Tuesday, September 16, 2014

All About Apples

Nothing says autumn more than apples. When fresh local apples start popping up in the markets I know that fall is really here. When we were in Normandy last month apples and apple products were everywhere. Although I had a hard time accepting the fact that apples were ready--I mean, after all it was still August and to me, August is still summer---I thoroughly enjoyed the apple products I sampled. In most restaurants hard apple cider was more readily available than beer and I found myself enjoying its fresh, crisp taste. Normandy cider is less sweet than American versions and is very easy to drink. Mussels Normandie, with the shellfish being steamed in apple cider, was also popular and very tasty. And of course there is Calvados, that distinctive apple brandy that the Normandy region of France is known for. Our weekend in Normandy got me thinking about apples and wondering when they would be ready in Belgium. The answer, is now.

 Growing up we always had apple trees in our backyard so there was never any need to go apple picking at an orchard. Later in college we would pile into cars and go apple picking at a near by orchard. Never mind that we all lived in a dormitory and had no need for copious amounts of fruit. It was more about the tradition of picking apples in the cool New England air each fall. When we lived in Albania we may have been able to pick pomegranates, lemons and Mandarin oranges in our yard but no apples. When asked, Sidney would tell me that apples came from the store. So I loved the fact that this past weekend we were able to take Sidney to the source and introduce him to the fall tradition of picking apples.

Apples that even Sidney could reach

And boy was he excited. Following rough directions and the memory of what we thought was the location we found on Google maps (a large apple orchard is actually quite easy to spot when looking at the area from a bird's eye view), we made our way to the rural village of Henripont. Set along a canal, the village itself was quaint and once we entered the village proper all we had to do was follow the red, hand painted apple signs in order to reach our destination. In typical Belgian form it began to mist when we arrived but that didn't deter us. (The orchard actually has a supply of rubber galoshes that apple pickers can borrow if they like). And unlike the apple orchards of my childhood, these trees were were small with the fruit being low to the ground meaning that even the smallest of apple harvesters could actively participate in the process.

Look Mom! We have apples
Using Google translate and very broken French to communicate we were given the lay of the land, handed a wagon and off we went to pick our own apples. There were several varieties of apples to choose from with all of the trees being heavily laden with fruit. Sidney did most of the picking, carefully selecting the fruit then placing it in our bag on the wagon. Prior to arriving we had cautioned ourselves that we wouldn't pick too many apples and we stayed true to the promise. Sidney wanted to pick more but we told him we would come back again. If you don't feel like picking your own fruit you can buy it pre-picked. They also sell pears, plums and squashes as well as apples for cider or sauce. And their freshly made apple cider? Be sure to buy a bottle or two. We'd go back again just for the cider.

So now that I have apples what are we going to do with all of them? We're eating them of course and I'm doing a lot of cooking. If you have apples on hand why not try apple speculoos bars, apple spice carrot muffins, apple cinnamon scones or apple skillet cake? Or if you want to go savory try apple Dijon pork saute or an apple and cheddar bread pudding. As you can see, we like apples in our house.

Apples for as far as the eye could see

If you go:

Culture Fruitiere du Point du Jour
7090 Henripont (Braine-Le-Comte), Belgium
067 55 22 64
Open every day except Thursdays in September and October, weekends in November
Bring your own bags or boxes as the orchard does not provide them
Prices for pick your own apples start at 1 Euro / kilogram; 1.50 Euro / kilogram for pre-picked

Follow the apple signs or because GPS coordinates may be the most helpful:

Lat    50 36' 10" N
Long 004 11' 03" E

Monday, September 15, 2014

Because.....You're Just Supposed To Know....

.......The longer we are in Belgium the more I'm realizing that this is the way it is here. Forget clear signage, instructions or directions (in any language) directing you on how to find an item, how to complete a task or where you can locate a site. These guides seem to simply not exist with any consistency in our little part of Belgium. Rather, you are just suppose to know how to do it. Some days this lack of clarity is frustrating while on others I simply shrug and embrace it for what it is--Belgian life.

Perhaps I am still too accustomed to the American way of labeling--even over labeling-- everything. In America signs inform you of an impending turn miles before it actually appears; here in Belgium the sign, if it even exists will simply tell you to turn now. If you are in the wrong lane or unprepared, well, that is your fault. Or signs might lead you through several intersections before disappearing all together at others leaving you to wonder where you should turn next. Exact addresses are equally vague. Yes in urban areas there are street numbers, if you can see them, but more often than not billboards will simply tell you to take a certain road in one direction (in our case either towards Paris or Brussels if we are on the main highway) then to turn onto a specific road. After that you are on your own so you had better be on the lookout for your destination since it may be a few yards or a few miles down the road. When out driving through the country street numbers seem to disappear and you must rely on a sense of what is right or in my case all too often, wrong. And if we are lucky enough to have an actual street name and number, more often than not our newly updated GPS doesn't even recognize it. We've taken to studying Google maps before leaving home then looking for familiar sights along the way. Sometimes it works; but then again other times it doesn't. Of course, once we figure out where we are going it is very simple making me feel foolish that I was confused in the first place.

But my problems aren't limited to the roads. Take stores for example. I've always carried my own grocery bags with me so it was never a problem, but here in Belgium you must either bring your own or purchase reusable ones at the cash register. There isn't a sign telling you this; rather if you are so unfortunate as to end up at the register without your own bags and don't want to spend the money on buying them, you are forced to dump everything back in your cart and push it out to your car. So if no one prepared you beforehand, you could be in for a rather messy or heavy surprise. But beyond the bag issue, in most larger stores in general I have found there to be a definite lack of signage. Even knowing how to say something in French doesn't really help me much. I've learned that the key to survival is forgetting my American logic of where something should be and taking the time to learn the layout of each particular store. In the mega sports store, don't expect shoes to be in a single section. Rather soccer cleats for athletes of all ages are in the soccer section, running shoes in the running section and bicycle footwear in the bicycle section. There is a certain kind of logic to it all but I have yet to figure out where  everyday, non-specialized sport, sneakers are located. And when I asked? My question was met with a stare, shrug and sputter of "non".

Even on SHAPE, an international military base that I (somewhat naively) assumed was organized with military precision, I find myself running into confusing situations where I am "just supposed to know" what to do. Who knew that the directions for submitting a claim for a VAT (tax) refund, which are clearly laid out on the base's main website, applied to everyone except the Americans? They certainly don't tell you this on the site. We apparently have another set of rules, forms to fill out and procedures to follow. They aren't hard but how are you supposed to know what to do? Wait, that's right. You are just supposed to know...........

Friday, September 12, 2014

Say Yes To The Cheese

Cheese anyone?
There is certainly no shortage of good cheese in Europe. Whether it be made from cow, sheep or goat milk it seems as though each region of Europe specializes in their own variety of cheese. Now I've always loved cheese and have been having a great time exploring the different varieties I encounter during my travels.  I'm particularly fond of sheep and goats milk cheeses (which taste so different than the ones I'm used to in the United States) as well as the numerous raw milk varieties that are readily available in the markets. So because of this love of cheese, when I had the opportunity to visit the Alkmaar Cheese Market in the Netherlands I jumped at the chance.

This cheese market located in northern Netherlands traces its roots back to 1593. However, as early as 1365, Alkmaar had a set of cheese scales that were used in the weighing and selling of cheese. Every cheese producing region has their "secrets" that make their cheese the best. In Alkmaar, the secret to the Beemster cooperative cheese that is sold at the market is their polder, or system of dykes and windmills that create fertile and nutrient rich grass from which their cows graze. (The design of the polder was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1999). Here's a fun fact: according to Beemster, one cow requires 50 kilograms of grass and 125 liters of water in order to produce the 30 liters of milk that in turn make 3 kilograms of cheese. That means it takes a lot of cows, grass, water and milk in order to make the cheese that is sold at the weekly cheese market.

Today the cheese market operates from early April through early September on the Waagplein, the same central square where it has been taking place for centuries. While the ceremony plays to visitors (the Dutch production is translated into English, French and German), the rituals themselves are as old as the cheese market and are a spectacle to behold. Only members of the cheese guild can trade at the market. The Cheese Father, who is the head of the four forwarding cheese companies that trade at the market, leads the ceremony and ensures that the rituals are followed.

Prior to the arrival of the crowds, the cheese begins to arrive by truck and yes, even boat. Then the cheese setters or kaaszetters get to work, offloading the cheese onto the square. With the ringing of the bell at 10.00 sharp, the market opens with a flurry of activity as cheese testers and traders dressed in plush robes examine the quality of the cheese on both the inside and outside. The texture and appearance of the cheese, the number of holes and their distribution on the inside all contribute to the overall quality of the cheese and influence the price the cheese will garner. Haggling ensues until a price per kilogram is agreed upon. Spectators will know when a deal has been reached since they will see the clapping of hands which seals the deal. The cheese is then carried off in wooden wagons to the Waag where it is weighed. Finally, white dressed cheese carriers tote the sold cheese on wooden barrows to the waiting trucks. The sight of these men is impressive as is their feat; eight wheels of Gouda cheese, each weighing 13.5 kilograms, are loaded on the 25 kilogram barrow and balanced between their two sets of shoulders. Being a cheese carrier certainly isn't for the weak.

Cheese heading to market

Sharply at 10.00 the market opens

The cheese market in action

So grab your camera, wear comfortable shoes and go early to get a good spot. Everything in Alkmaar is cheese related and you will be able to buy cheese at just about every shop and mobile vendor. For the best deal, however, buy one of the grab bags of cheese that are sold by the cheese girls are the market. You are never sure what you are going to get but for 10 Euros I received four good sized chunks of cheese as well as a linen tea towel.

If you go:
Alkmaar, The Netherlands
Fridays from early April through early September from 10.00-12.30

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Always Remember

I remember exactly where I was on that fateful day when America, and democracy itself, came under attack. Do you remember? I remember what the sun and air felt like on that September morning and I remember the horror of watching it all play out on the television screens before me. I remember the frantic moments of accounting for where family and friends were and worrying about their fate. I remember the fear of what was to come and knowing that things will never be the same again.

But for me, the single thing that is the most important thing about that day is that we never forget. Never forget those events that changed the way my generation and those to come think about and live our lives. Let us always remember the thousands of people from around the globe who lost their lives that day and continue to do so today because of September 11th. Let us always remember. Because when we don't remember we are destined to repeat history.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Tanks In Town

When we lived in Virginia I always wondered about the Civil War reenactors who would flood old battlefields each year. Because we were south of the Mason-Dixon line there seemed to be more Confederates than Yankees but the later were still present. I wondered whether the (mostly) men who played war were history buffs reenacting the stories of their forefathers or simply liked to get dressed up and play war. At the time I naively thought this was some weird American phenonenum. But then I moved to Belgium, the heart of battles in both world wars and realized that Americans have nothing on their European counterparts when it comes to war reenactments.

This past weekend was the annual Tanks In Town event here in Mons. Tanks In Town commemorates the liberation of Mons by American forces during World War II and this reenactment is the ultimate in big boys and their even bigger toys. For three days tanks, jeeps, amphibious vehicles and every other form of World War II artillery descend on the Mons region for one big party celebrating the region's liberation from Nazi control. There are reenactments, camps and parades throughout the region. A huge flea market selling everything from period uniforms and weapons to cheap Chinese produced knock offs runs the length of several city blocks. And the culmination of the events is a Sunday evening procession of all of the military vehicles into the Grand Place in Mons.

Amphibious vehicle making its way back on shore
Tanks In Town was one of the events we have been hearing about since we arrived here so we made it a point of taking in the festivities. On Saturday we joined the crowds in watching the launch of amphibious vehicles in the canal. It was pretty amazing to see these lumbering vehicles make their way from shore into the water and back. After their initial splash into the water I had to wonder how they could stay afloat. After the amphibious demonstration we made our way to the large encampment that served not only as a stationary exhibitors for visitors to tour but the actually sleeping place for many of the weekend's reenactors. An expansive wooden area had been converted into a World War II era camp for the weekend. Scattered amongst the trees were tank, tents, jeeps and other machinery. Soldiers lounged around campfires, healed the wounded in makeshift hospitals and answered questions from inquisitive guests. And of course there were the tanks; they tore around a muddy track splattering dirt and debris on those who stood to close. Up until this point I had never been this close to a moving tank and was surprised at how their sound echoed through the woods and make the ground shake long after they passed. These certainly weren't vehicles that were used in stealthy maneuvers. Other tanks were stationary with visitors being invite to sit on and explore their formidable features. Then there were the reenactors themselves. Men, women and children, young and old alike were dressed in period costumes. Many visitors had even gotten into the spirit of things by dressing in their own period costumes. And of course because this is Belgium the camp included some no-so-period beer and frites (French fry) trucks.

Sidney and the tanks roaring into town

But my favorite part of the event was the next day. This is when these tanks came rumbling into Mons' cobblestone covered Grand Place, replicating the actions taken by American troops 70 years ago. A bus full of the veterans who helped liberate Mons were present as special guests. We were lucky to snag a front row seat at a cafe and with our bottle of wine (and orange Fanta for the little one) we watched the spectacle that is Tank in Town. We heard the tanks long before we saw them. First came the procession of jeeps, troop carriers and ambulances filled with waving soldiers and their pretty young women. Then came the motorcycles driven by grizzly goggle clad men with their coats flapping behind them and the amphibious vehicles. Finally there were the tanks. They rumbled up the narrow streets and into the square. Because of our great location Sidney was swept over the barrier by a soldier and placed atop a tank for a few minutes.

I know this was a reenactment but it was impossible not to get caught up in the cheering and spirit of the moment. People in the crowd hung out of windows high above the square waving flags and cheering on the liberating troops. Once the tanks filled the square the barriers were lifted and the crowds joined the troops and tanks. The SHAPE band played big band music while people danced, drank and had their pictures taken. The atmosphere was truly festive. I can only imagine what it must have been like to actually be here in Mons during the liberation. But since I wasn't there I'm lucky that I got to experience this reenactment. It is events like this that make living here in Belgium so special.

Grand Place filled with tanks, troops and people

The lone U.S. Navy representative

Hi fiving soldier