City wanderings - and a pilgrimage to some of the best eating and drinking spots in Brussels. Or maybe not eating or drinking - ah, oh well.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Théâtre Royal de Toone

First ensure you’ve had a couple of kwak beers in their proper glass, then head upstairs to Toone’s theatre with its puppets dangling from the eaves, take your place on the bench – and be prepared to not understand very much.  Fear not though, this is normal.  This is Bruxellois.

This time it is an adaptation of Hamlet, transported to the backstreets and canal of Brussels.   There is a bit of hanky panky between King and Queen, a regal ghost burning his bottom on the fires of purgatory, and someone has caught the “English” flu.  Sitting near the front you can appreciate the arms behind the artifice: 7 young puppeteers are needed to perform the show, and the lead puppeteer (Toone VIII) is also ticketmaster, barman and answerer of baffled-tourist questions.  

“To be or not to be: that is the cwestion…”  We’ll say this in English, that way everyone can say they didn’t understand a thing”, says one of the characters.  But perhaps this Bruxellois dialect isn’t so tricky after all.  There’s a spuuk in this play, you know, and a snotneus, and a stommeriek (stupid person).  Mostly performances are in French Bruxellois, but once a week you can try Flemish Bruxellois (and be even more confused). The dialect survives mostly as a strong accent and vocabulary: you’re most likely to hear it amongst the older generation and Flemish speakers.

In the interval, you can drink yet more beer amongst retired 30 year old puppets in the tiny museum-cum-bar.   Meanwhile I’m mulling over a line from the performance:

 “Justice is a snail.  It will come in its own time.”     

Toone reopens on February 1st, after its annual break.

Check online to see what is playing, and reserve places online or by telephone a couple of days beforehand if you can.

Impasse Sainte-Pétronille,
Rue du Marché-aux-Herbes 66, 1000 Brussels
(down a tiny "snicket" off the pedestrian road by Grand Place). I just thought I'd throw in some Yorkshire dialect there for you!

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Western Shop

I was looking for authentic cowboy boots; I didn’t expect to find so many of them quite so close to home.  But then I hadn’t counted on finding a Western Man in Brussels, either.  

François Chladiuk’s Western Shop grew out of a life’s passion for the Wild West.  This collector of the “real McCoy” started with antique Winchesters 40 years ago, adding statues and saddles before a chance opportunity led to him acquiring 150 pieces that had languished in a basement for decades, including vibrant Indian headdresses, tunics, moccasins and jewellery.  He suspected they were old, and placed adverts in magazines and tried to track down photos of the period.  One day, while looking at a postcard, he realised he had a match.  “I was shaking, I ran upstairs and compared it.  And there it was!”  From the few surviving photographs of the period, he discovered he owned clothing and artefacts that had belonged to the Little Elk and Little Moon families who had performed in the Wild West Shows for the Brussels World Fair in 1935.  Since then Francois’s whole collection has been displayed at Belgium’s Royal Museum for Art and History, and pieces have been loaned to The Buffalo Bill museum in Golden, Colorado.  A few pieces are currently on display in that same Brussels museum.  

22 years ago François started his shop, still with his collection in mind, selling the “real hats, the real boots and the real shirts.”  The brands featured are 120 or 130 years old, including Tony Lama, which last year celebrated its 100th anniversary.   This place is about as far removed from a western superstore as you can imagine.  Wooden floors, country music in the background and the inescapable smell of leather.  Amongst the Stetsons, jewellery and shirts I ask him what he is most proud of.   Unsurprisingly it is the inventory of 2500 pairs of cowboy boots, including the traditional or the colourful, amongst exotic skins such as shark, lizard, python, hippo or stingray.  To keep the shop well-stocked, Francois flies to the States five times a year, taking in the Denver show in January and September, which has “everything”, and twice visiting Tulse, Oklohoma, for collectables from the “biggest gun show on earth”.  Then it’s either the Cody show or the High Noon show in Phoenix for antiques.  Distances and unloading aside, there is no “work” involved in running this shop.  “At 38 I opened, and at 38 I stopped working!”

“Every ten or 12 years there is like a Western fashion wave coming all over the world.  My friends say; ‘You must be lucky now, you must be happy!  Now you’re making a lot of money.’  But it’s just not true”, he says.   Those are the times of cheap imitations and dreamcatchers, not the “real McCoy”.    

“Is it because my father was liberated by Americans that I became interested in the Wild West?”  Perhaps there’s something to that, but after a childhood of playing Cowboys and Indians and his recent discovery of a Little Moon descendant in Wounded Knee, Francois’ enthusiasm shows no sign of waning.  He has amassed memorabilia relating to the Wild West shows that took place in Belgium, and to the founder of those shows, Buffalo Bill.  Can he bring himself to sell anything from his treasured collection?  Once, he sold a 7ft by 6ft portrait of Buffalo Bill.  “That’s enormous”, I say.  It took six men to lift it, but that was not the main reason it had to go: François had moved to a house with lower ceilings, and, as he put it, “I didn’t want Buffalo Bill’s head – down there!”

Every Buffalo Bill and Wild West enthusiast should pay Brussels’ Western Man a visit.  And I’ll be back for his boots.

Western Shop
79, Boulevard Adolphe Max
1000 Brussels
+32 (0)2 219 55 17
Open Monday to Saturday 9:30 – 18:30; Sundays 13:00 – 17:00

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Le Petit Forcado

I have already written about cake.  I have sampled muffins, cupcakes and lemon cake galore.  All the evidence is on this blog and cannot be denied.  But what of the Portuguese pastry?  This is the tale of my encounter with Joaquim's Pastéis de Belem, in case you missed it the first time round.....

Chaussee de Charleroi is busy, as usual. Meanwhile, in le Petit Forcado’s kitchen the oven is busy heating to 445 degrees, ready for its next intake of pastéis de belém.  “I make everything by hand”, says Joaquim, waving his hands to illustrate his point.  He flashes me an impish grin; “Everything you’ve read about me is true, even my bad temper.” 

After many years of running a restaurant next door, this former political refugee from Lisbon now just concentrates on his first love, baking.  Most of the work is done on the weekend, when there can be as many as 15 to 20 different choices.  “I can’t do any more that that, otherwise my wife will give me the red card”, he laughs.  One of his weekend specialities is “ le mojito”: a fresh-sounding concoction of mint, natural rum essence and lime; and then there’s a fiddly sounding one involving 16 sheets of puff pastry, lard, apples, cinnamon and almonds.  Recipes do not always work out, however.  One found online was judged to be “immangeable!”;  and then there was the orangey cake which tasted too much of eggs, and was also summarily rejected.  Food allergy sufferers need not look on grinding their teeth, for Joaquim considers himself a bit of an expert at gluten-free cakes.  All his pastries freeze well (one of his customers regularly stocks up before she returns to Norway, so Britain should be OK).   His customers are from the whole world, probably only 1% are Portuguese.

The famous pastéis de belém are offered in two versions: the more traditional one with crème fraîche, and the much more common milk version.  From sight you couldn’t tell the difference, but the crème fraîche version has a creamier lemony flavour while the milk version is flavoured with cinnamon.  Nearby  the lemon puff pastry parcels lie innocently – invented by Coimbra nuns as a use for leftover egg yolks (the whites were used on their hair, but to what effect, one wonders?)  

“When everything’s made by hand, sometimes it doesn’t work out”, Joaquim smiles.  Technically wrong, perhaps, but still yummy wonderful.  We’re offered slices of one such “gâteau raté” whose goey orangey moistness leaves us stammering, stuttering in our praise.  We buy up the rest of Joaquim’s “mistake cake”, and later my Mum confesses that this is her favourite.  Meanwhile landlady, neighbour and housemates are all asking: where can I get hold of these?

Back to the selection.  This weekday lunch-time, there are around 6 different cakes in the window, and the coffee, raspberry, chocolate and belém are depleting fast.  The reason?  “I only make what I want, when I want and how I want to!”  So I would advise you to come early, because when they’re gone, they’re gone, although Joaquim will still be there to welcome you with his pots of jam and humour, which do not sell out quite so fast.

Each cake costs 1 euro 50.  If you don’t know where to begin, buy one of everything, but don’t miss the mistake cake.

Chaussée de Charleroi, 190c
1060 Saint-Gilles
+32 (0)2 539 00 19
Open Tuesday to Saturday 11:30 to 17:00, except public holidays

10 minutes’ walk from Louise metro and high-end shops, and 5 minutes from the Châtelain district around the Trinité square and rue du Bailli, which is worth a wander with bars aplenty and interesting clothes, decoration and bookshops.