Snow and Belgian comfort food

It’s been cold here in Brussels. Real cold.

As a California native used to minimal changes each season, I’ve been extremely lucky up until now in regards to the weather. This winter has been mild. Lovely, even. My backpacking adventure this winter yielded only three days of trudging through snow, and I actually broke a sweat farming under a shockingly warm sun.

But the last week has been another story.

Snow! Lots of it! Sticking! And freezing!

Initially, I couldn’t stop giggling wherever I went. For the first time I was living somewhere with snow!

But the snow has had its downsides, of course. Most of the Belgians I’ve talked to absolutely hate the snow, and Brussels was in complete disarray because of it. On Friday, public transit was not even close to being on schedule, and all of the buses stopped running entirely. On Saturday, the train station was a disaster zone, with all trains to Amsterdam canceled for the day, others canceled unexpectedly, and the rest consistently late. My trip to Ghent, which should have taken 35 minutes, took well over an hour.

So I’ve been staying indoors a lot, snuggling up with cats and pretending to do homework. And in exchange for nights out on the town, I’ve been treating myself to delicious Belgian comfort food.

In Ghent, I met a couchsurfer for a lesson on the city’s history and culture. Naturally, this required a dining experience. At Aba-Jour, we lingered over beer, rustic Flemish plates and coffee for five hours until we were thrown out. Time flew in our dim corner next to the retro bar, surrounded by a lively and hip clientele.

And of course, the food was fantastic.

Rabbit was falling off the bone, rich and served with even richer, bottomless croquettes. The meat was stewed with Cantillon Gueuze, a lambic and sour beer, along with dried prunes, which cut through said richness.

On Monday, I went to La Grande Porte, a super-Belgian restaurant hidden on a side street near Gare de Bruxelles-Chapelle. All the typically Belgian staples are on tap, decently priced, and served up in a charming, cavernous room. I went for chicons au gratin — braised endives wrapped in ham, with mashed potatoes, all baked in cheese and a béchamel sauce. It was cozy perfection on a blistering cold day.

And early today, I enjoyed chicons au gratin again, but elevated. I journeyed to Le 830 in ritzy Uccle, discovered via Michelin’s “Bib Gourmand” list. The list recommends gourmet treasures in Brussels that can be fully experienced — appetizer, entree and dessert — for under 36 euros. Le 830 is one of these gems with a lunch special: appetizer and entree for 14 euros.

This gratin was elegant, plated attractively, but still completely comforting. The starter, a velouté style soup of squash, was bright and nutty. Around us, locals feasted off the main menu, which offers all the Belgian staples classed-up. A business suit on break enjoyed a crepe suzette, flambéed tableside.

All this combined with my standard three-course dinners each night with my host family, and I can say that I’ve been eating pretty well, and I don’t even feel bad about still being stuck in Belgium.

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