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'No one talks about Brussels as a foodie destination'
Brussels is Europe's "undiscovered foodie Mecca" - according to a Canadian expat food-lover whose new book aims to open outsiders' and locals' eyes to what Belgium has to offer, while stopping tourists visiting "the same five places".
"I wrote the book that I would have wanted when I first moved to Belgium 11 years ago," says Alison Cornford-Matheson, author of The Foodie Guide To Belgium. "The international scene in terms of Brussels restaurants has exploded in the past few years. When we first arrived you couldn't find a decent hamburger to save your life, sushi was crazy expensive."
With the negative publicity surrounding Brussels late last year, and the devastating effect it had on many a downtown Brussels restaurant, Cornford-Matheson says Brussels "could use all of the positive PR it can get right now".
"I've always felt that Belgium as a whole is very under-rated as a tourism destination," she says. "One of the big things for me that makes Belgium so special is the food scene, and no one talks about Brussels as a foodie destination. People who live here know, but people outside Belgium really have no idea. The food scene is so diverse and I think that's what makes it so special."
The book includes recommended restaurants for Belgian classics, international cuisine, eating on a budget, brunch - and where not to eat (no surprise that the Rue des Bouchers gets a mention here). As well as the restaurants there are also tips on the best markets and stores to buy fresh food, where to find international ingredients - and even where to take cooking classes.
Cornford-Matheson, who runs the food and slow travel site CheeseWeb.eu, says her aim was to encourage locals and tourists alike to broaden their food horizons.
"I think both Belgians and expats suffer from wanting to go away on holiday and go to other countries and experience other cultures before looking at all the things we have right at our footsteps in this tiny little country," she says. "We have more Michelin-starred restaurants per capita than anywhere else but when you think of Michelin restaurants you think of France, anywhere but little Belgium.
"I wanted a way to combine all the great information that's out there to make it easier for people who live here, but also so tourists aren't going to the same five places that have been listed in the guidebooks for the past 20 years and are irrelevant and not that good."
So what actually defines Belgian cuisine? "It's a little bit of everything combined," she says. "Because I'm from Canada I'm used to having this difficulty defining what is Canadian cuisine and I think it's a bit the same with Belgium. On the food scene Belgium has taken the best influences of the countries around it, the countries that have come through it and even invaded it, and made something that's uniquely Belgian and really interesting. Belgian chefs have been much more flexible in incorporating different ingredients, different techniques."
A recommended foodie hangout? "One of my favourites that I never see mentioned in tourist guides is L'Idiot du Village (pictured)," says Cornford-Matheson. "It's one of those typical Belgian restaurants - you have to make reservations because it's always packed.
"The menu is handwritten on a sheet of looseleaf, it changes every day depending on what they get. The food is very Belgian, it's always fresh and seasonal, the decor is quirky and bizarre and the staff is lovely. It's a real Belgian experience."
The Foodie Guide to Brussels by Alison Cornford-Matheson is published in paperback and e-book. Photo courtesy L'Idiot du Village