Food from Belgium… but no mussels in Brussels

What food is in Brussels?

Welcome to the first #foodfriday post! I recently went to Belgium with my husband, and the food there did not disappoint. You’ve probably heard the phrase “mussels in Brussels.” Well, we went to Brussels but did not have any mussels. Instead, we enjoyed other delicious findings that Belgium is known for. I’m shocked I didn’t pack on a few extra pounds, probably from all the walking, and wish I had indulged more in each of these.

In this post, I’ll talk about the food tour, chocolate, beer, fries, and waffles. You can click on each to skip straight to what you want to know about most, but I guarantee you’ll want to read it all. 😉

Brussels Journey – Beer & Chocolate Tour

First, if you go to Brussels and love beer & chocolate, this tour is so worth it. With the Brussels Card, you get 10€ off each participant. You’ll walk quite a ways, so make sure you have comfortable walking shoes. We stopped at four of the premier chocolate shops for some free samples and the opportunity to purchase with a discount often times. To round off the night, we stopped at four local pubs and brasseries and tasted 10 different Belgian brews. The first pub stop is the oldest in Brussels.

What I didn’t realize we would get is a tour of the city and a witty history lesson. Our guide was knowledgeable and proud of his heritage regardless of how weird it may be. His words, not mine. He stopped us at one point to show us a house built in the art nouveau style and to explain prominent buildings we passed as we walked from place to place.

Rating: 10/10

Belgian Chocolate

Belgian chocolate is more than just pretty chocolates you can eat in one bite. They do taste amazing, but Belgians are quick to let you know they do not “make” chocolate, they make pralines. To Belgian chocolatiers, making chocolate means the process from cocoa bean to block of chocolate. Everything after that is what the majority of the chocolate ships in Belgian offer to their patrons, and they sure do it well!

img_4911We stopped by Chocopolis one night, which happened to be the site of our tour the next day. We decided to create our own box of pralines and ate the entire thing without shame, recalling each flavor combination and appreciating each one. Our next stop was Frederic Blondeel‘s where we tried some 100% Vietnamese chocolate and a Vietnamese cacao bean. I’ll just say, it was an experience I only need to have once. We tried some pralines here (the jasmine one was my favorite) and caramels. If you’ve never had a raspberry caramel, make sure you do one day.

img_4935In Belgium, pralines are not what we know them as in the US. Belgian pralines are a chocolate shell and some sort of filling. Fillings are often flavored, and you can find some really interesting combinations. There are traditional pairings, like hazelnut and orange, and some more eccentric ones, like earl grey tea. We tried an earl grey chocolate at Pierre Marcolini‘s chocolate shop, and I wish I had bought a whole box. Also, Pierre Marcolini is arguably THE most famous chocolatier in Belgian, so in this case, being famous doesn’t mean he’s flashy with subpar creations. It means he has some of the best chocolate in all of Belgium.

Belgian Beer

For everyone who thinks that Stella Artois is a premier Belgian beer, it’s not. It’s really popular, but it’s not the best. And here’s another thing… there’s definitely the Belgian wheat style of brewing, but that’s not all that is produced in Belgian. You can find brasseries that concoct a good IPA as well as good dark beers. Our first beers were had at Autoworld, one of the museums we got into for free with our Brussels Card. I had a Leffe wheat and Matt tried a cherry beer. Both were delicious, but we found out those are still pretty standard and not the best Belgium has to offer. Same goes for the Grimbergen I had at Hard Rock Café.

BYRZfbjMQ8SBnP3oN6C8KQHistorically, monks brewed a lot of the beer in Belgium and provided it to the communities. The beers called “trappist” are ones brewed by monks. They also came up with the dubbel, tripel, and quadrupel style of brewing to have heavier alcohol content and sometimes a richer, darker color. Believe it or not, the tripel is actually lighter in color than the dubbel. If you want to read a little more info, here’s a good guide so you’ll know what you’re talking about when you travel to Belgium one day.

UF%zWZp1RSSOdozcSDwSo here’s the problem right now… I didn’t want to be that nerd that was taking notes while drinking beer, so I only remember a few things. I guess you’ll just have to go on the tour for yourself.

  • I don’t like sour beers. Matt got two of those.
  • The IPA was tolerable (I just don’t prefer them), but also my fourth (or fifth) so that may be why.
  • Everything at the third and fourth stops was amazing!
  • The very last beer was my favorite. It was a quadrupel and suited my taste for porters/stouts nicely.

Belgian Fries

We got a taste of Belgian fries at Hard Rock Café and then again at a Belgian Frites near Chocopolis before we went on the food tour. They did not disappoint. I don’t care where you stand in the McDonald’s vs. Burger King debate, Belgium has them all beat!

According to our guide from the Brussels Journey tour, the proper way to make fries is thick cut, fried once for a longer time at a lower temperature, then fried a second time for a shorter time at a higher temperature to get a nice crisp on the outside. There are a variety of sauces available from mayonnaise, ketchup, curry ketchup, and my all-time favorite andalous sauce. I’m determined to recreate this amazing sauce so I can have it all the time.

The vendor we bought them from handed them to us pretty much straight from the frier, so we knew they were nice a fresh. Definitely let them cool a bit before taking the first bite because they are HOT! You should also know, some chocolate shops might not allow you inside with fries because the smell compromises the smell of the chocolate in the shop. I was told to dispose of my empty fries cone OUTSIDE because it was mixing with the chocolate aroma.

Belgian Waffles

There are two styles of waffles: thick and fluffy, and thin and crispy. Crispy ones tend to be cheaper (1€ to 2€) and are generally eaten plain. The thick and fluffy ones are where you’ll find the multitude of toppings. Some even have goodies baked inside the waffle, like ham and cheese.

The street from Grand Place, the plaza between Stadhius van Brussel and Brussels City Museum, that leads to Mannekin Pis is known as “Waffle Street.” Once you pass a few lace shops, the scent of freshly baked waffles will fill your nose. On either side, you can see shops with photos and examples of the variety they offer. I went for one with strawberries, banana, and Nutella. It was the perfect treat to share with our new friends we made on the food tour after all the beer we drank.

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In writing this, I realize that I ate all of these foods in one day. Haha. I don’t regret it, and I shouldn’t. When you find that you’ve eaten all this in one day when you’re visiting Brussels, I doubt you’ll feel just as shameless as I do. When in Rome, eat all the Belgian food… or something like that. 😛

This is not a sponsored post. It does not contain affiliate links.

Our Guide to Barcelona in December

What did we do in Spain?

This Tuesday Tea turned into Next Thursday Tea which turned into skip a Tuesday haha.

To end the near year, we finally took off and left Italy for a few days.  We set off to Barcelona, Spain for a three day weekend and loved every second of it. Here’s a guide to how we got around, where we stayed, and the landmarks we visited.

Tea of the day: Yogi Herbal Detox
Brand:
 Yogi
Color: This detox tea has a sort of golden brown color.
Taste: Even though it was steeped for over five minutes (recommended 3-5 minutes), the taste is rather light considering the complexity of flavors that are included. The stronger flavors come out at the very end. Normally, I’ve experienced teas with licorice or licorice root to be strong in that flavor but this one is not. I’m more aware of the cinnamon and pepper in the aftertaste of a sip.
Ideas for next time I have this: I may add some honey to complement the light flavor of dandelion and honeysuckle, and cut some of the spice in the after taste.

Easyjet – Naples to Barcelona

Easyjet is definitely a no frills, no thrills airline. They had the lowest price just a few weeks out and we paid the extra 5 euro to have choose seats to insure we sat next to each other. Talk about the quickest flight ever! We were in the air for barely an hour before arriving at our destination.

Because Easyjet is a budget airline, we flew with just our backpacks. We would have had to pay extra just to bring more luggage on board. This isn’t Southwest. No carry-on AND personal item, just personal item unless you want to pony up so extra cash. This was a new experience for me and I’m glad to say that I got through successfully! A few tips!

  • Select accommodations that offer a hair dryer so you don’t need to travel with one.
  • If your accommodations also include personal care items in the room, leave your travel size stuff at home.
  • Plan ahead to bring ONE pair of shoes. (We don’t go clubbing or anything so walking/running shoes were perfect, and I wore them on the plane.)
  • Another perk of planning ahead, I knew the weather and chose what I would wear each day so I didn’t overpack. Who really needs options for three days?
  • If you’re wearing a jacket, place smaller items in the jacket pockets so get that tiny bit of extra space in your backpack.

Barcelona Metro

We utilized the Barcelona Metro system (and our feet) to get around Barcelona. It was 10 euro each to get from the airport to the station nearest our hotel. We also opted for a 48 hour pass (14.50 euro each and includes airport transport fees) to use Saturday/Sunday and get back to the airport. The 48 hour time frame starts as soon as you validate it, not at time of purchase.

If you’re familiar with other metro systems, it is very similar and easy to navigate. Grab a map from an information booth that shows where popular destinations are to make it easier to know where to hop on/off.

Hotel Catalonia Square

We stayed at Hotel Catalonia Square and it ended up being the perfect location. It is located in the Gothic Quarter and near the Catalunya Metro station. Don’t let the understated exterior fool you, this hotel has class once you walk inside and see the colorful staircase that leads to the main lobby area after checking in.

We ended up getting upgraded to a Junior Suite (Merry Christmas to us!) and it was incredible. Hello waterfall shower!! The hotel offers breakfast (for an additional cost or with certain reservation types) each morning and a free buffet from 2:00 PM to 11:00 PM that includes pre-made salads, yogurt drinks, sandwiches, fruit, and other small snacks. It wasn’t extraordinary but was perfect for that little treat on your way in or out during those times.

We arrived a few hours before check-in time. They happily held our backpacks for us while the room was finished getting prepared and we ventured out for some tapas. They also watched over our backpacks after we checked out since our flight home was later in the evening.

Tapas at Bo de Gracia

We meant to eat at a tapas restaurant a staff member of the hotel recommended, but ended up eating next door at Bo de Gracia. It is delicious! We ordered a few tapas and split them between the two of us. Every single one is incredible. Our waiter was superb and I was able to use some of the Spanish I know with him. I wish I had taken pictures of the food. 😦  We ordered six different tapas, but I can only remember four of them now. Like in Rome, the menu included several different languages, so don’t be afraid if you’re not fluent in Spanish.

  • Salmon on Toast (my favorite!)
  • Chicken wings (the sauce was great!)
  • Hummus with meat
  • Shrimp scampi

Fun Fact! Castilian Spanish is spoken in Barcelona, but most know “normal” Spanish also.

Amaya

We walked through La Boqueria as most of the shops were closing, then continued down La Rambla to see what was around. We got hungry and turned our sites to finding a place to eat. I had a mission to have paella so we looked for a close by restaurant that offered paella. We had our pick but one stood out for no particular reason, Restaurant Amaya.

We arrived after a few minute walk back toward the hotel and got a table for two. We saw they offered a lobster paella so we splurged on that along with glasses of the house red wine and some croquettes. The wine was good and croquettes a delicious snack to tide us over until our meal came. Now, this lobster paella had instructions that it must be ordered for two people. We soon saw why.

A huge, deep plate came to our table. The smell was mesmerizing. You could see the lobster, still in its shell, among all the rice. We were served our first portions, each getting half of the lobster tail. Oh… my… gosh. This is exactly what I had hoped paella would be. All the spices used in the rice were incredible and the lobster was perfectly succulent to complement the rice.

We finished the meal with Crema Catalana. It’s very similar to creme brûlée, but much lighter and had a slight citrus taste to the creme. It paired very nicely with the heavier meal we had just eaten. I’ll definitely be stopping here again whenever I’m in Barcelona next.

Park Güell

The next morning we stopped by McDonald’s for breakfast. Yes,.. we went to McDonald’s in Spain. That’s kind of one of our traditions for breakfast on trips, haha. Then we hopped on the metro from Catalunya to Vallcarca to get to Park Güell, Antoni Gaudi’s landscape architecture masterpiece.

What comes after the metro is not for the faint of heart. You’ll walk about one block from the station, make a left, then journey uphill for almost one mile. And I mean UPhill. There are stairs and if you haven’t worked out yet that day, it’s a good glute workout. Getting to the park is worth it. There are well curated and kept paths throughout the park without some lookout points. Our first stop showed the expansive city of Barcelona with westward and southward facing views. It’s a great first glimpse to see truly how extravagant and large the Basilica de Sagrada Familia is compared to other city buildings.

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We entered the Monumental Area (only accessible with a ticket starting at 7 euro). This is where you can see Gaudi’s colorful style with amazing tile work embedded into this area of the park. My favorite part was a bench that lined the entire border of a patio area that overlooked the area. Half of the patio area was under construction, so only have the bench was accessible to view. The color changing throughout the bench is exciting to walk along and no two areas are alike. Colors may repeat but the design and tiles used in that scheme are not.

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Basilica de Sagrada Familia

After we walked through Park Güell, did a little shopping, dropped out loot off at the hotel, and had lunch at Hard Rock Cafe (another tradition Matt and I have for traveling). I won’t say much about our lunch, other than it is located in the Gothic Quarter on the opposite side of the square that is over the Catalunya stop.

After filling up, we got back on the Metro and headed to the Sagrada Familia stop. We had to switch trains for this trip, but we’re pros. 😉

Now… you may have already looked at one of the pictures I took from Park Güell and saw how it towers over the rest of that part of the city. “Towers over” might be an understatement. So, when we walked out of the metro station and turned around, I think that’s the smallest I’ve ever felt in my entire life. I was ready to see something big, but I wasn’t prepared for something this big!

The interior and exterior are both beautiful. So much detail is stretched out to every corner of each of the two facades that have been constructed so far. I chose to go up the Nativity Facade so that I could get better pictures with the sun setting behind us, against the Passion Facade. You get a closer look at the top of some towers part of the Nativity Facade and you can see Gaudi’s signature colorful style in the fruits that sit atop each tower. While descending, I had an opportunity to take a classic spiral staircase picture… minus not realizing my shoe was in the shot.

We took an elevator up and the stairs back down the facade. I was a little confused because that is different than several websites stated when researching which facade to go up.

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Once we descended, we took a look at the inside glory. Multiple columns hold up the ceilings and light shines in from all sides. The stained glass windows are set in a way that cool colors and warm colors are on opposite sides. A sign inside stated that Gaudi’s design was inspired by a forest with the columns being like trees and the light coming in the stained glass windows resembling sunlight coming in through the trees.

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In the center of the staging area is Christ on the cross. That image of suffering and love amongst the colorful stained glass is the most beautiful representation of Christ on the cross that I’ve ever seen. Even in suffering and pain, there can be beauty and love in the same moment. Despite your religious affiliation, you can’t deny it’s gorgeous.

Palacio de Flamenco

Our last stop of the day was the Palacio de Flamenco. I found a groupon that includes dinner and the show, so we decided to be entertained with some classic southern Spanish dance. We arrived early to view a video about the history of Flamenco and receive a short lesson on how hands are used as percussion for the style of dance.

The dancing is so beautiful! And the singing is very different than anything I’ve heard before. I wish I knew more Spanish so that I could understand the stories they are stinging about. Imaging a whale singing but a deeper voice. That is the best I can describe the singing that accompanies Flamenco dance, and that’s not even a good representation because it really is so cool to watch.

Arc de Triomf and Parc de la Ciutadella

Matt used his map skills to find our first place to venture to on our final morning in Barcelona. We decided to enjoy breakfast at the hotel, then hopped on the metro and headed for the Arc de Triompf stop. These stop names really make it quite easy to navigate the city! Haha.

The Arc de Triomf is stunning. It opens onto a large walkway where local artist show off their creations or perform. It was Christmas Eve, so not many were out that morning. There was a man with two poles attached with a string that had loops he used to make bubbles. There were a few children around and they enjoyed popping the bubbles he made.

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That walkway goes straight until the Pard de la Cuitadella. So much greenery is in this park. The many walkway is dirt and very well kept. Another bubble maker was in the park and several others were enjoying a morning stroll like we were. The zoo is nearby and a local university sits along one of the edges of the park.

We stumbled upon the most beautiful fountain I have ever seen. There were horses and gold that adorned the fountain. Several ducks and geese were swimming in its waters. It really is a spectacle. I’m so glad that it is so accessible for park goers to see.

Mi Burrito y Yo and Catedral de Barcelona

Our true last bit of site seeing was to another area of the Gothic Quarter. I quickly spotted the restaurant that must have been named for me, Mi Burrito y Yo. We walked down a couple alleyways to see the Catedral de Barcelona. I had to use the panoramic view on my phone to get the entire front of the cathedral in one pictures. We decided to eat at Mi Burrito y Yo, and the only disappointing thing about it is there aren’t any burritos on the menu. We chose kebabs of lamb meat with vegetables and that definitely hit the spot.

That rounds off this post. Much longer than usual, so congrats if you made it this far! We are heading to Belgium soon so you can keep an eye out for a similar post after that trip. Bravo Barcelona, bravo!

Favorite wineries in Italy – Ranked

Where have you had wine?

Happy Tuesday once again family and friends, and random people who may stumble their way onto this post. 😉 As I sit here in a slight bit of agony from going to the gym after weeks of Netflix binge-watching, I figured that I would tell you all about my different experiences at wineries that I’ve visited in the last few months. I’ll start by saying, the wine in Italy is superb! I feel like I’m just now being introduced to what wine really is AND I’ll probably still get a bottle of Barefoot back in the states for old nostalgia’s sake.

DON’T BE FOOLED! I will be taking more about my experiences and these wineries, not so much about the wines. I’m not a sommelier. However, I grabbed the tea that to me most resembled wine for this week’s review…

Tea of the day: Black Cherry Berry
Brand:
 Celestial Seasonings
Color: It started off a very light brown color, then when I swirled the water, a very beautiful auburn color came out of the tea bag. It’s super pretty! This is what I imagine Fall in a mug looks like.
Taste: There’s definitely cherry in there! Similar to the Country Peach Passion (read the review here!), the fruit flavor really overpowers any of the herbal flavors. I feel like I’m drinking heated Kool-Aid a bit, but with a more refined flavor. Probably the black cherry vs cherry.
Ideas for next time I have this: I really enjoy more herbal and earthy flavors when drinking tea, so I may add a lighter black tea (like Irish Breakfast) or my Matcha Lemon (review here!) tea to bring out some of those other flavors. Also, another tea to try cold when it warms up.

5. Bianchini

Bianchini has been around since 1880, as you’ll see on their label. The family was very nice and took us on a tour of their grounds where the vineyard is. The grounds are beautiful! Roses sprouted at the end of some rows of grapes and I saw the first bit of fall here. The even showed us a cellar that had hundreds and hundreds of bottles aging as part of their winemaking process.

As lovely as our hosts were, I felt their wine was mediocre compared to others on this list. We had lunch with wine tasting in a large room. The lunch was very traditional and typical of the visits. Bread, olive oil, bufala mozzarella, prosciutto, salame piccante, potato pizza, and broccolini. All of these was taken in while a somewhat creepy little puppet watched over us.

Oh, and before you think you’re going crazy… if you think you see a phallic symbol in their 1880 logo, it’s there on purpose and they told us about it. 😉

4. Pagano

This was a very small experience and had some additions that weren’t included in the other tours I’ve been on. Ever tasted wine before it was wine? And it was from the barrel! If grape juice were bottled with a refined taste for adults, this is it! There was a slight hint of the alcohol starting to come out but was mostly sweet. How about trying wine straight out of one of those big steel silos? Not as good as from the barrel. :-/ The aftertaste will surely get you because it’s probably the same as if you liked the silo.

They have a smaller production at Pagano than Bianchini and other wineries, but their pride and personality makes up for it in a big way. My husband was the only male in our group of women, and the old man at Pagano who made our lunch LOVED him. I was glad Matt had a good time and was able to share the experience with me.

Our lunch included the same items as mentioned above and some pasta that went perfectly with all the different wines we tried. Our hosts were very sweet and made a run to the store to get an ice cream cake for a birthday we were celebrating that day. Photo creds to Laura and Eboni for these.

3. Porto di Mola

This is the first winery I went to in the region where we live. This is the most complete experience of how wine is made that I’ve been through. For fun, there was an opportunity to stomp the grapes with your feet. Rest assured, that is not a part of the process! It’s more for show. We did get to throws grapes into machines that removed the stems from the grapes picked and even went into the vineyards and clipped grapes from the vine since it was harvesting time.

Again, a typical lunch with pasta included, no broccolini. For some reason, this one is much yummier from than others for some reason in my memory. Probably because I drank a LOT of wine that day. And I ate quite a bit of bread with their in house extra virgin olive oil.

I’m more of a red wine lady and one of there reds did not disappoint. Peppi was my favorite, so bottle had to be purchased. Also, I’m not much for whites, but this was the first time I had Falanghina and you’ll find the empty bottle in my house.

2. Volpara

Ever wanted a good walk before wine tasting? Then this is the winery tour for you! Our host is very knowledgable of the area where his winery is, so he took us on a walking tour that included their vineyard, very old church of their town, the first water source for the town, and other areas of Sessa Aurunca. It was a beautiful, sunny day that was perfect for that kind of walk.

The setting for our lunch was in the wineries cellar. We sat amongst very large wine barrels. The tables were wine barrels. And there were wine bottles lined in wall cutouts as the aged, like at Bianchini. The bufala mozzarella here was smaller than other places, so I ate twice as many.

This winery had the most wines I liked (except for #1) INCLUDING a rosé. I think this was the first rosé I’ve liked ever. Normally, it’s too sweet or too light. This one was a little heavier, therefore palatable. My favorite red is Sassi, which definitely described our group if you’re going by the English definition of how this word is pronounced. Their whites also went down easily, so I had seconds. Who I am kidding? I had seconds of all their wines, even the rosé.

1. Tenuta Torciano

Maybe it’s because this is winery is in the Tuscan region, but… oh, my, goodness! This is the first winery in Italy I went to and it set the bar very high! The only thing that would have made it better is we had a tour of their production facility, but that is off-site because this family owned and operated winery is humungous!

We visited Tenuta Torciano as part of a wine tasting tour when Matt and I visited Florence. It was our first stop and was offered as a wine tasting school for the participants to start the day off. We learned the perfect dimensions of a glass for tasting/drinking wine, how to swirl and smell the wine, and how to hold the glass a certain way. We tried 7-8 wines there, and my favorite of all time was introduced to me. Brunello di Montelcino. Just… wow! The Chianti Classico they create is quite fantastic also.

We did not have a lunch at this location, but we did eat some saltines paired with the best olive oils and balsamic vinegar ever. The pulled out their classic extra virgin olive oil, a peperoncini oil, and truffle oil. Definitely got a bottle of the truffle oil! The balsamic we tried is 30 years aged, thick, and so sweet.

The whole show was incredible. The host was perfect and very personable. He had everyone engaged and certainly entertained. Highly recommend going on this tour if you ever find yourself in the Florence.

 

As I visit more wineries, I’ll post more about my favorites. Look forward to a restaurant ranking as I go to more restaurants.

If you have any questions about my experience living abroad, leave a comment or send an email!

*SOME LINKS ARE AMAZON AFFILIATES LINKS AND I MIGHT MAKE A LITTLE BIT IF YOU PURCHASE SOMETHING.