be “physical with a point” like climbing a windy bell-tower in Ghent, instead of “aimless and cerebral” like wandering round a museum. The Instagram photo competition we had last Friday worked well too, so that might become a regular feature.

I think it comes down to chat and compromise, and we are all still learning and adapting. They don’t have a lot of the things we have at home – no-one has watched any TV (just another screen…) since we left – so phones provide a distraction, some privacy and a connection to missed friends at home after all. And we are still talking about it in a (mostly) civil way.

Enough musings for one post, methinks.

Ben

Week 1 – Travel and Amsterdam

Today is day 7 of our trip. Here’s how the first week was….

Where were we?

UK

This time last week we were in Kelso, contemplating our last bits of packing (and the blog post about that will forever languish uncompleted), and slightly wishing we didn’t have two days left before our departure. As it turned out the wise woman (but of course) who once advised, “Be careful what you wish for” knew her stuff because one cancelled ferry and fifteen rather rushed hours later we had a Eurotunnel crossing booked and were on our way South for an unscheduled night with Granny and Bumpa in Essex.

A bright and early start on Sunday and favourable gods on the M25 meant we were at Folkestone in plenty of time to drive onto the train – is it just me or is that still weirdly both incredibly exciting and a complete let down – and head for mainland Europe.

France

Blink and you missed it: we drove straight through the top right corner of France, stopping only in a layby about 200 yards from the Belgian border so that Lucy could run around the car and we could say we’d been in France.

The rest of us were feeling lazy (and it was cold and wet) so stayed put.

Belgium

First stop Waasmunster (no, me neither, but it’s conveniently located about half way between Calais and Amsterdam, about ten minutes off the motorway). A quick cross check between Google maps and AirBnB while heading South the day before had led us to book Johan’s house, which has gone straight to the top of our list of best accommodation. Plenty of room, nice and quiet, a wifi password written on the wall and pasta’n’sauce bought in Tesco’s in Saffron Walden a million years earlier that morning. Everyone’s happy….

Then up and off. Past Ghent (we’ll be back) and on to the Netherlands.

Four countries in two days.

The Netherlands

We arrived on Monday as planned, although after nearly 1,000 extra miles of unscheduled driving (well done Ben). It’s now Saturday and we leave later today.

We’ve been staying just outside Amsterdam, in Oostzaan, in a little (very) cabin, with a view of a windmill (did we mention we were in the Netherlands?), canals, pigs and two (very traditional these) alpacas. For Lucy at least the alpacas go some way towards compensating for the lack of space.

Home in Holland

Not content with one windmill, we saw 19 more on the way from Wassmunster when we stopped just outside Rotterdam at the UNESCO world heritage site of Kinderdijk.

You wait 43 years for a windmill and then 19 come along at once.

We’ve settled in nicely here, with daily trips into Amsterdam: Keane concert, Anne Frank’s house, the Rijksmuseum, the Albert Cuyp market and lots (and lots) of sweet treats (researching Dutch cuisine, don’t you know). Less excitingly we’ve got familiar with the local Lidl (we love Lidl) and the launderette in the petrol station forecourt.

It must be time to move on.

What were our impressions? What surprised you?

Aurora: Windmills and the reeds everywhere are really pretty. All the buildings in the towns are stuck together and are all different colours. They’re really weird shapes and really pretty. I’d find it difficult to live here because I can’t speak the language. I’m missing my friends.

Buildings. Stuck together.

Sophie: Windmills, the big black piggy. Miffys. I love the beds but I hate how they have to go up in the morning because they’re in the living room.

Magnus: I like the Amsterdam flag. Tree art, like fancy trees. I was surprised that the windmills pump water. The food was nice, and some bits in the Rijksmuseum were kind of funny, like the man on the pillar with the frizzy hair.

“The Man with the Frizzy Hair” at the Rijksmuseum

Harriet: I hadn’t expected Belgium to be so flat. I was fascinated by the extraordinarily groomed and trained trees in both the Netherlands and Belgium. I’m ashamed to say I thought windmills were for milling flour so the idea that they were a massive drainage operation was news.

Lucy: I thought Amsterdam was a very interesting city because it was definitely a European city but so different and so civilised it was weird! It was really beautiful and a lovely start to the trip.

Ben: The sheer amount of water in the Netherlands. Quite how the country survives when so much of it is below sea-level I don’t know. The Dutch also appear to be very good at separating wet from dry; despite the water, water everywhere, the houses and shops and streets and cafés did not feel damp. The frequent wafts of dope. The courtesy and friendliness of the Dutch. No bike helmets.

How was the weather?

Two words: Storm Ciara. It has been windy. And when it wasn’t windy it was wet. The zip on Aurora’s jacket breaking was a low point, though l (Ben) enjoyed testing my new waterproof (in splendid Dutch orange).

No such thing as bad weather.

What were the highlights?

Aurora: I liked the market. I thought it was cool how there was, like, everything everywhere. It smelt amazing: of waffles and fun stuff. The driving up was fun because I was sitting in the back with Lucy and we were playing with Mummy Sheep and Duplo.

Sophie: Taking photos generally. I liked making up a quiz. I liked hearing Somwhere Only We Know. The Miffys. I loved the food: my favourite was the Poffertjes. I prefer the normal stroopwafels. They’re really good.

Keane

Harriet: Kinderdijk, definitely. We found it by chance and had never heard of it before. I’m so glad we went, and that it was February so not busy. It was so atmospheric and so bleakly beautiful. The Rijksmuseum was even better than I expected (Warning: mum chat coming up) not least because of the practical things which made it so easy to spend a long while there: a picnic room, free lockers, free entry for the children, unlimited re-entry on your ticket day. I found the pencilled height chart and posters on the wall in Anne Frank’s house incredibly moving; She grew 13 cm in hiding, and liked the same things our children do : contemporary megastars and cute teddies.

Ben: Kinderdijk, the Rijksmuseum, the escalator up from Rokin metro, where all the archaeological finds from the build are beautifully displayed, the dreadful weather not stopping anything (and the joy of a cold sun yesterday).

Magnus: Poffertjes, definitely. Miffy. The snake trombone in the Rijksmuseum.

Lucy: The food and the way they make it; sprinkles for breakfast and stroopwafels for a snack! The cleverness of their civilisation like the windmills that regulate the water levels and the dykes. I also enjoyed the Rijksmuseum especially the instruments they were cool! Then there was Miffy! And there were ALPACAS in the garden!!!!!!

Flipping poffertjes

Any bad bits? Did we fight?

What do you think?

We are definitely having to come to terms with spending lots of time together. Phones have been a particular flash point. The morning exercise routine (oh yes) has taken a little getting used to (especially for Aurora). Interestingly the morning school-work routine (an entire school day in 15 minutes) has been less of an issue.

Appropriate phone use?

How plastic free were we?

Not very. We have tried but when it comes to food it has been surprisingly hard. Neither supermarket we visited seemed to go in for loose fruit and vegetables and so for all we took our own bags there was a lot of unavoidable plastic. There is a separate plastic bin here though so we are telling ourselves that maybe it is recycled. We’ve been good about repurposing the plastic we’ve been given.

What did we eat?

Lots of sweet treats: Poffertjes (the children’s favourites), cookies and stroopwafels (the adults’ favourite). Boerenkoolstamppot. A shameful Old El Paso fajitas kit that was in the larder at home and got brought with us. Sprinkles for breakfast. Spicy eggs and vegetables that were “surprisingly nice” (thanks). Ben’s French beans (recipe doubtless to follow).

What’s next?

Lunch in the Hague and supper in Brussels…

By everyone!