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Local specialities: A boxful of surprises for celebrating holidays at home
While it’s nice that shops are back open for holiday gift buying, few of us want to face the potential crowds in urban shopping areas. There’s been no better time than now to head into the countryside surrounding Brussels in search of unique gift ideas.
But don’t forget about yourself this holiday season: It’s much more fun celebrating Christmas and New Year at home if you have special treats around. The green belt of Flemish Brabant is home to many shops that sell local products, and they are bursting with gift baskets.
In fact, the province has just launched an initiative that makes it easy to surprise yourself. The Straffe Streek Box – basically, the awesome region box – is full of local specialities. You order one of three options online – but you don’t know what you’re getting until you open the box. If that worries you, it’s not a big risk: Flemish Brabant produces such products as wine, chocolate, mustard, jenever, biscuits, cheese and beer.
Should you want to choose your own goodies, that’s not difficult to do either. Because of the presence of micro-climates and rich soil, Flemish Brabant farms in the green belt grow a number of specialities, like table grapes and witloof. It is also home to several vineyards, and a local wine can be a very nice thing to uncork on a holiday.
Meerdael in Oud-Heverlee, for instance, produces a fine sparkling chardonnay brut, both a white and rosé. Dappersveld winemakers are in Pepingen, close to Gaasbeek Castle in the lovely Pajottenland west of Brussels. Along with its whites and rosé, it produces the unique Vineuze, a blend of sparkling wine and lambic beer. Dappersveld has a shop that is occasionally open; anyone planning to visit should give them a call first.
Wines from both of these vineyards, however – and many more – can be found in shops specialising in regional products. Streekproducten Centrum in Halle is a veritable gold mine of products grown or produced in the green belt. And it has an especially strong selection of wine and beer. Staff will happily help you choose the right one(s), or a locally produced limoncello, say, or advocaat – that creamy thick liquor that must be eaten with a spoon.
It also offers online shopping, including convenient gift boxes full to bursting with local mustard, biscuits, cheeses and fruit juices. Some of them even include that Meerdael chardonnay. There are baskets put together according to certain themes, too, like breakfast, sweet-tooth and gin-lovers.
Chocolate is of course always a good gift idea. Check out the Gooikse Parels, or pearls of Gooik, produced by Chocolaterie de Parel. Chocolate-maker Wim De Broyer says that the town of Gooik is the “pearl of the Pajottenland” and was inspired to create these chocs filled with mousse and vanilla butter cream by the local products readily available there. He also makes a chocolate using Oude Kriek beer and one filled with advocaat.
Cheese producers are also in no short supply in Flemish Brabant’s green belt, using local dairy products, sometimes from their own cows. One of the best is the De Ville family of Bever. Varieties include cheeses made with hazelnuts, local beers and tomatoes.
While Chocolaterie de Parel and the De Ville family do not sell on site or online, outlets that specialise in regional products will again come to your rescue. Smaakmarkt in Asse, just a few kilometres northeast of Brussels, is a treasure trove of local products, complete with a deli. The staff will be happy to rustle you up a gift basket, and you can also order from their web shop.